The topics of racism and racial violence have taken center stage in the national conversation due to recent tragic events. For some, these subjects are challenging to address with children, especially children who have not grown up in widely diverse communities, yet they are extremely necessary. There’s no “one way” to talk to all children about race and racism, as each person has different backgrounds and different experiences when it comes to these topics. Here are a few basics to help you start to address racism with your kids.
Have the Conversation
It’s important to realize that having open and understanding conversations about race with children is not racist. In fact, it’s just the beginning in setting them on the path to being empathetic, loving, and racially just individuals.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), one of the most important parts of talking to kids about race is being open and comfortable about it. Experts say that when parents avoid talking about race and racism, children see the topic as taboo. By having open conversations and discussions surrounding race and racism, it becomes easier for children to have these types of talks.
Dr. Ashaunta Anderson, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine, and Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, the Child Health Medical Director at the Howard County Health Department, say that children begin to learn implicit racial bias as young as six months old.
As parents, it’s vital to realize their role in developing a child’s early perspectives surrounding race. According to Anderson and Dougé, “Children learn about racial differences and racial bias… from their first teachers—their parents.” The first step to talking about race openly with a child is for the parents to create an environment where those conversations are natural.
Address Discrimination and Racism
Sometimes, parents might hear children say something discriminatory or biased. The APA suggests that instead of hushing the child, parents should use the opportunity as a conversation starter to address any fears and correct misperceptions.
When a child brings up these types of topics, Dr. Erin Winkler says parents should ask questions such as “What makes you say that?” and “Why do you think that?” Understanding the thought process behind the child’s statement is necessary before parents can work to change their perceptions. If a child has only interacted with white physicians, they may think that all physicians should be white. Once a parent realizes that, they can take steps to show examples of non-white physicians, either in media or in person, to overcome that bias.
As children mature, parents should use age-appropriate language they can understand. The APA notes that conversations will get deeper and more nuanced as kids get older, but that it’s important for them to grasp the basic concepts at a young age. Parents should incorporate important topics, such as white privilege, the purpose of protesting, oppression, racial violence, and structural racism when the time is right for their child.
According to The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), by reflecting upon deeper topics, such as white privilege, children develop a better understanding of how and why certain groups of people receive unearned privilege while others are disadvantaged simply because of their race. These types of conversations are absolutely necessary when it comes to developing a child’s ability to have open-minded conversations about race.
Understand Implicit Bias
As they grow older, children are strongly influenced by the society around them and how that society acts towards race, starting in their own home. Parents need to first address their own implicit bias (the subconscious attribution of certain qualities or stereotypes to a member of a specific social group) and then discuss these biases with their kids often. Anderson and Dougé note that by the time a child reaches grade school, they may already have implicit racial biases they are unaware of, so tackling them head on will help.
In her article, “Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children,” Winkler, associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says, “Children are already noticing patterns in the world around them and this is your opportunity to help them think critically about what they’re seeing, rather than accepting those things as ‘rules.’”
Anderson and Dougé remind parents that to be able to overcome implicit biases, parents and children must have conversations about their underlying biases. By understanding these biases, children are able to respond to others who are different than themselves without bias. This is an important step to overcome any implicit or community biases that may exist.
Be a Role Model
In short, parents need to practice what they preach. Parents are the biggest influence on a child’s ability to confront race, racism, and implicit bias. If they do not first put in the work themselves to overcome their biases or address any prejudices in their communities, children do not have a consistent role model to look up.
Many adults have grown up in and experienced a society that silences conversations about race and frames racism as an issue from the past. Parents need to be aware that they may carry some of these biases with them.
According to Anderson and Dougé, “If you want your children to believe what you preach, you have to exhibit those behaviors as well. Your everyday comments and actions will say more than anything else.”
The APA says that parents must challenge their own assumptions and behaviors surrounding race to be able to educate their children. Parents should keep in mind their actions, including laughing at racially insensitive jokes or crossing the street to avoid passing people of a different ethnic group. Having conversations about race is vital, but parents must remember that actions often speak louder than words.
Welcome diversity in your everyday life and celebrate the differences between all cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities. The APA suggests parents should also think about the diversity of friendships and parenting networks and give their children the opportunity to interact with people from backgrounds unlike theirs.
Without experiencing diverse backgrounds, people, and places, children will have nothing to attribute these conversations on race and racism to. A white child living in an all-white suburban neighborhood doesn’t fully understand what black children in a city experience. By giving them real life examples, kids can fully understand why these conversations are being had.
There are many resources available to help in your quest to raise race conscious kids, so don’t be afraid to do your research and use the tools available to you.
We’ve compiled a list of books, videos, and other media that parents and children of all age groups can utilize. Check out KIWI’s 30+ Resources to Help You Teach Your Kids About Race and Racism