How to Talk to Kids About Racism
Yesterday, the day when many people chose to be silent in solidarity and to amplify Black voices, I spoke out. It’s not that I don’t support Black voices, I absolutely do. I will be sharing Black voices on my social media and blog now and moving forward. However, as a white mom to bi-racial children, I feel I must be vocal. My kids’ futures depend on it. After I posted yesterday, many people contacted me to talk about race and racism. Some thanked me for speaking out and sharing my experience, and many asked important questions about what they can do. The question I got the most often was, how do I talk to my kids about racism? We must learn how to talk to kids about racism, or we will never overcome racism in this country. So here goes.
Talking about race is hard. It’s hard when you do not experience racism in your life. It’s hard when you’re not surrounded by people who are culturally different from you. Believe me, I do understand. I’m from Green Bay, WI. As a child, I can count on one hand how many people of color I knew. Based solely on where I lived, I had many preconceptions and held many stereotypes about other races, I can distinctly remember as a teenager, fearing Black people, because that is what the media showed me. I can remember locking my doors as Black people would walk near me. It was instinctual. Media told me Black people were dangerous and bad, so I feared them. I can tell you for certain I didn’t learn this from my parents, it was larger than that. It was so ingrained within society. That is systemic racism at work.
It is hard for me to admit that I was raised to believe Black people are different than me and that I should fear them, but I hope my honesty shows you something. That even a woman who chose to marry a Black man, who chose a career studying educational injustice for Black people, who ultimately gave birth to bi-racial African American children, still has struggled to overcome systemic racism in my own life and change my own racist worldview. I am telling you all of this for an important reason. In order to dismantle the racist system in which we live, we must talk about race and racism.
My Kids’ Reaction to George Floyd’s Murder
When I told my kids about George Floyd’s murder, the first thing my daughter asked me was, “does that mean daddy is going to be killed by police?” The next thing my son asked was, “Does that mean I’m going to die too?”
At that moment, my heart literally broke as tears streamed down my face. No parent should ever have to talk to their kids about this. No parent should have to explain that just because their skin is brown, they are going to live a much harder life. They will not have the same life chances as their white friends (or their mother and their extended family), simply because of their skin color.
Yesterday, my son asked me, “mom, why are you always on your phone?” This is not a new thing. I am on my phone a lot. But normally, I find a better balance. I try to put it down so I can concentrate on quality time with my kids. The last week, that’s felt nearly impossible. I am on social media nonstop. I have been fielding questions and talking to other influencers. I’m trying to not only share my voice to fight for #BlackLivesMatter but also to ensure I am showing the actions I am taking. Part of that is sharing my story.
One question I’ve received several times over the last few days is, how to talk to kids about racism. This is not a simple question with a straightforward answer. It’s something I’m struggling with myself, so I thought I’d attempt to share some ideas for how to start these conversations in your home.
How to Talk to Kids About Racism
Start with Simple Terms
There is no one right way to start conversations about race and racism in your home. The way I’ve talked about it with my kids is to try to explain systemic racism in the simplest terms. I told them that in America, Black people (and other ethnic minorities), are treated differently based on their skin color. I explained to them that some people might not like them because of their skin color. My children are 6 and 7. At their young age, their first response is, “that’s not nice. That’s not fair.” I told them I agreed.
I told them over and over that they are just as special, smart, and important as every other person. However, some people just might not treat them nicely because they are Black. I reiterated that those beliefs are wrong and that their skin color is perfect. They are just as important as everyone else.
Do Not Take A “Colorblind” Approach
Kids begin to see skin color very young. They don’t associate skin color with bad or good, better or worse (initially), but they do see it. My daughter was 4 the first time she talked to me about the fact that she preferred my skin color. You may imagine my utter shock and horror that someone so young could already have been told (or interpreted) her skin color was bad. I spent a lot of time with her explaining that there actually is no such thing as “white or black”. These labels have been created within society to create power dynamics. This concept can be confusing for kids who are young, but it doesn’t hurt to at least start talking about it. Here is an article about the history of race and the construction of race in America.
Even if you’re not sure how to talk about skin color and race, please don’t say “skin color doesn’t matter” because it does. In society, it does. By not acknowledging Black people’s skin color, you’re actually discrediting their lived experiences and their salient identity. You can absolutely say that you love all people regardless of their skin color, but don’t say “I don’t see color”. Believe it or not, having a colorblind ideology is actually racist.
Talk About Love & Kindness
Especially with younger kids, start with talking about love and kindness. My kids learned about being kind to their friends at school as young as ages 3 or 4, so it is a concept they understand from a very early age. By talking to your kids using terms they understand, it will be a whole lot easier. Tell them that not all people in our country are treated the same, and explain why that is wrong. Tell them that all people should be treated with kindness and love regardless of how they look. This love and kindness approach is inclusive and also can be used to talk about people with disabilities and people of other religions, cultures, races, etc.
It s important that you start to talk to your kids about their privilege from a young age. Although my kids are bi-racial, they also have two highly educated parents and live in a fairly affluent area. They have access to healthcare, good schools, and extracurricular activities. My kids are privileged compared to many other people in society, so I talk to them about it. I explain to them how lucky they are to have a house, food, and all of the opportunities they’ve gotten because of my blog (such as many trips to places like Disneyland, free toys, and even international travel).
You can talk about privilege in other ways too. One way I’ve done so is by talking to my kids about homelessness. We’ve witnessed the homeless camps strewn around LA. I’ve explained to them just how lucky they are. So yes, even Black people can have privileges relative to other people in society.
However, Black people also are affected, daily, by systemic racism. As a white woman, I do not experience that same discrimination. If you are white, you should talk to your kids about white privilege. If you are white, you have privilege. Period. If you are white and low-income, you still have some privileges that other races do not. I know that poor white people also struggle with a lot of the same issues that poor Black families do. However, you still have privilege because you are white. If you don’t fear for your life when a cop pulls you over, you have privilege. If you have never experienced someone following you in a store because of your skin color, you have privilege.
These are just a couple of examples of experiences Black people face every day, simply because of their skin color. The fact that white people don’t fear for their lives or worry about how they have to act in the world (what they wear, how they talk, how they style their hair), that is what white privilege means.
Expose Them to Other Cultures
A lot of the reason for racism is simply a lack of understanding and experience. If you grow up in a predominantly white neighborhood, you never interact with people who are different than yourself, it is not surprising that you start to internalize the media stereotypes of Black and brown people. I have personal experience with this because I did grow up in a majority white community. Many people I grew up with were outwardly racist. In high school, I even remember guys in my class rocking the confederate flag (yes really, in Green Bay, WI). But here’s the thing. I don’t actually think those people started out with hate in their hearts for Black people. Personally, I think they grew to have those views because the media and their older relatives told them to. I don’t think they ever questioned those worldviews because they had no reason to.
So, seek out opportunities to interact with people who have different cultural beliefs or experiences than you. Find ways to expose your children to people who live very different lives. You could do this by including more diversity in your children’s books (here’s one link I found, although I have not read all of these books). You could do this by watching documentaries about other cultures. Or you could seek out other ways to support other communities, such as volunteering. You could also get your kids involved by raising money to donate to relevant charities.
This blog post is not all-encompassing or a perfect guide to talking about race and racism with kids, because there is no right answer. What I can say is that what is important is to start early, talk about it often, and always start with love and kindness for all people as the overarching message.
If you’re looking for other resources, here are some to start.
Age-by-Age Guide to Discussing Racism
Many Resources for Talking About Race and Racism
A Parents’ Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice
Racism & Violence: How to Help Kids Handle the News
Looking for more stories about race or how to talk to kids about racism? Here is a story about how to be an ally for #BlackLivesMatter. Here’s a story about what MLK Day means to me. Also, here is a story about my thoughts on visiting the Apartheid Museum.