Photo by: Jenn

Speaking With Your Kids About Race and Racism

by Malinda Seymore
Photo by: Jenn

I’m sure most of you have read See Baby Discriminate in Newsweek by now. If not, go read it and come back!

It’s a fantastic article about how children perceive race, how they form opinions about race, and how to change children’s opinions about race. Probably the most ballyhooed fact in the article is that children as young as 6 months old judge others by skin color.

But the thing that struck me in the article, proven over and over in many of the studies discussed, is how important it is to speak to kids EXPLICITLY about race and racism. Nothing short of that makes an impression. Neither a multicultural curriculum, nor “background” diversity, nor aphorisms of color-blindness, nor silence about race, will lead a child to positive attitudes about race. Only explicit discussion of race and racism will do it.

And then the other side of the coin revealed in the article— how reluctant parents are to talk to their children explicitly about race. Why? According to one article, some parents won’t talk about race because they ascribe to the color-blind myth that silence about race equals acceptance of all races. For white parents with white children, the subject just doesn’t come up because of the invisibility of white privilege. Some lack a sound understanding of what race means. Some believe that the work of the Civil Rights Movement has eradicated racism, so there’s nothing to talk about. And the number one reason parents don’t talk about race or racism with their children — FEAR! That would be fear of saying the wrong thing, of course.

The Multiracial Sky website has some tips, a starting point, for talking about race:

The key to talking with your child—or anyone—about race is the same key to discussing any complex subject: openness. Start an open dialog with your child about race early in their life. Make it a comfortable subject of conversation—for you, and for your child.

Find descriptive words you are comfortable using. Check out the MultiracialSky Glossary for expanded definitions of 60 race-related terms, including 30 heritage-affirming words used today to describe people with a variety of racial and ethnic heritages.

Start with words describing color such as brown or tan, or the colors of foods. The Colors of Us [below] has wonderful descriptive color words.

Teach your children words they can use to identify themselves, and terms people with other heritages use to identify themselves. (Examples: multiracial, Amerasian, Latina.)

Talk with your child about names for different racial and ethnic heritages. The descriptions and words you use may evolve and change over time, or as the socially predominant terms evolve. (Examples: African American, Black American, Native American, European American, Asian American, Mexican, White, Black, Cuban, Irish)

When talking about race in scientific terms, the fact remains that there is only one human race. This is a fact and statement we should equip our children with. However, especially as parents, we must also recognize that the societal construct of different and distinct races affects everyone.

I think it’s important to give children this vocabulary. And I second the recommendation of The Colors of Us. But beyond vocabulary, how do we talk about racism, bias, stereotyping, bigotry?

Here are some general guidelines from

  1. Our own feelings about the questions children ask can have as much impact as the words we choose to answer them. We may have to conquer some hurdles of our own before we can discuss racism comfortably with our children.
  2. In the long run, our most helpful responses are those that show respect for our children’s curiosity and encourage them to keep actively grappling with our complicated world. One useful way of thinking about our children’s difficult questions is to view them as “teachable moments.”
  3. Understanding as much as we can about what prompts our children’s questions is a good beginning. The more we know about why our children ask particular questions, the more likely it will be that we will help them find meaningful answers.
  4. “I don’t know” or “Let me think about that for a while” are valid answers. Racism is a complicated and persistent problem. Sometimes we need time to clarify our own thoughts and feelings before we can be of help to our children. Sometimes children’s concerns are pressing. Hurt feelings, anger, and worries all need immediate attention.
  5. When our children ask hard questions, we are given an opportunity to glimpse how they experience the world. In turn, we can use these opportunities to sort through complicated or confusing issues together.

(Sounds like good advice for talking about adoption, too!) But beyond answering questions, what can we do?

Here are some things we do, and I hope you’ll share what you do, too. We do talk explicitly about racism, both historical racism and racism today. When you talk about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, explicitly define the problem of the day as racism. But history isn’t enough, in my opinion. You have to talk about what happens in current events, too. Remember the news story this summer about the black kids who kicked out of a private pool? Great opportunity to talk about prejudice, and how the kids must have felt. Unfortunately, there are many such reported events that provide a springboard for discussion.

As usual, I love using books to start conversations— yes, books with multicultural characters are important, but it’s also important to look for books that talk explicitly about racism (like The Skin I’m In) or show characters dealing with racism (like “Chinese Eyes”. Even imperfect books can do this- I don’t much like the way the mom dealt with it, but the book gives a good description of a child’s feelings when confronting the eye-pulling gesture that accompanies the “Chinese Eyes” chant).

We also talk specifically about the kinds of stereotyping Asian-Americans face, some that my children have already faced — “Chinese eyes”, ching-chong speech, fake karate moves in front of them, racial slurs. We role-play responses, including telling a grownup about it.

I think sums it up nicely:

We can choose to actively influence our children’s attitudes. With our encouragement children will test and think through their beliefs about race, ethnicity, and religion. They are unlikely to ask the necessary hard questions without our help. It is up to us to take the initiative!

Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates- the daily trials of childhood- reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.

One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.

I was reading a blog not too long ago where a person of color said that as white parents, we can’t teach our minority children about racism. I agree, that not having the lived experience of the racism our children will face, we can’t teach by example, by reference to our lives. But that’s why I believe we have to substitute VERY EXPLICIT messages instead. It may not be an every-day topic of discussion, but it is, unfortunately, going to be a lifelong one.

Malinda is a single mom to two children adopted from China, a university professor, and an enthusiastic blogger about all things adoption.

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Thank you for bringing up this topic. My son is luckier than most. I am French Canadian, white, and his father is Tanzanian, black. His 1st grade class is all cultures and colors. He considers himself brown even though he looks white. He has come to accept all colors, but it will still be difficult when he starts learning in history about slavery etc... My best advice is bring your children to cultural events across the board...

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In our family, (Mexican + European), we talk about ow people have different skin color based on where there ancestors are from (lots of sun = darker skin). It works very well - no judgements, increased awareness of the immigrant history of our country.

My children are all grown now and I thought we had done a good job raising them without prejudice, whether it was of race, religion, gender or sexual direction. However, our youngest has moved to Ohio and is now involved with a young woman who has since had his daughter. In talkng with her on the phone, I realized that she is very prejudiced. She even went as far as to use the "N" work. I explained that that was an offensive word that we don't use in our family...

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I am a school teacher and every January I take more time than usual to discuss the above topic. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helps us with this discussion. Since I teach small children, I like to use the analogy of crayons in the crayon box. I say, "There are 12 crayons in this box. I paid for ALL of them. But what if I decided that this pink one here was not worth it, so I threw it on the ground? How about the orange one? Now I only have 10. That isn't fair...

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I think to base an approach blanketwide on all society is wrong - each parent should determine the approach that works in their own situation. For my family, the "color blind" approach made perfect sense. My children watch Sesame Street - a very diversified program - went to a very diversified preschool. It made no sense to talk about race as they too were color blind...

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I guess I'm looking at asking for advice on this subject. My daughter goes to a Catholic School and there are only about 5 - 10% minorities. She's 14 years old in her freshman year and she's African American. She seems to have a hard time (she feels) fitting into the environment. It's very hard for me to make her understand that I send her to this school because I want the best for her future...

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Think of white privilege as not having to "prove" that you are a credit to your race; as not having to wonder when you turn on the TV or go to a film whether someone who looks like you will be represented on screen; as not having to be conscious of the fact that the dominant American beauty standard vis-a-vis hair, skin color and body type is white European; as not having to wonder when you get followed around in a store or pulled over by law enforcement whether you are being racially profiled for being white; as not having to wonder why you are not being called back for a second interview after an employer who has gushed about you on the phone meets you in person and is "surprised" that someone who looks like you has the credentials that you have; as not having to wonder when you open a textbook whether people of your racial heritage will be represented in every stage of American and World history as having made substantial contributions to "civilization"; as not having to worry when you rent or buy a residence that you will be the victim of redlining; as having your racial background advantage you in the neighborhood that you live in, as most communities in the U.S. are substantially segregated by race; in short white privilege is conferred upon every person of European descent REGARDLESS of class status. And because white privilege entails specific socioeconomic benefits denied people of color white privilege effectively acts as a form of class privilege. Now, imagine growing up as a white child in this environment, where the myth of meritocracy and colorblindness is pervasive. And imagine growing up as a child of color, looking in the mirror and wishing you had white skin/hair/features because of everything that the media and the dominant culture tells you is beautiful, desirable and normative. Deprogramming and explicit proactive discussions of race are absolutely imperative because of the assumption of white normativeness.

I think this was a great article, definitely a topic that EVERYONE needs to discuss with their children. I'm in line with Brandy about the invisibility of 'white privilege' though. If you're white AND have money, then OK, fine, you're privileged. If you're white and BROKE, then you are most definitely NOT privileged. Getting help/assistance is a lot harder when you are not a 'minority' (Nevermind the fact that only 24% of the county I live in are white.).

Thanks for this article, the more we remind ourselves that we need to continue to talk about race the better off we will be. I am a parent that started a movement, "racism free zone" in my school district and it has and continued to make a difference in the way schools look and teach about differences. With the election of our president we are still seeing racism raise it's ugly face with in our country. Just recently an effigy of him was hung in the small town where President Clinton lived...

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I am shocked that people today still think that race and racisim needs to be discussed. People need to step into the present. I have four children and never, especially at 6 mos., did they judge anyone on their skin color. WHen they were 3 the only question would have been why does that person look different then me? Which requires a simple answer of people have different colored hair, eyes, and skin color. Just look at our family...

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This is very interesting...and timely for me. I was taken off guard one morning when, in the middle of the busy getting ready for work and school hustle and bustle, my 4 year old daughter asked me if there is a such thing as black people (apparently, she had recently heard the phrase somewhere). When I responded yes, she said, "I've never seen a black person". This was especially striking because we are African-American---with brown skin...

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I don't know how to take some of this article. While they may have scientifically proven that babies automatically gravitate to other babies who look like them ( i.e. have the same color skin) I think that if they are brought up with children of many different racial backgrounds they will all learn to play together and not learn about 'race' until they are taught...

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This is good information that gets us all thinking. Our family is blessed to have our daughter attending a school that has many races and languages. Children literally come from all over the world. We really haven't experienced any negative comments about or between our children. The school, teachers and parents have created an environment of acceptance and sharing in regards to the differences in our cultural backgrounds and they are celebrated...

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Great article! I'm so glad you mentioned "white privilege" and the myth of "colorblindness". The concept of white privilege is new to a lot of white people. But to most people of color it is old hat. Tim Wise is an excellent resource on white privilege. Check him out on youtube.

I think that it is unfair to have a study about racism that only involves white people. I hope that all people are aware that ALL races have racism. Blacks can be racist to whites, asians can be racist to hispanics and samoyans can be racist to eskimos. Why do racism studies always seem to involve only whites? I am white. I have had PLENTY of "other" people in the world be unfair to me. I dont automatically assume that it is racism. IT IS possible that they just dont care for me...

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