How Mothers Talk to Their Sons About Race

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How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo. Here, we spoke with four mothers (plus three of their sons) about the ways they discuss race at home.

When You Need to Have a Difficult Conversation

Muffy: I would say we first started talking about race when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. That was when he switched to a school that was no longer predominantly black. We’d moved to a community that was pretty mixed, but his new school was predominantly white, with a few African-American and Hispanics sprinkled through. We started having to have conversations around the fact that he was — he is — a black student. We talked about how he might be perceived differently from other students.

Jair: Those conversations taught me a lot. It taught me who I was, what society might think of me. The talks were nothing super-deep, more just knowledge that kept circulating throughout my mind. It never made me feel bad — I love to learn new things. What my mother was telling me mattered to me, but I was mostly intrigued. No. 1 because, well, when your mom tells you something, you have no choice but to listen.

And as I grow, there are more things that apply. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, it was mostly like: You’re not gonna see that many other African-American students around you. Now, the talks have evolved to — You’re getting ready to be a black man, and sometimes out in the world, it’s not easy for black men.

Muffy: I think the most important thing he needs to know is that while being a black man in America can be perceived as a handicap, it does not have to be. It’s difficult to have these conversations with your kid: America has already given them every signal that they’re inferior.

Jair: When it comes to what’s going down in America right now, African-American men being shot down in the streets, it does anger me. I understand the police are there to protect the people. But at the same time, when black men are being shot down, it’s for the stupidest reasons. Policemen get away with it.

Trayvon Martin was shot down by a neighborhood watchman, which is practically the police — people gave him police-like rights. What was Trayvon shot down for? Walking in a black hoodie, hands in pockets, coming back from the corner store with Skittles, milk, whatever it was.

Muffy: That could’ve been Jair any day of the week.

Jair: It makes me mad. I understand why it’s happening, but that doesn’t make it right. It infuriates me, but only to a certain extent, because I know the type of America we’re dealing with at the moment.

Muffy: It’s a difficult situation, being the mother of a black son in America right now. In one way, I love being an American. I have African-American ancestry, and Native American ancestry as well. You want to love your country, but at the same time, as a mom, it is a requirement that you protect your children.

The last few summers, with the influx of black men who have been killed — or should I say, the influx of media coverage about them — it’s been disheartening. Seeing these men who are often pleading for their lives, and killed. Especially now, with the new president and the overt racism being displayed throughout America — we’ve talked about all of that. Sometimes it’s not conversations; it’s comments in passing, about the reality of what Jair and my other two sons will be facing.

Jair: Knowing all this — about how black people are treated, about our opportunities — doesn’t make me spiteful of white children or white people my age. It just makes me feel like I have to work harder, to help my child someday. To be honest, I just feel like this is how it’s going to be for a long time. Right now, this is the world we live in. If I want to get to the point where I’m not working when I’m 70 years old, I’m going to have to try hard.

Everything I’ve learned from my mom has been important. There hasn’t been a single conversation, about anything actually, that hasn’t been important. From how to brush your teeth, to how to cook. From there, how to survive in white America. Everything she’s taught me is important. I can’t single one out.

Muffy: I think the most important thing I’ve taught him is he’s capable. He’s capable of doing anything he wants to do. It’s his job to figure out what that is, but whatever it is, he’s going to be excellent at it. That’s always up to him — it’s not up to anybody else, not white America, not black America, not anybody.

Jair: As black kids in this country, we have one month to celebrate our culture, and even then — we only spend about a week on it. We hear all year long about Thomas Edison, George Washington, all these white males. Not even white females get a chance to shine, most of the time. We learn about those white men all year long. I don’t even call it “Black History Month” anymore. I call it “Black History Week.” That’s really all it is.

The American school system doesn’t even seem to do anything about this. Black History Week goes like this: You come in on Monday and start hearing about the same three or four people. You hear about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman. If you’re lucky, you get someone else sprinkled on top. Let’s maybe throw in … Carter … what’s his name?

Muffy: Carter G. Woodson?

Jair: Carter G. Woodson. Another thing: If I get to a party on a Saturday night, it’s me and three other white kids, say. If the police show up, they’re going to look at me first. Because of my skin color. There could be 500 white kids at that party and 300 black kids and, I’d bet you all the money I have in my wallet right now, those 300 black kids would be arrested before those white kids get a finger laid on them.

Opportunities are another difference. When we get out of school, we don’t have businesses waiting to hire us — at least not the good ones. You can talk to a few lucky black teenagers out there who got good jobs after high school or college. When a white kid walks out the door with his diploma in hand, throwing his graduation hat up into the sky, he has practically the entire world waiting for him. It’s not like that for us. You have to start off somewhere like McDonald’s. If you finish school, you might get lucky and get a job as something like a news reporter. And I’m sorry to break it to you, but that’s not a decent living at all.

Muffy: I don’t think it’s magic. It’s just that white kids have had people who’ve gone before them who have had similar opportunities. Whereas with our family, we’re only building on one generation. I think that’s a big problem: Black kids come out having maybe one generation of wealth and experience. White kids often come out so far ahead.

It’s not that black people want magic. We just want to not be stifled.

Jair: Yep. It’s never going to be magic.

Muffy: I also think it’s important to note that black families are not a monolith. We have varied ways we understand, express, and live. Ours is not the only way. My conversations with my son are not the only ones to have, nor the only ways to have them. I think that’s very important. You read stories like these and sometimes people seem very comfortable saying, This is the way for everyone in black America. But that’s just not true. We’re all different.

When He Wishes the Conversations Were Shorter

Gabriel, 19: At first, my mom would just talk to me about things like “people aren’t always treating people the right way,” meaning that the white majority felt better than minorities — blacks, Asians, Mexicans. Hearing that was kind of tough, because I felt that we were all equal, at the time.

Sonia: I think this was heading into middle school, when Gabriel was in about sixth grade. That’s when I started bringing up race with him.

Gabriel: The first time it was me coming to my mom to talk about race — not her coming to me — was when Trayvon Martin died. It made me so mad; he did something so bad and took away such a young man’s life so early. How did someone who murdered someone get away with it? I had to ask her why that happens in our society. And if it was the other way around — what would have happened?

Sonia: After Trayvon Martin, we talked about inequality between the races, and how at first glance, people often stereotype and bias comes out — how they see you initially often determines the reaction you get. We talked about about how Trayvon had a hoodie, and how George Zimmerman made assumptions based on what he looked like.

Gabriel: Our conversations have changed over the years, because I see what’s realistic. Especially when it comes to me driving, or the people I walk around with. She’s afraid that I could be next, or my friends could be next. She tells me if I get pulled over by a cop, to do whatever he says so I’m not one of the next victims. That hits me hard. I’m not trying to be one of those headlines.

Sonia: I think Gabriel feels that we talk about this a lot, that I’m constantly bringing it up because of the fear. One day I think he’d love to leave the house without my shopping list of worries — our good-byes never end at I love you. It’s: I love you, make sure you’re using your turn signals, drive safely, be careful, what neighborhood will you be in, remember how you should act if someone approaches you. I’m sure he’d love for it to just be “Bye.”

Gabriel: It bothers me that one incident can affect a lot of people and what they wear. Having to consider what could happen when I wear a hoodie makes me feel annoyed. It limits what I can wear.

Sonia: Ninety percent of my conversations about race with my daughters are the same messaging that my sons get. I make sure they’re age-appropriate, and incorporate it into what we’re watching on TV, or listening to on the news. We’re always talking about race; it’s very much center in our lives, especially because of the work I do and who we are. With Gabriel, because of the reality of statistics, I talk a lot about how he looks — he’s over six feet, brown, and an athlete. The way people view him is going to be different. He’s very on trend with clothing — he sometimes wears a hoodie, his pants are a bit slouchy. People don’t know he’s an academic and a college athlete. I talk to him more directly about this than the girls, but I would still point this out to them as an example.

Gabriel: I think a white boy growing up in America will have it a little easier than my friends and me. He won’t really get the perception that he’s a danger, or that he’s going to cause trouble. If he walks into a liquor store or a 7-Eleven, the guys probably won’t stare at him or watch him — the way they watch me and my friends and people who look like me.

Sonia: I would love for white parents to talk to their kids about race just as often as I talk to my kids about race. I think that could cause real change. We should all have a level field when it comes to the frequency of how we discuss race with our children, whether we’re raising black, brown, white, Asian ones.

When You Want Your White Son to Be Racially Aware

Jennifer: When my kids were little, we moved from Long Beach, California, to Humboldt County in Northern California. Long Beach is one of the most racially diverse cities in California, while Humboldt is rural and predominantly white. This made race something that I needed to talk about in a much more theoretical way.

Nick, 22: I remember there weren’t many firsthand examples of people of color. They were mostly secondhand. We would talk about history or something on the news that happened in L.A.

Jennifer: When kids grow up in a place that’s diverse, they see black people and Latino people and Asian people, people of all different backgrounds. When that doesn’t happen, you have to figure out a way to introduce race into your child’s world. You need to do things like get a book at the library about Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t remember how old they were when we started talking about race, but it was from the time they were very young.

Nick: There’s a lot of racism where we live. Once I got old enough to understand, we talked about that. In Humboldt County, people say the cartel is growing pot up here, and my parents explained that this was often overblown. White people would lump Mexican people all together, assuming anyone who was Mexican and happened to grow pot was in the cartel.

Jennifer: When they were little, it was a lot more about having to introduce concepts. It’s hard — you want to make sure you’re raising kids who are aware of racism and not racist themselves, but how do you come up with a lesson plan for this? Especially if you’re just a mom dealing with everything else and not an expert, by any means, in these matters. But I did my best, and as Nick got older, we started to have a lot more opportunities to talk about race.

Nick: I was friends with four or five black kids, which is a lot up for up here. People would treat them differently. I remember my mom and dad talking to me about this. When we were younger, the racism was more subtle. It was more like a quiet way of treating someone differently because of their race. Then as we got older, my black friends were starting to get followed around in stores. Sometimes my white friends would shoplift, but it would be my black friends, not shoplifting, getting followed around. People would yell racist things at them when they were just filling up at the gas station.

When You Want Your Son to Be Confident

Diane, mother of a 7-year-old: The first conversation I had with my son about police violence was definitely a “needed him to know” situation. It was proactive, not reactive. He’s one of those kids who likes to know what’s coming. And not that I would ever say this is coming to him, but I certainly want to be proactive with it.

There was something that happened with a friend of his, during a Fourth of July cookout. We were at a public park in Harlem, and we were sitting on a blanket, and there were several children playing with jump ropes and balls. And there were water guns. One of his friends said to him, “If the police officer comes, you need to put that water gun down. They will shoot you.” My son did not understand, at all, what his friend was saying.

This friend is the same age as him. Clearly, for him, this has been a conversation they’ve had in their home. And that goes back to being proactive. If I don’t have this conversation with my son now, someone else will either have the conversation for me, or tell him information that’s going to make the conversation much worse for us.

When we do have these kinds of conversations, we strip away “police officer,” or what someone’s job is, and we focus on — I don’t want to say “good and bad people.” But good people at the root, making a bad decision.

I make it less about roles, because if my son is ever in a situation, I do want him to be able to walk up to someone of authority and say, “Hey, I need help.” I never want to lay a foundation of everyone is bad, don’t talk to them, they’re out to get you. But I do realize that I need to let him know there are not-great people in the world. People make really bad decisions; people are not always good. And it’s not based upon a job, or the way they look, or their race. It’s human. It’s human nature.

I think these conversations will continue and get more specific as he gets older. The anniversary of Trayvon Martin, for example: That is not something that, at this age, he would be able to wrap his head around. However, when he is at an age where he does want to go across the street to the supermarket or Duane Reade to pick up something, we’re going to have that conversation. It’s a horrible one to have to have, but I do need to be aware of what he’s wearing. Because … that is exactly what happened to Trayvon Martin. Just going to get snacks and candy. The neighborhood is a little different, obviously; it’s Florida versus New York City. Still, I do think it will be important for my son to know the story.

I fear that today’s societal pressures can have a much greater impact on him than they did when I was his age. I want him to speak up, I want him to be confident, I want him to have a voice, I want him to have a point of view, and I want him to be well-educated on the facts. I’m a strong believer in being a leader; I don’t want him to feel like he has to follow along, just to feel like he’s a part of the group. But we all go through that stage — where we’re making decisions based on someone liking you or feeling like you want to be involved. Confidence comes with experience. That’s what I want for my son.

*A version of this story appears in the March 5, 2018, issue of New York Magazine.

How Mothers Talk to Their Sons About Race