Kids and Race Interview: How Real Parents Talk to Their Kids About Race

Below is the transcript of a discussion between parents of three different races from the Kids and Race team—Director Jasen Frelot, Operations Manager Hannah Hong Frelot, Staff Writer Katharine Strange, and her husband Ryan Strange. The parents got together to have a candid talk about how they learned about race and how they will teach their children about it.

NOTE: interview has been edited for length and content.

What is your name and racial or ethnic background?

I’m Jasen Frelot and I’m Black.

I’m Hannah Hong Frelot and I am Asian American, Taiwanese American.

I’m Katharine Strange and I’m white.

I’m Ryan Strange and I’m white.

How did your parents talk to you about race?

HHF: My parents didn’t talk to me about race writ large. They talked to me about my ethnic identity because of they have a very strong belief in Taiwanese independence, because of the political history of Taiwan, they’re very very strong in transferring their Taiwanese-ness through culture and language so I knew I was Taiwanese for a long time. I didn’t really know I was Asian until some people from Taiwanese church sent around an email chain that said “15 signs that you’re Asian,” and one of them was like ‘save the shampoo bottles from hotel.’ I didn’t know until that email that I was Asian, somewhere between age 10-13 that I developed the idea of a pan-Asian-American experience.

JF: My parents didn’t really talk to me about race either. My mom certainly wanted me to be proud of being Black. I remember when I was seven during the Watts riots I told my mom I didn’t want to be Black. My mom and my teacher went on this spree of telling me how beautiful my skin was and what not.  My dad really wanted me to assimilate, and to fit in. Part of it is he passes for white, he’s very light-skinned with curly hair; when people see him they don’t know his racial identity. Because he could pass, he kind of assumed that I could pass too. With my mom, she was always much more grounded in her Blackness and helped me to be grounded in mine.

KS: My parents never explicitly talked about race. I was an army brat and we moved around and we mostly lived in very white areas. When I was 5-7 we lived in a suburb of DC, and it was the first time I ever went to school with people of color. I remember my first racial memory was we watched a video of Martin Luther King Jr. in school when we were seven or eight.

JF: Was that the first time you heard of him?

KS: Yeah, seven or eight years old, second grade may have been the first time I heard about Dr. King.

HHF: [agreeing] I might have been seven when I first heard about Dr. King. We should definitely note that Jasen’s jaw dropped a little bit when he found out how long it took us to learn about Dr. King!

KS: My parents never explicitly talked to me about race. I understood by 7 or 8 that it was impolite to talk about. As a teenager I thought it was racist to even notice that someone was a different race, I thought I was supposed to be ‘color blind’ although that’s impossible. So, all conversations around race I’ve had with my parents have been since becoming an adult. We watched the movie “The Help” and that was one of the first times they talked about their experiences growing up in the South during that era.

How will you talk to your kids differently about race and why?

KS: I will talk to my kids about how white isn’t the “default” or the “right way” to do things.  White people are influenced by our ethnicity and culture as much as other races and ethnicities. Our family has some traditions that are German. I will also talk about recognizing and using our power and privilege wisely–using it to lift up other people who don’t have as much power and privilege as us.

JF: Hannah, your parents did a pretty good job making sure you had pride in your Taiwanese identity.

HF: It was only in context of white people being confused by this pride or by schoolground teasing making me feel ashamed about being Asian that I learned it was ideal to be white, or act white, to fit in.

What are some challenges of raising mixed-race or monoracial that you anticipate?

JF: I’m conflicted because I’m happy my kids aren’t going to have an explicitly Black experience. But I’m also sad that they won’t have a Black experience. I’m happy that my kids have access to tradition through Hannah’s family, I’m happy that we found tradition by becoming Lutherans. I lament that a lot of Black families don’t have tradition–our traditions have been taken away from us, our histories have been taken away from us, through generational trauma and abuse. So, I’m happy that we found tradition for our family even if it means losing what it means to be Black. Having tradition around is really important to me.

HF: I really want both sides of their culture, and not devalue either side. And be able to switch between either as needed. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but that is my hope.

KS: With monocultural kids, the challenge is just to be intentional. Because if I were to be a typical white middle-class mom, I would be hoarding privilege for my kids. I would be sending them to the “best” school, which would be a white school. I would be making sure I lived in the most expensive house in the whitest neighborhood I could find. I would not be exposing them to other races and cultures.

HF: I feel like all those things would be unconscious. And that the unsaid white rule of being a white parent is like, “Do these things so your kids can rule.”

KS: In white culture, conventional wisdom is send your kids to the whitest school and live in the whitest neighborhood. People never stop to question this. Part of the responsibility and challenge of being part of the monoculture is recognizing your privilege. Even though white people have problems, we also have privilege as white people.

What advice do you have for parents raising kids with your same racial identity?

JF: My advice for Black parents is to teach your kids to be proud of who they are and to find ways to ground your kids in Blackness, and to let them know that it’s going to be hard, but that they’re tough and they can handle it. And that you expect them to be excellent. I know so many Black parents do this already, but really driving that home: I expect you to be excellent, I expect you to be great, and to encourage the kid to really live into that. Because white people are not going to expect you to be excellent. The only ones who are going to expect excellence from us are us.

HF: There’s been this huge explosion of awareness with the whole “tiger mom” book about I guess Asian-American parenting, and I think it’s really damaging for Asian kids. Having come from an environment similar to that, a subdued version of that, I would say it stunts a kid’s ability to be adventurous, to really thrive in creativity. I found solace in creativity so I would be okay with some facets of tiger parenting so long as a kid is not punished for creative thinking or coloring outside of the box, metaphorically.

With my kids I want them to be academically rigorous, but not so much so that they become mentally unwell with the pressure. I want them to be grounded in their Asian identity, and comfortable with bringing that–their whole self, to whatever space they’re in, whether that’s their Black identity, their Asian identity, or their mixed identity.

Jasen and I have been talking a lot about resilience too. The ultimate parenting challenge is to protect your kid from harm but to also build a sense of resilience: “You can handle this, you’ve got this,” not to rush and fix everything, or to rush and make sure they never experience any struggle. In this sense, I think that is why compared to a Euro- or many- generations American perspective Asian parenting style comes off as harsh: the parents are trying to build resilience in their children, which kind of works, but maybe is taken to an extreme.

RS: My advice would be to relax a little bit. I feel like most people I know are really stressed about parenting, and a lot of that stress comes from ourselves versus the actual needs of the kids. They’re more capable of taking care of themselves than we give them credit for.

KS: I agree with that, and I would also say that parents of white kids need to foster gratitude and foster recognition of their kids’ privilege. And saying to their kids, examining themselves, and saying “we have this power…how are we going to use this to make the world a better, fairer place?” And to not raise their kids to see themselves as victims.