How to talk to kids about race and racism

Author: 
Kristen Howerton
Source: 
Focus on Adoption magazine

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. One of the frustrating outcomes of that conversation is that the teacher (and a few commenters) 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 a subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be “colour-blind,” 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.

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hildren 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 show 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 colour and when parents ignore it, the lesson children learn is that diversity is something too scary to talk about.

There are differing views on what should be taught about race and racism and when. I really believe that children are never to young to start learning about racial difference and the importance of fighting prejudice. For age-appropriate books that can help parents to start the conversation, go to: www.rageagainsttheminivan. com/2012/01/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-race-and.html

  • Age 2+. Talk about physical differences, including race and gender, and the importance of accepting everyone
  • Age 3+. 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 Crox slavery, underground railroad, assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights heroes and atrocities based on ethnicity (the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, etc.).
  • Grade 7+. Discuss current global examples of ethnicallymotived violence and oppression, issues of social justice, current circumstances of slavery, etc.

I don’t know that there is a universal timeline that fits every child, because maturity levels vary. Obviously, Jafta learned a little more than I would have preferred in his first 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 for Grades 3-5 that we we’ve been holding back until he was older. I think going to a celebratory Martin Luther King, Jr 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 colour to be friends.

I really want to emphasize that the suggestions I’ve made are not just suggestions for African-American 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 colour-blind, we don’t point out skin colour. 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. That 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 he or she feels.
  5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries. For an incredible list of multi-cultural children’s books, check out the reader’s group “Shades of love: multicultural children’s books & literature” at www.shelfari.com.
  6. Just observe. Watch how your children play with children who are different, whether it be skin colour, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process his or her feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding him or her 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.
  8. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.

Kristen is the mom of four children within four years via birth and adoption, and has been blogging at Rage Against the Minivan as a coping skill since 2004. She is a marriage and family therapist, a freelance writer, and a musical theater geek. She is also the managing editor of ShePosts, an online news magazine for women in social media, the editor of Mama Manifesto, a collaborative parenting blog, and a columnist at ConversantLife and the OC Register where she writes a parenting advice colum. 

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