Fostering Social Justice | Article | Child & Family Blog
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Fostering Social Justice: White Adolescents’ Social Justice Action Requires Race Conscious Environments

By Brandon Dull and , Lindsay Till Hoyt and , Natasha Chaku and , | June 2023 

White adolescents who are in environments that acknowledge racism and inequities take more actions toward social justice in young adulthood.


Key takeaways for caregivers

  • Parents, peers, and schools all represent crucial influences that shape how white1 adolescents make sense of racism and their actions toward social justice.
  • Having explicit conversations with white youth about racism and embedding children in racially diverse environments that acknowledge race are essential to countering the dominant color-blind narrative that race “doesn’t matter.”
  • Conversations about race with white youth must go beyond simply acknowledging historical and contemporary racism toward encouraging anti-racist attitudes and actions to address inequities.

Children receive messages about race and color-blindness from multiple sources

There is no “neutral” in racism. All youth learn to either reinforce or disrupt systems of inequality that uphold and maintain a racist status quo. As such, shielding white children from learning about race and the United States’ racist history encourages a way of knowing that is untethered to the country’s racial realities and further sustains white supremacy and racism.

Contrary to the color-blind narrative that positions racism as a thing of the past and “everyone as equal,” racism is embedded in structural forces (e.g., law, institutions, housing) and continues to shape all people’s experiences (though differently). The color-blind narrative is pervasive among white parents and caregivers and within predominantly white institutions (including school settings). For instance, only 53% of white parents believe schools should teach about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the United States, while 82% of Black parents hold this belief.

For white youth, social environments that counter the color-blind narrative and instead address racism may be integral to fostering social justice action.

Regardless of whether children receive explicit messaging about race, they interpret the various experiences, interactions, and (un)intentional messages in their lives. Parents, peers, and schools are three interrelated influences that shape how children make sense of race during adolescence. For white youth, social environments that counter the color-blind narrative and instead address racism may be integral to fostering social justice action.

What social contexts about race and racism do white adolescents in the United States experience?

In our research study, we examined the myriad influences that shape how white youth make sense of racism and the resulting impacts on their social justice behaviors. We used survey data from the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study to examine 323 white adolescents’ racial environments (i.e., the social contexts that may shape their beliefs and attitudes about race and racism), with particular attention to conversations with parents about race and racial attitudes, cross-race friendships, and conversations with peers about race.

We also looked at the diversity of youth’s schools with respect to racial composition and curriculum. We then explored how these different racial environments during adolescence (16-17 years old) related to white youth’s social justice actions two years later in young adulthood. All participants in the study lived in a racially and socioeconomically diverse county in the Eastern United States.

Photo: cottonbro studio. Pexels.

The racial environments of most adolescents (80%) were characterized by silence or passivity about race. Such environments align with a color-blind narrative in which racism is downplayed or ignored, limiting white adolescents’ ability to disrupt and challenge racism. However, the racial environments of some adolescents (20%) were more race conscious, meaning that race-related conversations occurred more frequently, schools were racially diverse and acknowledged race and racism in the curriculum, and adolescents had cross-race friendships.

How did different racial environments affect white adolescents’ social justice action?

White adolescents in race-conscious environments were engaged in more social justice behaviors during young adulthood than were white adolescents in racial environments characterized by silence. These behaviors included participating in civil rights or women’s rights groups. Our findings suggest that when white youth are in environments that are racially diverse and that acknowledge race and racism, they are more likely to take action in young adulthood to promote and foster social justice.

How can parents foster social justice attitudes and behaviors in their white children?

The findings of our study, in conjunction with other recent findings, challenge the often-espoused color-blind belief that not talking about race promotes equity. Instead, they suggest that having explicit conversations about racism and inequality, and embedding children in environments (e.g., schools) that are racially diverse or conscious of racism, can foster white adolescents’ reflection and actions toward creating and maintaining equitable social conditions for all people.

How can parents and caregivers foster a race-conscious environment for white youth?

First, parents and caregivers of white children should reflect about their own racial attitudes and beliefs. As we saw in our study, even parents who believed they had “positive” racial attitudes may foster a color-blind racial environment for their children.

Parents and caregivers must talk early and often with their white children about racism.

Thus, parents should challenge themselves to think critically about race in the United States and how their own racial identity relates to the ongoing perpetuation or disruption of racism. Numerous resources are available to prompt such critical reflection, including engaging with the works (e.g., film, books, art) of authors and artists of color that portray the racial realities of the United States.

Second, after such reflection, parents and caregivers must talk early and often with their white children about racism. For instance, when children bring up or notice race, parents should discuss what their child is noticing rather than silence them or communicate that noticing race is bad.

Building white adolescents’ skills

Discussing race and racism, celebrating and recognizing the contributions of people of color (which are often excluded from mainstream narratives), addressing racialized police killings and violence, and reflecting on the history and current manifestations of white supremacy are integral to building white adolescents’ skills for anti-racism work and for actively communicating the racial realities of the United States. (See EmbraceRace raising young white allies for more resources.)

Finally, the results of our study highlight the multidimensional nature of children’s racial environments. In other words, it is not just parents who play a role in how children make sense of racism, but rather a multitude of influences, including but not limited to peers and school. As such, fostering white youth’s social justice behaviors means embedding children in racially diverse environments in which cross-race friendships can form and where school curricula acknowledge and affirm people of color.

Photo: Ron Lach. Pexels.

White parents and caregivers can also promote change in their children’s schools by standing with parents of color as allies and teaching their children to stand up against racism. Parents can also support candidates in local and national elections who recognize the importance of discussing racism in educational settings. (Read more information on the debate about critical race theory in schools here.)

In conclusion – racial justice requires reckoning with whiteness and countering narratives

The take-home message is that reaching a state of racial justice requires reckoning with whiteness and countering the pervasive color-blind narratives that produce false and inaccurate understandings of racism in the United States. In particular, our study demonstrates how race-conscious environments can counter the racist status quo by building white youth’s efforts for social justice. Our findings also underscore the role of white parents and caregivers in ensuring that the next generation strives for an equitable and anti-racist society.

1 Although the style of the Child & Family Blog is to capitalize ‘White,’ the authors have intentionally not capitalized the word when it refers to skin color. For information supporting this rule, please see The Associated Press.

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  • Dull BD, Hoyt LT & Chaku N (2022), White adolescents' racial contexts: Associations with critical action, Child Development, 93.6

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