5 Tips for Teaching Kids About Racism
Growing up in Memphis, a highly segregated city, my parents talked to my brother and I often about race and racism. As a white Southern couple raising kids in the 1980s, it would have been easy for them to let the tide of white racism and privilege carry us through our days, without raising any questions.
I’m very glad that my parents resisted that. (This isn’t to say that we didn’t benefit from all kinds of privilege because of our race and our class. Nor am I claiming that members of my family, including me, haven’t missed many opportunities to be bolder in our work against racism.)
But it did mean that I grew up with any illusions that we could or should be colorblind. I wasn’t given the message that racism was a thing of the past. I knew because of incidents like the time I saw my mild-mannered mother argued with an elderly church member – in the sanctuary no less – because he had invited my brother to join a segregated group that saw themselves as an alternative to the Boy Scouts.
I’m thankful that my parents addressed racism with us head on and often. I’m trying to do the same with our 5 year old. We do things like talk (in age appropriate ways) about painful things happening in our community. We read children’s books about social justice and human rights. I read lots of articles by experts who write about race and parenting who’ve helped me in that task.
I thought they could help you as well. Today, I’m sharing their top tips for raising kids who will resist racism and hatred.
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Parenting Experts’ Top Tips for Teaching Children About Racism
Andrew Grant-Thomas, Embrace Race
Be sure your kids know there’s nothing “natural” about racial inequality and injustice.
Kids are amazing at noticing patterns. Who lives in the “nice” neighborhoods versus the “bad” ones. Who gets “in trouble” most often at school. Who the “smart” kids are and aren’t.
These patterns, and many other, are too often racialized. It’s crucial to help our kids understand that there’s nothing natural or inevitable about these patterns; that they are grounded in history, bias, and policy choices; and that, together, we have the power to create new and much healthier patterns of being together in community.
Talk to your kid(s) about some of the ways that the struggle for racial fairness and injustice is happening right now and agree on two or three specific ways your family can contribute to that struggle.
Sachi Feris, Raising Race Conscious Children
One thing parents can do to resist racism and hate is to be race conscious with young children–meaning to name race explicitly (including naming Whiteness) in every day conversations.
One example of this is how I first introduced my daughter to a favorite book from my childhood Too Many Mittens, published in 1958. As I read it, I would comment now and again “It’s interesting that all the people in this book have pale skin that we call White. This doesn’t look like where we live, in Brooklyn, where there are people with all different shades of skin.”
Being race conscious shifts from a “color blind” paradigm which says “race doesn’t matter” and instead, provides young children with the vocabulary and confidence to talk about race–so that when instances of systemic racism arise, children (and the adults who parent them!) already have the building blocks necessary to talk about racial justice and move conversations about race towards taking action for change.
Lucretia Berry, Brownicity
Research shows that by age seven, children can accurately reflect social status bias. They will make choices or judgments based on who they perceive as having more or less power or privilege. Research shows that white children, even when told that “people are all the same,” demonstrate stronger racial biases than children of other groups.
Parents should be intentional about intercepting the racial hierarchy messaging (where whites are at the top and everyone else has less value). Children receive this messaging from a number of socializing agents like tv, books, ethnically segregated communities, school, church, etc.
Parents can do this by openly showing an appreciation and respect for ethnic diversity in communities and media where white people are not the central players or characters. Open expression by parents can lead to more opportunities to educate children on race issues in a loving way and equip them to resist the fear/hate response that results from lack of knowledge and understanding.
If you are a parent who feels like you don’t know how to do this, please feel free to seek assistance. Your child will appreciate your determination to learn.
Diedre Anthony, Are Those Your Kids?
Don’t be afraid to tackle tough topics (like race) with your kids. Set the example & talk with them in age appropriate terms.
Talk to them about love vs. hate. Lead with your actions more than your words. If you struggle with how to address race issues, talk it over with a friend of color to get the conversation started. You can also use these questions to check yourself for cultural competency. There’s no excuse for not having conversations with your kids.
In “The Parents’ Phrase Book,” (yes, I’m the kind of guy that quotes himself, apparently) I open the chapter on racism and bigotry with the story of “South Pacific” by Rodgers and Hammerstein—specifically the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”—the 1949 musical that outraged white American audiences by suggesting racism is “not born in you, it happens after you are born.” In fact, the state of Georgia, which was still segregated at the time, introduced a bill to outlaw such sentiment as a direct threat to the American way of life. Whatever that is.
Honestly, I don’t think I know, but I’m trying to find out. As a college-educated, white, middle-class, cisgender male I have more privilege than functioning hair follicles, and as such my place in the world has been affected greatly by the easy comfort of a system built in my honor—a system that my sons were welcomed into, no questions asked.
We have questions.
My journey to make the world a better place, myself a better person, is equal parts self-discovery and tour guide. I am determined that my boys grow up with a wider lens on the world than I did, sowing seeds of empathy and understanding in their fertile minds, careful to acknowledge tolerance as nothing more than the hiding of hate, and working instead on honest acceptance and equality.
The fact is, children are constantly experiencing all kinds of things depicting people different than themselves, many of them outside our control or influence, but it is our responsibility as parents to make sure they have the tools to process that input with compassion and varying degrees of perspective. Yes, our kids have got to be carefully taught, and while we may rise to the role of teacher, we can not forget that we are also the lesson.