White Parents: First Steps in Teaching Girls to Be a REAL Ally to People of Color

Yesterday, my 15-year-old daughter Risa told me that many teens she knows are reposting the brutal video of George Floyd being murdered by two police officers in Minneapolis. The captions are typically “This is so sad,” or “This is awful.” Others are posting the video of the white woman in Central Park who called the cops on Christian Cooper, an avid birder, who had respectfully asked her to follow the rules of that area of the Park and leash her dog. She called the police, stating “there’s an African American man threatening my life.”

I get why white parents do not want to talk about these ugly, racist atrocities. Life in a pandemic is hard enough and we are trying to hold onto the last shards of positivity we have left. Do we really have to open these discussions now?

Yes, we absolutely do.

Your child is seeing racist behavior all over social media.

Frankly, we should have been talking about these issues all along (maybe you have been). But, at the very least, we can use this collective pause on the world due to the pandemic—when systems and structures are being exposed and challenged—to speak up and teach our kids how to step up. I promise you that if your child is on social media, they are absorbing all of these heinous acts. And, if we don’t talk about it, what you’re saying is that these horrors are not worthy of discussion. You’re showing your kids that if the problem doesn’t directly affect you, you don’t have to say or do anything.

How do we talk about being an ally? 

I am grateful to my friend Kenyora, a black woman, for sharing what it means to actually be an ally. In a powerful Facebook post, she wrote, “For me, I don’t want white people who ‘aren’t racist’ to say they are sorry to Black/people of color on behalf of their white community. For me, it doesn’t help.  If what you are trying to do is to be an ally, then it isn’t enough to point out what you are NOT, yet apologize for it, especially when your privilege says otherwise.” In other words, it does not cut it – AT ALL – for white people to say to people of color that we are “sorry” on behalf of awful white people. Allyship is not about apologizing for what we didn’t do; it’s about listening and empathizing and taking action whenever possible.

Here is some language Kenyora suggested we use: “‘As a white person, who recognizes their privilege, I can only empathize with that is going on for you and I can’t imagine what you must be feeling. But I’m here for you, willing to listen and willing to understand because I want to do better as an ally, as a friend, and I want to do something about it, but I don’t know where to start…’ or maybe just an ‘I love you,’ if you are not comfortable with anything else.”

We must go beyond expressing sorrow.

And, with this language, I opened up a new conversation with Risa about how we can be a part of the fight against racism. I challenged her–and myself–to a) check-in with our black friends, using the framework that Kenyora gave us, to express that we are here for listening and support, and b) do exactly what MEDIAGIRLS encourages us to do: use our social-media platforms to speak up. After this conversation, Risa created an Instagram story suggesting that instead of reposting the horrific video of George Floyd, people sign petitions, safely join protests, donate if they have the means, and make calls. In other words, instead of just reposting the video, they take action. Some people “unfollowed her,” because that’s what happens whenever we go against the grain and challenge people to do more, and we should let our girls know this is a distinct possibility. Being “unfollowed” is particularly harsh in girl world, but Risa ultimately felt okay about losing these “followers” and proud of doing the right thing.

For my part, I am writing this blog post to help call other white parents into this fight.

I am not bragging about my or my daughter’s actions because, really, we should have been doing this far more consistently – as a way of life – and not just when the latest atrocity occurs. That said, I am giving us some credit for trying to do better and for working our way through the messy conversation of what it means to be a true ally. The conversation had some stumbles, in part because I felt almost desperate to get the words out in the “perfect” way. That certainly didn’t happen, and we worked our way through it. 

It’s a start.

Don’t wait until you’re “expert” enough.

Our job is to parent our kids in ways that fully reflect our values and not just hope that our kids can guess them. If you’re not talking with your kid about what it means to be a real ally to people of color, don’t expect them to be one. It takes effort and work. It means accepting discomfort and asking questions. It means listening, especially when you don’t want to. If you’re feeling overwhelmed about where to even start, here’s a list of anti-racist resources for white people. I also like this practical piece on How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism. You don’t have to become an expert before having this conversation, but it helps to have some foundation. Maybe you and your teen can read through/ listen to/ discuss some of these resources together.

I am not going to put a Pollyanna spin on this pandemic. It is absolutely devastating. But, we can certainly do our part to make sure that this period of time–along with the death and pain and suffering of racial violence–has not been in vain. We can all dig deep and ask ourselves “Who am I? Who do I want to be in the world and how will I show up?” And, we can head in the direction that those answers lead and encourage others to do the same. In Kenyora’s words: “Your actions are what says a lot about you… not what you say.” So, let’s take action.

Michelle Cove is the Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS, a nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to critique the way girls and women are portrayed in pop culture with an emphasis on creating empowering content. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and author whose projects have been featured on numerous national platforms including “The Today Show,” The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Sign up to receive a free recording of our talk:  MEDIAGIRLS: “Help Girls Make Healthy Social-Media Choices in this Unsettling Time.”


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