How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism
By Tracey Dowdy
The past week has been a news cycle of tragedy and violence that has once again exposed the racial divide that plagues this country over 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
There’s no easy way to expose your children to the ugly side of race relations or to explain the complexity of the images on the news. But it’s not a matter of whether or not to have the conversation, it’s a matter of how and when. Opening the discussion is imperative as is giving your children the tools to become actively anti-racist.
While there are no quick tips or formulas, these conversation starters and action steps can help you talk to your children about this critically important issue.
Open the Conversation. Mark my words, your children are talking about the subject of race whether you’re involved in the conversation or not. It’s important that your children hear the truth and understand current events in the proper context. Dr. Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, spent two years studying 30 affluent, white families in a Midwestern community, during which she found, “kids are learning and hearing about race regardless of whether parents are talking to them about it.”
Parents on both sides of the racial debate need to engage their children in conversations. White children don’t need to be taught to be color blind but rather to celebrate differences rather than ignore them. While the intention is noble – we are all equal – it may lead to them failing to recognize injustice or dismissing it as unimportant. Julie Lythcott-Haims, Parent Toolkit expert and author of How to Raise an Adult and Real American, a memoir on race says, “Parents need to take stock of the community in which they are raising their kids, talk about the racial differences and how people are sometimes treated unfairly on the basis of race, and prepare their child to be self-aware, smart and safe out there.”
Be an Example. It’s a cliche but there’s more than a modicum of truth – when it comes to child-rearing, more is caught than taught. But before you begin the conversation, you need to educate yourself. Check out the Documentary 13th on Netflix, books like Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race, or Becoming, by Michelle Obama. Embrace Race has an excellent list of books for teaching children about race.
“It’s not about whose perspective is right or wrong, it’s about acknowledging there are perspectives other than your own and making an effort to learn about them,” Lythcott-Haims says.
Information isn’t enough. The best and most powerful way to educate yourself and your children is by developing meaningful relationships with individuals different from ourselves. Nothing is more impactful to our psyche than someone’s story, so make sure that your friend group is diverse. If it’s not, ask yourself why.
Have a conversation, don’t present a lecture. Kids are naturally curious – how many of us have had our child ask an awkward question or point out something the adults in the room are trying to ignore? But when it comes to matters of race, engage your kids in the conversation and allow them to ask questions. Michele Chang, Director of Facilitation and Curriculum for Challenging Racism, explains, “Young children have a natural curiosity about differences, but they don’t put any value on what it means until they pick it up from what their parent says, or what the media tells them. So, when a child asks their parent, ‘Why does that person look like that?’ and their parent shushes them, it shuts down the conversation and signals to the child there’s something wrong.”
Sometimes kids may make a statement or an observation that has racist undertones. Shari Benites, Challenging Racism Facilitator and Trainer, suggests parents stop and ask themselves: What are they saying? What are they noticing? Ask your child, “What makes you think that?” Their observation may be completely different than what you initially assumed. And the only way to truly know what your child meant after saying a “questionable” statement is by asking them to clarify or explain further.
There will inevitably be times when open, honest communication isn’t enough and you need to take action. If your child comes to you upset, Benites suggest parents respond by saying, “It is not your job to educate your classmates about race, but with that in mind, what do you want to do about it? The focus should be on figuring out what the child needs, and going from there.”
And remember, kids ask hard questions and it’s okay if you don’t know the answer. Just say, “I’m not sure. Let’s figure it out together.” The important thing is to keep the conversation open and moving forward.
Make it Age Appropriate. America’s history of racism is dark and complex. Don’t feel you have to communicate 300 years of systemic oppression and abuse in a single conversation. Use some of the resources and tools listed about and use practical, hands-on teaching tools to help them understand.
For example, in her article, Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children, Erin Winkler, suggests that parents of younger children give them, “balls of string and ask them to move around the room unraveling their balls of string to make a very tangled web. Once they are finished, ask them to untangle it. They will soon find that it is much more difficult to untangle the web than it was to create it in the first place. Then explain that working to make society fair is a lot like untangling this web.”
Be an advocate.
“The focus is often on white America, but it should be about all cultures and how each of us can live in a way that is acceptable for everyone. But what does ‘being an advocate’ actually look like? With advocacy, you want to allow people to speak for themselves, That means passing the mic when it’s someone else’s turn to share their experience. “But, you’re also supporting them when they need assistance,” says Amber Coleman-Mortley, Director of Social Engagement for iCivics.
The most important element of advocacy is going beyond words to acting in a way that demonstrates your belief. “It’s not good enough to say, ‘We are not racist.’ You are not off the hook,” Wiseman says.
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits, and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.