Talking to Kids About Racism (When You Don't Know Where to Begin)

By Toni Brannagan

talking-to-kids-about-race

Few people find talking about race, and specifically racism, comfortable — but we know that these conversations need to happen. Current events have exacerbated this necessity, but as many people of color have known firsthand, race and racism do not go away if ignored.  

For white people who are maybe thinking about these subjects or speaking about them for the first time, as well as people of color who are more likely to be familiar — figuring out how to educate and protect children to fight and encounter racism is even more complex. From online mommy groups to Sesame Street, parents and educators around the world are grappling with how we can equip the next generation with the tools to do better than we are.

It can be intimidating to tackle how to share these lessons with children, especially when we are all works-in-progress ourselves: Here are four expert-approved tips to get conversations about race started with kids.

start early

Let’s get something out of the way first: Some folks argue that young children shouldn’t be taught about race because they should be taught that all people are equal, or to “protect” them from tough and complicated conversations they are too young to comprehend. The thing is, colorblindness doesn’t work for children the same way it doesn’t work for adults — kids learn to group things by shape, size, and yes, color very early from their peers, and the world around them. And according to Parent Toolkit’s guide for talking to kids about race and racism, leaving children to come to their own conclusions can be an issue: “Like anything else, children begin filling in the information gaps themselves, and their data points may not always be coming from the most reliable sources.” 

Talking about race is one thing, and talking about racism is another. For kids who are people of color, it is also more likely that they will encounter people who comment on their race, or will unfortunately experience microaggressions or outright racism. Learning from their parents about how people perceive race, and how that may affect them personally, can help avoid adding extra confusion, shame, or trauma to these experiences. From to Parent Toolkit expert Julie Lythcott-Haims, “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.”

examine your experiences with race

POC are often aware of letting their kids know about how the world may perceive them, and while that’s important, it’s also essential to celebrate you and your child’s identities. Share your own stories, and family stories if you know them — POC families in America have vastly unique histories, and children (and adults!) sometimes need to be taught to love their background or heritage. For multiracial families, it’s also worth acknowledging the differences (but also the similarities!) between your experiences and what theirs might look like.

Especially, for white folks and non-Black POC, taking the time to interrogate your own privilege, and sharing tangible examples with children will also help them understand this better. Stating that they will benefit from privileges not afforded to others versus telling them a specific story shows them the concept in application.

learn alongside them

It’s worth repeating: We’re all works-in-progress. It’s not an excuse to not do the work, but motivation to continue. 

In an article for Buzzfeed, “Here’s How to Raise Race-Conscious Children”, Prof. Erin Winkler explains, “You can also show them that it’s OK to not have all of the answers all of the time; if they bring a question to you about race, racism or racialized inequities that you are not sure how to answer, tell them you think it is an excellent question and is something you wish you understood better, too. Then, depending upon their age, you may wish to research the question and come back with your findings later, or you can even research together.”

Similar to the previous section about your own experiences with race, non-Black POC and white folks should also interrogate the mistakes they’ve made, and the ways they have educated themselves. Consider sharing the specificity of those lessons with children over abstract concepts.

diversify their media

The depictions of common tropes like “the good guy” and “the bad guy” in media for even young, young children often casts white people only as the ideal, something to aspire to — if other books, TV, or movies aren’t searched for and placed in front of them, it will take children much longer to find diverse stories, if they do at all. 

Challenging this default is important for POC kids and white kids to internalize the diverse world they live in, but POC kids especially deserve to be entertained by stories in which they see themselves. It sounds trite, but studies show that representation in media affects self-esteem. In “Talking About Race With Kids,” National Geographic suggests, “Look for books that feature black, brown, and indigenous characters in normal situations, not only the ones that focus on enslavement or injustice.” Diverse TV shows can often be easier to find on streaming services over movies, which also has to do with the domination of big name studios when it comes to children’s films. Explore others!

Taking this step to expand the types of stories a child is watching opens the door for many conversations — actively participating in the media your child consumes will help you understand the messages they’re internalizing, and answer any questions they have as they come up. If they do consume media featuring problematic behaviors or depictions (nothing’s perfect!), that’s also a good opportunity to start a conversation, too.

Do you have other concerns when it comes to talking about racism with kids? How have these conversations gone for you and your child in the past? Share your experiences with us in the comments.