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How to Talk to Kids About Race

Experts offer 8 approaches to broaching the topic

Published on: July 09, 2019

kids with hands together

It is always a full house at my 9-year-old’s extra-curricular activity. After class, the children gather around the water cooler for conversation. I enjoy listening in on these exchanges, as they tend to be funny and creative.

This particular day, the children were waxing poetic on inter-dimensional travel. I was delighted.

“I can travel through space and time,” said one child. 

“I can travel multi-dimensions,” added another.

“There’s an alternate universe where everything is white,” added another.  “It’s a universe where there are only white walls, white things and white people...” he continued.

I quickly headed into the room to both interrupt and interject.

“Wow. I wouldn’t want to live in a place like that! Only white walls? And white people? That would be boring!” I said.

Perhaps it wasn’t the perfect thing to say, but it was what my instincts conjured up. I said it for the many children of color in the room, including my own, who would be excluded from such a universe.  I also said it for the white kid who imagined the all-white macrocosm, to provoke further thought. My hope was that he’d contemplate such a monotone creation and realize that even from an artistic standpoint, this alternate universe would lack the kind of depth, color and texture that makes a space interesting. I gathered my son and headed towards the exit, following other parents who couldn’t seem to have dispersed more quickly.

I asked my son how the conversation transpired. “Why did that boy say what he did?” I asked. 

“Because he is foolish,” he responded.

“He is a racist,” added a kid who stood nearby.

My son gave the experience more thought. He suggested that he no longer wished to attend class with the child.

“We don’t ever give up on our goals just because someone says something silly,” I explained.

“Okay,” he nodded.  But honestly, I didn’t quite know what to say.

I’m relieved to learn that I did the right thing, according to two of my favorite diversity experts: Dr. Kimberly Harden, professor in the Department of Communication at Seattle University and  CEO of Harden Consulting Group, an organizational and educational consultancy on diversity, equity, inclusion and systemic change; and Tracy Castro-Gill, an ethnic studies activist and organizer, founding member of the Seattle Education Association’s Center for Racial Equity, and Seattle Public Schools’ ethnic studies program manager. Here’s what I learned from them about talking to kids about race.

Ask a ton of questions

 “You did the exact right thing — asking probing questions is the best way to engage children in reflecting on their own developing paradigms. From a brain-based, cognitive-capacity approach, this is the best strategy to get at their understanding, instead of imposing a meaning they likely can’t quite reach,” says Castro-Gill. “Children are acutely aware of concepts like ‘fairness,’ and asking the right questions will almost always end up in a deeper understanding of how fairness and racial justice are related.” 

Start the conversation at home

An opening statement such as “In our family, we believe...” is a great conversation starter says Castro-Gill. Follow up with: “Do you agree or disagree, and why?” This will lead to more questions. “The more the child is responsible for the ‘cognitive load’ — or doing the work of critical thought — the more deeply they will understand the concept, be engaged in the conversation, and remember and reflect on the conversation,” she explains.

Don’t be afraid to talk to kids about race

I don’t have a problem discussing sensitive topics with my own kid, but when it comes to other people’s children, it’s easy to wonder if by engaging them you’d be overstepping a few boundaries. Dr. Harden says no.

“Rather than asking your son, you should have asked the other boy directly why he believes there is a ‘universe with only white things, white walls, and white people.’ He may not have been able to explain; he may have responded with ‘I don’t know,’ or he may have said, ‘My parents told me,’” suggests Dr. Harden.  “To further the discussion, you could have stated that it’s fun to interact with people who look, talk and act differently, because it allows us to learn about different cultures, be more cooperative and be more creative. Then ask the child to point out his friends and ask him about the points of connection that make the friendship work.”

It’s never too early to talk about race

I think that as parents, our instinct is to say, “They’re just kids.” But Castro-Gill points out that even babies can show biases.

“Research suggests that babies begin to identify phenotypic differences around the age of 6 months and begin to prefer faces and people who look most like their caretakers,” she explains. She suggests beginning conversations as soon as they’re able to talk. “If you’re waiting until they are asking the questions, it’s likely too late,” she says. 

The good news is that simply talking to children about race has proven to be a powerful tool against bias. A 2009 study by Bronson and Merryman found that having conversations with 5–7-years-olds about inter-racial friendships improved children’s racial attitudes in as little as a week. 

There is a false narrative that children are innocent, color-blind and believe in equality. Children are sponges and absorb what they are taught and what they observe. Unfortunately, not everything they see or learn is good.

Promptly correct insensitive statements

“If a parent hears their child using exclusionary or culturally insensitive language, they should immediately question the child to find out why the comment was made,” says Dr. Harden. “Parents should then explain the importance and value of diversity and inclusion. It does not have to be a grand-scale public discussion, but corrective action should be taken immediately, and follow-up discussions should be had at home. Not only is it important to correct the child’s behavior, but also explain why it was hurtful or how others may perceive the comment,” she adds.

Set a positive example

When I became a mother, my mom, a veteran educator, always reminded me that children keep a close eye on our behavior. That’s why it’s so important for the adults they trust and mimic to live as positive examples.

“First, adults must respect, value and celebrate difference and children will begin to duplicate our open-mindedness,” says Dr. Harden. “There is a false narrative that children are innocent, color-blind and believe in equality. Children are sponges and absorb what they are taught and what they observe. Unfortunately, not everything they see or learn is good,” explains Dr. Harden. “Children’s identity formation often occurs with the spaces and agendas of adult institutions. Oftentimes, exclusion and cultural insensitivity is learned behavior from parents.”

Read books that celebrate differences

Castro-Gil recommends parents, educators and librarians check out the Colorful Pages blog as a resource for selecting multicultural literature for young children and students.

Get diversity training

The reward for embracing multiculturalism and inclusiveness seems evident, but what if your child lives in a community where everyone looks the same?

“Diversity training is important for all kids, especially those who live in a homogeneous community, because it will help them develop the knowledge and skills to interact well with others,” advises Dr. Harden. “Diversity training can help children understand the impact of unconscious bias, provide strategies for them to acknowledge and overcome their own unconscious bias, and teach them that equality and equity are not the same thing. Diversity is not simply about race, ethnicity and culture; children must also be taught to value diverse opinions,” she adds.

“Children should also learn the difference between race [which is a social construct], ethnicity, culture and nationality,” Harden continues. Parents and educators can also teach children about diversity by giving accurate history lessons, listening to a variety of music and playing instruments from different cultures, eating (or at least trying) a variety of foods, watching diverse age-appropriate cartoons and TV shows, and attending cultural festivals. “Have follow-up discussions with the child about what they liked and disliked about these things and ask them to explain why they liked or disliked whatever it is.”

Though Castro-Gill exhorts the power of conversation, she cautions against relying solely on diversity training. “I don’t think ‘diversity’ training is enough. Oftentimes, I hear from students of color that lessons and conversations on ‘diversity’ make them feel marginalized further, because white teachers and students are talking about them and their experiences as if they aren’t present. It makes them feel more invisible, not less so,” notes Castro-Gill. “Research shows that white students who engage in ‘diversity’ training are given the false belief that if they know about diverse cultures they are not and cannot be racist. For this reason, conversations should be focused on anti-racist, pro-action topics.”

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