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Talking about racism with kids can be challenging. These Pitt researchers want to help.

A sign for The University of Pittsburgh.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have launched a new six-week training program to guide white parents through conversations with their children about race and racism.

The Parenting for Racial Equity Project is meant to equip white families with the tools to broach what’s often a sensitive topic, and build a parent network of support.

“There's fear of failure in parenting in general. Like, no matter what decision we're making, whether that's the food we're feeding our kids, the bedtimes we're choosing or whatever,” said Sommer Blair, a doctoral fellow at Pitt’s Center on Race and Social Problems.

Blair said that conversations about race often add another layer of pressure, especially when “racism specifically is not something you deal with directly.”

But she added that fear of failure shouldn’t keep parents and caregivers from starting those difficult conversations. Instead, Blair encourages parents to use those moments as an opportunity to teach kids how to face their mistakes and learn from them.

“Modeling that that is okay, and leveraging power and privilege in a way that showcases to your kids that it's also okay, and how to take on an attitude of humility when you do make mistakes is honestly the best policy,” Blair explained. “And hopefully we'll be able to teach and learn from participants about that as well.”

The six-week pilot program will teach white parents how to create an environment where kids feel comfortable having these conversations. Participants will examine how to embrace racial empathy and diversity, and learn practical tools for implementing those values at home.

The trainings will build upon lessons gleaned by child and adolescent psychologists, as well as Blair’s own research into the experiences of white parents raising white children.

Blair said the structure also mirrors that of other University of Pittsburgh initiatives, like the Racial Equity Consciousness Institute and Parenting While Black. Professor James Huguley, who runs the latter program, has worked with more than 100 Black families from across the Pittsburgh region to promote positive racial identity and cope with racism.

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Groups met on weekday evenings over two months to discuss common challenges, ask questions and learn from each other.

“They were cathartic spaces, they were support spaces,” Huguley said. “And a big lesson was people want to connect. People want to engage each other. People want to know they're not the only ones going through that.”

Huguley said that the Parenting For Racial Equity Project, on which he serves as a research partner, will apply those lessons to white parents grappling with how to talk to their kids about racism.

“They’re going to need those same supports. They're going to need those same communities to do the work,” he said.

The program’s first cohort, which meets Tuesday, received an overwhelming response, with 26 participants filling the 20 seats initially allotted. According to Blair, the project now has a waitlist of 35 people, and researchers plan to design a second section specifically for multi-racial families.

Huguley and Blair agree, however, that substantive change won’t come from awareness and dialogue alone. Policy changes need to happen, too.

As chair of Pitt’s Race and Youth Development Research Group, Huguley is partnering with schools to reduce the use of out-of-school suspensions, and provide mental health supports for students.

“But we also need cultural changes. And where does that start? That starts at home and starts in the family unit,” he added.

And the researchers said even young children can benefit.

Laura Everhart joined a free lunch-and-share held last month by the Parenting For Racial Equity team. She lives in Lawrenceville with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and has tried to incorporate lessons about equity into her parenting. For now, that looks like filling her daughter’s bookshelves with stories that feature characters of all backgrounds.

“We haven't had a specific discussion yet, but I already know that my daughter has far more diverse heroes in her stories than I did,” Everhart. “That, to me, is a win.”

Everhart, who hopes to join the project’s first cohort, said she wants a space where she can learn and share ideas with other white parents.

“I think the most important thing is it's okay to have hard conversations and hard questions and not know the answers,” Everhart said. “I'm going to be learning for the rest of my life.”

That’s a lesson she wants to model for her young daughter, too.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.