Talking to our children about racism
We wanted to put this page here to give you some resources, books and ideas of how to talk to your child about race and racism, as we feel it is our responsibility to engage the younger generation in these conversations, especially with what is happening around us, both here and in America right now.
It can be sensitive, messy and uncomfortable talking about race and racism but it’s a really important conversation to have. Research shows that even very young children are aware of racial differences, and children can learn harmful lessons about race when it is not discussed openly. Talking about differences can help children to recognise what is a discrimination and bias when they see it, instead of trying to walk through life 'colour blind'.
We also feel it is just as important to keep the conversation about race and racism going even when we’re not in a moment of international outrage, and to make sure all children see black people as heroes in a wide range of their own stories, and not just as victims of oppression.
There isn’t a quick tip, or a fool-proof way to discuss race and racism in all the complexities, but we have found some ways to approach these conversations. It is up to you as a family to feel out what is going to work for you and your children in the best way.
Below are some ideas and some book recommendations.
Talk about it
Dr Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, spent two years studying 30 affluent, white families in a Midwestern community, during which she found, “kids are learning and hearing about race regardless of whether parents are talking to them about it.”
But how? Dr. Erin Winkler, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says children notice skin color, just as they’d notice any other physical difference (i.e., glasses, long hair, or height). At the same time, “children are learning to categorize – shapes, colors, and people, too,” Winkler explains.
So, what ends up happening? “Not talking about race causes children to come to a lot of harmful, problematic and factually inaccurate conclusions,” Hagerman says. If we teach children that racism is simply a thing of the past, and that today we are all equal – and all equally capable of achieving the “American Dream” – children “may mistakenly assume that the unequal racial patterns they see are earned or justified,” Winkler says. 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.
Help your child navigate their own curiositiy
As any parent knows, it’s natural for children to ask questions. And as any parent who’s ever sported a new haircut knows, children don’t always ask questions as delicately as we’d hope. But we don’t want to discourage our children from learning more, so what can we do?
Take a moment to stop and ask yourself: What are they saying? What are they noticing? Ask them, “What makes you think that?” Their observation may be completely different than what you initially assumed. And the only way to truly know what your child meant after saying a “questionable” statement is by asking them to clarify or explain further.
When children begin growing curious about the world around them, they usually look to their parents to explain. But, what if you honestly don’t know what to say? It’s okay not to know. It can be natural to want to have all the answers, but sometimes the best answer is, ‘I’m not sure. But let’s look into it and learn about it together.’
Make it relatable
Since children notice patterns, they may mistakenly assign their own meaning to understand why racism exists. But, it’s not exactly easy to break down structural or institutional racism to a child, either. So, Winkler (see below) came up with her own method, which she calls the “spider web activity.”
In her piece, Here's How To Raise Race-Conscious Children, Winkler explains, “Give children balls of string and ask them to move around the room unraveling their balls of string to make a very tangled web. Once they are finished, ask them to untangle it. They will soon find that it is much more difficult to untangle the web than it was to create it in the first place. Then explain that working to make society fair is a lot like untangling this web.”
Racism can be difficult to explain to children, no matter who you are. Some parents may worry that introducing the concept of racism could be damaging, or scary, especially if that child could be the target of racism, or if the parent has experienced racism themselves. But, instead of staying silent, it’s crucial to empower children.
“Parents cannot responsibly teach children about racism and then say, ‘Well, sorry! That’s the way it is,’” Winkler says. Instead, Winkler advises parents to explain, “Even though there is unfairness, there have always been people working to change it, and we can be a part of it, too.” This way, you are showing your child racism is possible to untangle, and they can be a part of that solution.
Be an advocate
No matter who you are, or where you come from, it’s important to be an advocate for all people. “The focus is often on white America, but it should be about all cultures and how each of us can live in a way that is acceptable for everyone,” Coleman-Mortley says. But what does “being an advocate” actually look like? “With advocacy, you want to allow people to speak for themselves,” Coleman-Mortley says. That means passing the mic when it’s someone else’s turn to share their experience. “But, you’re also supporting them when they need assistance.”
When is it time to speak up, and when is it better to listen? If you have older children, and they’re knowingly saying something racist, that’s when it’s time to be super concrete. If you don’t intervene, or say something in the moment, that will signal to your child that you’re okay with that type of language or behavior.
What if the person saying something inappropriate isn’t your child? “You are never neutral when someone is being disrespectful or using bigoted language,” Wiseman says. If it’s a friend or relative who is saying something racist, you can tell them directly, “I don’t want that type of language around my children.” Then, talk to your children after. “This will empower your kids to use their own voice in appropriate ways.”
An important part of being an advocate is not just saying people are equal, but acting in a way that reflects that thinking. “It’s not good enough to say, ‘We are not racist.’ You are not off the hook,” Wiseman says. Instead, Lythcott-Haims says parents should pledge to be actively antiracist. But what does it actually mean to be antiracist?
Author Beverly Tatum explains the concept of racism versus “antiracism” in her book, Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race, by comparing it to a moving walkway in an airport. Those who are actively racist are walking fast on the conveyor belt, knowingly and willingly leveraging their privilege to get ahead at the expense of others. Those who are passively racist are standing still on the conveyor belt. Sure, they may not be exerting the same force as those who are actively racist, but they’re still happily moving forward at the expense of others. Then there are those who see the inequality and make a point to turn around, but Tatum emphasizes, “Unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively antiracist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.”
“The world is not getting any less diverse. People will never stop marrying each other, engaging with each other,” Coleman-Mortley says. The only way, she says, to really talk about race and racism, is by activating a growth mindset. Coleman-Mortley adds, “It’s really important for parents at home to impress upon their kids that humanity has to come first. We have to be okay with being vulnerable, okay with being wrong, and okay with challenging the things we’ve learned.” This is the path to continue moving forward – honestly talking about race and reckoning with our past – in the effort to one day overcome racism in the future.
(thank you to https://www.parenttoolkit.com/social-and-emotional-development/advice/social-awareness/how-to-talk-to-kids-about-race-and-racism for this article)
As you all know, we love reading at Stone and the importance of the impact this has on children.
Books can also be a wonderful tool for talking to your children about race and racism.
Ezra Jack Keats books about Peter.
Written and illustrated by Oge Mora
by Matthew A. Cherry. Illustrated by Vashti Harrison
by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by E.B. Lewis.
by Cynthia Levinson. Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton.
by Veronica Chambers. Illustrated by Paul Ryding.
written and illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham
Some other resources
Check out the following resources for further help and support along the way:
- From Colorlines: The Dos and Don’ts of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy
- From Safe Space Radio: Talking to White Kids About Race and Racism
- From the Center for Racial Justice in Education: Resources for Talking About Race, Racism and Racialized Violence With Kids
- From We Need Diverse Books: Resources for Race, Equity, Anti-Racism and Inclusion
- From the Anti-Defamation League: Children’s Books Addressing Race and Racism and Activities to Promote Social Justice
- From the Oakland Public Library: Resources for Talking to Kids About Racism and Justice