How to Talk to Young Children About Race

If recent history has taught parents, especially whites, anything, it is that we need to talk more and more deeply with children about race. (I say “especially white parents” because parents of color have always talked to their children about race.) But sometimes parents don’t know how or when to start.

It may be easier for many white parents to turn off the news loop and not talk to their children about race, instead encouraging them to just be kind to everyone. Some even chirp, “We don’t see color!” – a statement that is both funny if you have working eyeballs and bad for people of color. Margaret and Jacobsen, a black mother raising two mixed-race children, hears such remarks all the time in an area dominated by whites. In 2017, Jacobsen wrote for Romper about why this is so damaging :

Before, I never really thought about the fact that my children are friends with white children. For the most part, I was just happy that they became friends. But one day at my son Beck’s preschool, I talked to another mother about how I was black and had a mixed son. She turned to me and said, “We don’t even see Beck’s color! He’s just a friend of Chance! “

It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach. When someone says they can’t see a color, they simply declare that they refuse to recognize someone else’s ethnicity, thereby erasing their origin and culture. I could not answer what she said. She stood and smiled at me as if I had to thank her for that, while all I wanted to do was shake her and say, “Can’t you see he’s black? It’s okay to see! “

Silence about race not only does not prevent racism, but it also contributes to the perpetuation of prejudice. This is why it is not enough to be racist ; we must be active anti-racists . But how do you create a family environment in which such difficult conversations flow when your children are still young?

Know it’s not too early

If you’re wondering when you should start talking about race with your kids, the answer is probably now. No, you’re not going to put your 3-year-old in systemic racism, but even before the kids get into preschool, they are adept at sorting things: bricks, crayons and, yes, people. Confirm their observations, as The Washington Post suggests:

The researchers say infants as young as 6 months old can distinguish skin color and facial features among ethnic groups. So when your 3 year old points to the grocery store and asks, ” Why is he black?” Don’t be silent or ignore it. Help him instead. Rephrase the question: “ Yes, it’s black. Do you want to say hello and ask his name? “ Kids ask:” Why is the sky blue? “ and ” Why does he have black skin?” in one breath. They do not associate meaning until they are intuitively aware of our discomfort.

Brittney Lefebvre, a Livermore, California-based mother who organized trainings on how to be an ally of marginalized groups, remembers when she was only three years old. She received two dolls as a gift – one black and the other white. She took both dolls with her to the bath and began rubbing the black one. When her mom asked her why she was doing this, she replied, “This one is dirty.” Her mom just said, “Oh, that’s her skin color. Purely!”

“I was not ashamed,” recalls Lefebvre, a white Mexican. “Since then, I’ve always felt very comfortable asking my mom questions about race, gender and gender.”

Last month, we spoke with Dr. Erin Palke, assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College, who told us that when we talk with young children about race, racism and white privilege, it’s helpful to start with the concept of “fairness” and “advantage” :

Privilege is a fairly abstract concept that many adults have a hard time defining or identifying when they see it, let alone children. But a concept that young children really understand intuitively? Justice concept.

“They care a lot about justice,” says Palke. “So, pointing out examples of injustice and racial involvement in these examples of injustice is a good way to start with children when they are in elementary or high school.”

As children get older, you can move from a concept of fairness to talking about the inherent privilege they receive when they are not treated unfairly, namely that this unfairness creates benefits for whites.

Look for age-appropriate resources

If you’ve never really talked about race and racism with your kids, it can be difficult to know where to start. As with any important, ongoing discussion with my own son, I follow the clues around us that can help us naturally engage in these conversations. When they are still very young, it all starts with simple and real answers to their questions. This means diversifying their toys and getting to know books, movies and podcasts with different characters, storylines and family structures.

You can also rely on their favorite TV shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to lay the groundwork. It’s good to watch such episodes together with the whole family, and then discuss them together. Another great place to start is with the race and racism episode ofPBS Kids Talk About, hosted by national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman:

As children get a little older, parents can also take the basic lessons that children learn in school and expand them at home. This discussion guide from PBS Kids can help you identify some basic terms, definitions, and conversation starters that you can ask your kids. As they develop a basic understanding of racism, you can also discuss current events according to age for additional examples and context.

Here are some additional resources we’ve written about for you to explore:

Remember, you don’t need to know all the answers or teach them all there is to understand about race and racism in one sitting – you are laying the foundation for making your home a safe place to discuss these issues. and throughout his life.

This article was originally published in 2017; it was updated on February 22, 2021 to reflect current information and style.

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