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  • Sonia Chiamaka Okorie

Talking to our Families about Race

I listened as one of my closest friends warned her two teenage brothers about playing in the streets like their white friends. I was touched because she, only a year older than me, invited the difficult topic of race into conversation so gracefully. I was attuned to the boys’ insights about their Blackness, police, their neighborhood and safety. They confided in her and simultaneously cracked jokes, it was clear this was not their first time having this conversation.

I thought of my youngest sister, only 13 years old, does she understand what her Blackness means? What about my mother; what does she think of “Blackness” as an immigrant? The next night, I texted one of my younger brothers, a 20 year old man, reminding him to be careful as he stayed out late. I was surprised that even over text, he openly described his most recent racist encounter: being pulled over by police in a “nice” neighborhood, even in a clearly marked driving school vehicle. I realized that I had never given him the space to discuss events like this, because I was unsure how to navigate these topics, even for myself.

This summer especially, the media was inescapably flooded with videos of victims, passionate protests, and heated debates about race. This means that our families cannot help but be aware, although they may be confused and overwhelmed. It is tempting to protect ourselves and our families from the painful realities of these images by avoiding the topic of race in our daily conversations. However, encouraging conversations about race can helps us all feel more secure in ourselves, better equipped to handle bias incidents, and even inspired to be activists in our communities. But how do we do this?

What’s the reality?

Research shows that communal support protects African American youth from the negative consequences of community violence, especially internalizing problems, which leads to less anxiety, aggression, and likelihood of being involved in violence (Henry et. al, 2015). This kind of support is usually expressed through racial socialization. It is made of two parts:

  1. Cultural Socialization: teaching children about their racial or ethnic heritage or history in a way that promotes their cultural, racial, and ethnic pride (Henry et. al, 2015)

  2. Preparation For Bias: teaching them how to manage race-related stress. These are in response to racial barriers such as discrimination and stigmatization and being in majority spaces (Lambert et. al, 2015; Edwards, Few-Demo, 2016)

This means that in order to have effective conversations about race, we need to have realistic conversations about the challenges of racism and participate in uplifting activities that fuel pride. Although the research focuses on adolescents, this strategy of racial socialization can help people of every age feel more positive, resilient, and able to cope (Lambert et. al, 2015).

What could these conversations look like? [youtube]

The Strategy

During our conversation, Race Relations: The Perils and Promise of Race Conversations in Families, on September 11th, 2016, Professor Janie Victoria Ward (Ed. D. M. Ed.) shared this conversation tactic:

  • See It: Identify disparities, biased behavior, or harmful actions.

  • Name It: Call out these patterns or experiences as racism/discrimination

  • Oppose it: Become involved in the struggle against oppression by advocating in a group such as the Parent/Teacher Association

  • Replace it: In Dr. Ward’s words, “recharge the battery so you are able to face another day”. Prioritize self-care so you are able to respond and process to instances of racism/discrimination

How can I prepare myself for these conversations?

  • Keep learning: blogs like The Root (news commentary from African-American perspectives), For Harriet (a blog community for women of African ancestry), and My Brown Baby (a space for African-American moms) feature reflective and educational articles about race and Black culture

  • If your family members are older, invite them to share their thoughts and feelings about encounters with racism. If they are younger, look for “teaching moments”: when they comment on people’s appearances or skin color. Open ended questions include:

    • What gave you that idea?

    • Can you tell me more about that?

    • Why did you feel that way?

  • Show the beauty in your race/ethnicity and be involved in positive activism. My friend has incorporated her activism into her faith, so she offers prayers and petitions in church. You may also try to participate in cultural-pride events or cook cultural dishes, or even allow your friends and family  to accompany you to a peaceful demonstration or vigil.

  • Engage in self-reflection so that you are a better role model. Some important questions you can ask are “what biases do I hold?”, “how do I express cultural pride?”, or “how do I respond to instances of racism/discrimination?”

With your family, you can watch:

  • Blackish Season 2, Episode 16 – Hope:


    • A great way to introduce start discussing differences and stereotyping with children is the pixar movie “Zootopia”:


Recommended Reading for Parents:

  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • Talking With Children about Racism, Police Brutality, and Protests

  • We Need to Deal with Our Discomfort and Talk to our Kids about Racism

  • How to Talk About Race to Kids: Experts’ Advice for Parents

Recommended Reading for Children:

  • All American Boys by Black author Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

  • Daddy, There’s A Noise Outside by Kenneth Braswell

  • What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors

For the Hand-Outs from the Sept 11th Conversation: 

  • Past Sessions Table: Race Relations - The Perils & Promise of Race Conversations in Families


About Sonia Chiamaka Okorie

Hi! My name is Sonia Chiamaka Okorie. I am a senior nursing student at Boston College. I’m originally from Nigeria and now call New York City home too. Growing up with a younger brother who has cerebral palsy inspired my first nursing instincts, but it wasn’t until I volunteered abroad that I became attentive to healthcare disparities around the world. Now, I’ve found a passion for women’s and community health and I hope to grow into a strong advocate. I am thrilled about the opportunity to work with Community Conversations and learn more about how I can contribute to my community!


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