5 Tips on How to Talk with Your Kids About Race & Racism

February 16, 2016

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Talking About Race With Your KidsWe are smack dab in the middle of February – Black History Month in the United States. Perhaps in school your kids are talking about race. Maybe they’re coming home with questions?  Or maybe you’ve heard them say something offensive or inappropriate about someone of a different race?  How do you talk with them about race/racism?
My rainbow of a family - my kids, niece, and nephews

This is my “rainbow coalition” of a family: my kids, niece, and nephews

Many parents would rather forget about it and avoid the topic altogether. I didn’t think I’d really have to talk about it. I figured my daughter (with a white father, black mother, and family spanning the racial gamut) would be color blind. Boy, was I was wrong!

One day when my daughter Aliza was in pre-school, my daughter’s teacher told me that Ali was saying some hurtful things to some of the kids in her class. Ali told the dark-skinned kids in her class that they couldn’t attend her birthday party and that their skin was ugly. I couldn’t believe my mixed-race daughter was discriminating against the kids in her class with skin color the same color as mine- her own mother!? Where in the world did she learn that, and how was I going to deal with it?
I researched it (because researching is how I roll), and here are 5 tips I came up with on how to talk with your child about race:
  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about itA study, outlined in the book Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, found that most caucasian parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The belief is that if we want our kids to be color-blind, we shouldn’t point out skin color. Parents will say things like “everybody’s equal,” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If kids point out somebody who looks different, parents shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. This refusal to discuss race makes it a taboo subject. 

    Saying things like “everyone is equal” especially when kids are surrounded by subtle or not-so-subtle images and instances of unequal treatment of different races, sends mixed messages.  Instead of giving your child a simple platitude and quickly changing the subject, get curious with your child – ask open ended questions like: “What do you think about…?”  “Why do you think that?”  “How would you feel…?”  Share with your child your own feelings.  It’s been proven that these types of conversations make children less race-conscious, not more.

  2. Use stories to talk about diversity
    Finding stories about diversity is a good way to approach the subject.  I used the Dr. Seuss story about the Sneetches. It’s a good story about discrimination, but because it’s abstract (talking about imaginary creatures), in certain ways it may be easier entry to talking about fairness, difference, and other issues without bringing up any preconceived notions and opinions about difference races.  From there, you can tackle the issue more directly.  For some books that are more direct about the issue of race, you can try:
    The Color of Us by Karen Katz,

    The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler,

    We’re Different, We’re the Same (Sesame Street) by Bobbi Kates,

    God’s Dream by Archbishop Desmon Tutu,

    Whoever You Are by Mem Fox,

    Snow in Jerusalem by Deborah da Costa,

    and Almond Cookies & Dragon Well Tea by Cynthia Chin-Lee.

    These books are for kids 6 and under, but there are also many great books for older kids.  If you’ve gotten some great books about diversity for your kids, please share so in the comments.
  3. Find positive examples of diversity

    Word Girl

    Word Girl

    A lot of the images that kids pick up about other races come from negative portrayals in mainstream media.  Show your kids positive examples of kids and adults of other cultures.

    Some great tv shows for showing positive portrayals of diverse characters are:
    Word Girl (a PBS show about an African-American girl who, when duty calls, is transformed into WordGirl, a superhero who uses vocabulary to defeat outlaws),
    Syd the Science Kid (this PBS show is about a curious young kid, Syd, who learns a lesson about science every week.  Though the characters in the show are strange shades like mustard and purple, Syd appears to be bi-racial),
    Doc McStuffin (this is a Disney Jr. show about a young African-American girl who is a toy doctor.  It teaches kids about medicine and lessons around going to the doctor’s office.  It’s a bonus, that the main character’s African-American mother is a “doctor for humans”),
    Dora the Explorer (this Nickelodeon series centers around Dora, an American girl of Mexican heritage that goes on adventures teaching the young viewers Spanish phrases as she goes),
    Go Diego Go (in this Nick Jr. show, Diego is Dora the Explorer’s cousin and goes on missions to save animals),
    Ni Hao Kai Lan (a Nick Jr. show about a little Chinese girl who lives with her grandfather.  This show teaches kids about Chinese culture and the Mandarin language),
    The 99 (shown on Netflix, this is a show about Muslim superheroes),
    Bino & Fino (a cartoon about a Nigerian brother and sister that teaches about African history and culture), and
    Little Bill (notwithstanding the very ahem… “checkered” past of the show’s creator, this is a good show about an African American family told through the lens of the family’s youngest son- Little Bill).

  4. Look for opportunities to immerse yourself and your child(ren) in other cultures
    Mexican FestivalIn addition to books and tv shows about other cultures, physically immerse yourself in other cultures.  Maybe go to cultural events such as Chinese New Year, Mexican Independence Day, or Black History Month events where you and your family will be able to interact in a more meaningful way with the people and cultures of those who are different from yourself.  This is another way to learn first-hand about people of different races and cultures.  Exploring a new culture by discovering its music, trying new foods, and/or learning about the history and traditions of the that culture is not only enriching for you and your child, but teaches the valuable lessons that this world is a small place and despite our difference, we are all similar and interconnected.
  5. Don’t overreact to comments or questions. If your child makes a startling or offensive comment or asks an uncomfortable question regarding race, don’t ignore it or hush her.  This will make your child think the subject is too taboo.  Remember tip 1?  We want to be able to discuss this issue with our children.

    Instead, respond in a nonjudgmental way, and say something like “Let’s talk about that for a minute…” Then dig for context: “What made you notice that?” Try to get more detail about what the observation means to your child, and use her answers to spark a conversation. This allows you to model for the child that it’s ok to be curious about differences.  She doesn’t have to be afraid.  Differences aren’t bad – they’re just differences.

    If your child offends someone with a remark, ask her to apologize, suggests Marguerite Wright, psychologist and author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children. Later, in private, you can discuss with your child about how certain comments can upset people. It’s important that you don’t make too big a deal about it — remember your child is just learning.

Those are my 5 tips for talking about race with your child and raising a more socially conscious kid.  How do you bring up these issues with your children?

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