how to talk to kids about race and racism

Last week I expressed some concern about whether or not my first-grader was old enough to be learning about some of the more violent aspects of the civil rights movement and slavery.  One of the frustrating outcomes of that conversation is that a few people misinterpreted my concern as being over conversations about race in general . . . which couldn’t be further from the truth.  I am a firm believer that we should be talking to our kids about racial differences from a very young age.

The truth is, at the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. I think many of us are unaware of this, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be "colorblind", so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations, and even inadvertently send a message to our children that noticing the race of others (which they inevitably will) somehow makes them bad.

Children are social beings, and one of the first social lessons they learn is to sort and group. Boys hang out with boys. Girls hang out with girls. If your children shows these gender preferences, chances are they have racial preferences, too. This doesn't make them little racists.  It just means that they need some gentle guidance from you to be racially inclusive.  Training our kids to move from a self-centered infant into a more respectful and empathic person . . . that's the stuff of raising kids. Racial acceptance should be a part of that.

At a certain age, all kids are prone to leaving others out based on external factors. This can be gender, race, disability, etc. I think kids need help to overcome this natural tendency to seek out "sameness". I also think they need intentionality, especially when living in non-diverse areas. Kids do see color - and when parents ignore it, the lesson children learn is that diversity is something too scary to talk about.

teaching kids about race

I don’t know that there is a universal timeline that fits every child, because maturity levels vary. In my last post it was obvious that even the teachers who commented had differing views on what should be taught and when.  But for my kids, ideally it would look something like this.  Under each stage, I’ve added some age-appropriate books that can help parents to start the conversation.  I really believe that children are never to young to start learning about racial difference and the importance of fighting prejudice.

Age 2+ – talk about physical differences, including race and gender, and the importance of accepting everyone

 

Age 2+ – talk about prejudice of all forms, maintaining an open forum for kids to report and discuss instances of prejudice

 

Age 4+ – introduce other cultures, including food, art, and role models, emphasizing acceptance and diversity

 

Grade 1+ – discuss civil rights in broad terms, introducing heroes

 

Grade 3-5+ – discuss specifics of Jim Crow, slavery, underground railroad, assassination of MLK, and other civil rights heroes, and other atrocities based on ethnicity (Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, etc)

 

Grade 7+ – discuss current global examples of ethnically-motived violence and oppression, issues of social justice, current circumstances of slavery, etc.

(I don’t have any book ideas for this stage – we haven’t gotten there yet.  Maybe some readers have ideas?)

Obviously, Jafta learned a little more than I would have preferred in his 1st grade class, but it’s turned out to be fine . . . we’ve had some good conversations and I’ve pulled out some of the books listed above for grades 3-5 that we we’ve been holding back until he was older.  I think going to a celebratory MLK Day parade this weekend helped reframe what was a scary story into a source of pride for his race and all they have overcome.  The other kids enjoyed the parade and we had many talks about how Martin Luther King Jr. made it possible for people of every color to be friends. 

I really want to emphasize that the books I’ve listed above are not just suggestions for African American families or transracial families.  I think all of us should be introducing these concepts to our kids.   A recent study, outlined in the book NurtureShock discovered that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The rule is that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it.  It's kind of like the sex talk. If we never talk to our kids about sex, they are gonna have to figure it out on their own. Which will probably lead to some not-so-great influences filling in their gaps of knowledge.

Here are a few practical suggestions for developing an environment in which diversity is valued:

1. Take an inventory of your home's diversity. Are your toys sending a subtle message? Make it a point to buy dolls and action figures of every race. Watch how your kids react.

2. Be intentional in showing your children positive examples of other races in the media they watch. Some great examples are Go, Diego, Go!, Little Bill, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer, and Cooking for Kids with Luis.

3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don't do it at all).

4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child's reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.

5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries.  For an incredible list of multi-cultural children's books, check out Shades of Love at Shelfari.com.

6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.

7. Talk to your children about racial prejudice.  Ask them to recall any they have observed.  Encourage them to be advocates against bullying towards children who are different.

7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.

How do you talk to your kids about race?  What books have you found to be helpful?  And how will you celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. with your kids today?


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