When and how Black caregivers should discuss race and racism with a white family

June 16, 2020

The recent killing of George Floyd sparked a necessary conversation about Black Lives Matter, and, unlike previous times, it’s not stopping. The dialogue is growing and evolving, and that means the topic of race and racial bias, especially for Black people, is permeating every arena of our lives. For Black caregivers who work with white families, the topic may come up on the job, with children and sometimes with their parents, too. 

Having safe, open conversations about race and racism with the families you work with can be incredibly important. It’s often difficult and uncomfortable for everyone, but it can also be a necessary step in maintaining a good relationship. However, it’s hard to know how to handle questions and discussions around race when they arise.

We talked to two psychologists and a former babysitter about the ways Black nannies and babysitters can approach the conversation of race on the job, so they are productive for everyone involved.

Is it necessary to bring up race or racial bias with my employer?

Just because the conversation about race is happening in the world doesn’t mean you have to go out of your way to talk to the parents about it, according to Jameca Woody Cooper, a licensed counseling psychologist in St. Louis. “I would err on the side of not wanting to [talk about race] until the issue comes up,” Cooper explains. 

It is in no way your responsibility to broach the topic of race or racism with them or put this unnecessary burden on yourself. Of course, if your employer brings up current events or the issue in general, you can share your personal thoughts or insights because they clearly want to hear what you have to say. Or if a situation arises while you’re providing child care that necessitates the conversation, then you can absolutely bring it up if you feel comfortable.

What’s the best way to address racial differences with the kids?

When it comes to the kids in your care, Cooper has the same advice. It’s not necessary to bring up the topic of race with them unless they ask or it comes up naturally. “[Race] is not a conversation you have with a child just because,” she says. “It needs context; to be based on some issues, a world or community event.”

That said, since much of your interaction is with the children, there’s a good chance they’ll ask you questions that they may not ask their parents. 

“Why do we look different?” or “Why are you Black and I’m white?” are common questions kids especially can have for their Black caregivers. Ideally, their parents are already having conversations with them about racial and cultural differences, so you’re just reinforcing what they’ve already heard. 

Shateara H., a former babysitter believes that Black caregivers can help shape kids’ cultural awareness through the types of activities they do together. If the parent is allowing you as the caregiver space to choose the activities, “pushing for activities that give kids cultural experience is one of the most essential things you can do as a caregiver,” she explains. 

During her time as a babysitter, Shateara always looked for opportunities to expose kids to other Black people. “The opportunity for that is when they’re around other kids,” she points out. “That is where you really get the kids to socialize together, and then there’s an interest that’s sparked because, ‘Hey look, that’s another kid like me and that kid’s brown like my nanny. There are other people like me and like her.’” 

If race comes up with the kids, how do I address it with parents?

As a Black caregiver, bringing up a child’s questions with white parents is likely to be uncomfortable for everyone involved. Even if you have a good relationship, parents are often sensitive about their children’s behavior, as caregivers already know. When you add in the component of race to that conversation, it’s likely to get a little awkward.

“What white parents tend to do is shut down that conversation sometimes because they feel like, ‘Oh no, this means my kid is racist, and it reflects badly on me,’ so they don’t know what to do,” explains Erin Pahlke, associate professor of psychology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “The kid never gets accurate information.” 

One of the biggest hurdles when talking to white parents about race, especially as a Black nanny or babysitter, is addressing the myth that race isn’t something they need to acknowledge with their children. “A lot of white parents are steeped in colorblind ideology, and they really think their kid doesn’t notice race,” Pahlke explains.

When faced with these conversations, it’s important to stress to the parents that children asking about racial differences is not necessarily a reflection on poor parenting, but rather a very normal part of a child’s development. Kids notice race, whether parents talk to them about it or not. 

“Make it clear to parents that kids notice differences between racial groups and need help understanding what that does and doesn’t mean,” Pahlke adds.“So we need to make sure we’re providing good, accurate information for them to understand what’s going on.” 

What should I do if a child says or repeats something racist?

Sometimes, children are hearing relatives speak negatively about Black people in light of current events, and they may bring that to their Black caregiver. But how do you deal with a comment like, “My [relative] says Black people are bad?” Pahlke has a few good examples. 

“Four and five-year-olds are focused on fairness, so I’d say, ‘That’s not fair to have that idea.’” 

You can use historical examples to highlight your point. Like, “Did you know that back in the 1950s and 1960s, Black people couldn’t do things like share water fountains with white people or sit in the front of the bus, do you think that’s fair?” 

With kids in early elementary school, however, Pahlke suggests a more direct approach. “I’d say, ‘Look, we need to talk about what racism is’ and read some books on the subject with them.”

Is it my responsibility to educate my employer about race or racism?

When it comes to general conversations about race, race relations or current events, Cooper is very clear about who should initiate any engagement on the subject.

“[The conversation] shouldn’t be the responsibility of the Black caregiver. It should be the responsibility of the white family,” she says. “Because they’re inviting this person into their house and to care for their child, they should take the initiative and model [taking the lead on the conversation] for their children. If the family wants [to talk about race with their caregiver], they should be the ones to make it happen.”

What should I do if my employer says something inappropriate?

If the family’s conversations or comments on race ever make you feel uncomfortable, experts agree that you need to use your discretion about how to approach it. As Farzana Nayani, author and diversity, equity and inclusion specialist, points out, there could be pushback and further retaliation for speaking up about it. “What could happen in the moment? Conflict, or more bias,” she says.

After an incident of racial conflict or bias, only you can decide if you want to continue providing child care for the family. If you feel it necessary to terminate the professional relationship, then you should feel no guilt doing so. Your safety is paramount. In no way do you owe them an explanation for your resignation. 

There’s no right or wrong way to discuss race with the white families you work with. But this is a good start to open the lines of communication and keep it ongoing.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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