How To Talk To Kids About Race

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I am a white mom with white kids.

While I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this label, it is relevant now because I couldn’t possibly write a post about race without admitting my own deficiencies in understanding racial struggle from a minority perspective.

But, Topher Sanders gets it. He wrote a powerful piece about his kindergarten son for ProPublica titled, “‘Only White People,’ Said the Little Girl. On a playground, the messy birth of a 5-year-old’s ‘otherness.’” And what an eye-opener. For all those struggling to find words to talk to your own children, you are not alone. But the takeaway in Sanders’ piece is: Say something. Do something.

Sanders was at the playground with his son and their playgroup. The kids were having a blast, but one little girl changed the tone.

“Only white people,” she said as the young black boy tried to join his friends on the big spinner. The boy shrugged it off, but dad had a harder time. He recounts his internal struggle as he tried to decide whether to say something. He ultimately chose not to, but he set a clear path forward: Next time, he will say something.

Instead I will interrupt the children as they play, or study, or swim in the pool. I will do this for three reasons.

First, the children being groomed to be racist need to learn that acting on their racism has consequences, the least of which is that they will be met with resistance. The children have to see that people will stand up to them and call out their ignorance.

Second, all the white children in earshot also need to see that resistance and be taught that standing by silently is an endorsement.

And most important, I have to model for my children ways for them to confront racism without going all scorched earth. They need to see from their parents how to speak to ignorance, wield their dignity and push back against individual and systematic efforts to define, limit and exclude them.”

Powerful stuff, right? While the challenge of starting conversations about race in our homes becomes no less tricky, the need to do so is increasingly important given the current state of affairs in our cities, country and government. How do we talk to our kids about race in a way that is productive and truthful and not only celebrates diversity, but defends it?

In our house we do our best to create a culture of openness. It doesn’t matter to us if you are white, black, gay, straight, democrat, republican, muslim, Catholic—there is a seat at our table for you. But, modeling good behavior is only step one. We’ve stumbled through conversations about racism and gay marriage just like anyone else. So, if we are trying to raise our kids full of understanding, love and empathy, how exactly do we talk to our kids about race and racism?

We can’t say things like “in this house we are color blind,” because we aren’t. Kids notice things.

“Why is his skin darker than mine? Why do her eyes not open very much? I love her hair, it’s so curly. Why is she wearing that scarf on her head? Mom! Look at that lady… she’s sooooo tiny!”

You get my point. With each innocent question and embarrassing outburst—how we handle these early curiosities sets the tone.

Our hope is to teach our children to see the beauty in everyone. We tell them that people all over the world—including those in our schools and those on our street—look different and talk different and play different games and eat different food and pray different prayers. But, at the end of the day, people everywhere have the same purpose—to do good, to have courage, to be kind, to love one another.

I understand that this is a rose-colored, hopelessly optimistic view. But, to Sanders’ point, words matter. How we talk about race and diversity in our home matters. We want our children to always have open hearts and curious minds, and the words we say need to be a reflection of those values.

I understand, too, that my kids are little white girls. They have the luxury of wearing those rose-colored glasses because people that look like them aren’t getting shot for walking down the street in a hoodie.

The hard truth is the world will be undoubtedly harder for their black friends. But, how do we speak to that hard truth? Do we remove the rose-colored glasses and mar innocence to define that too-often-unspoken racial struggle?

My kids are only 5 and 2, but the conversations have already started. There are shootings on the news that need explaining. There are flags at half-mast that need to be talked about. There are questions about banners at our Dallas Police Department that have to be answered.

So, how do we talk to our children about race? How do we make sure that they stand up for what is right? To judge a person by their character, not their skin? How do we give them courage to back up a friend, or shut one up if necessary? How do we empower our children to be the ones who say “all are welcome here”?

The answer to this complex question is simple: just start talking.

According to The Leadership Conference, a leading human and civil rights coalition: “By speaking openly about similarities and differences between people, we can raise children whose lives are not constricted by fear. By joining with them to recognize and talk about discrimination, we will help our children become adults who work to end it.”

So how do we begin?

It’s OK To Make A Mistake

As Kimberly Seals Allers, the founder of MochaManual, an online destination for parents of color, told Live Science, “It’s OK to make a mistake. It may be a winding road, but better to be on the road than to be stuck on the side.”

The Leadership Conference also recommends taking a moment to clarify our own thoughts before we can be of help to our kids. They also say, “I don’t know” or “let me think about that for a while” are valid answers, because these are complicated conversations. It’s OK to not have all the answers; starting the dialogue is what is important.

Look for Teaching Moments

Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race,” gave Parenting some great tips on how to begin.

“If your child comments on different skin colors, that’s an easy in. Children’s books that discuss race are also a gentle introduction. Or, you can look for subtle openings in everyday life.

“I was cooking with my 3-year-old,” says Dr. Tatum. “We used the last white egg in the carton, and then took out another carton of eggs, this time brown eggs.  My son noted that the eggs were different in color. ‘Yes,’ I said, as we cracked both eggs open, ‘But look—they are the same inside.  Just like people, they come in different shades, but they are the same on the inside.'”

Listen, Then Ask Questions

Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a family physician and parenting expert in Pittsburgh, told LiveScience the best thing to do is just listen to your children, and then ask questions.

“Any time you hear something that surprises you from a child, you should ask more questions,” she said. These questions could be, “‘What experiences have you had that gave you that idea?’ or ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘Can you tell me more about that?’”

Cut Out Sweeping Generalizations

Gilboa says parents can also push back against racism in broader ways. One idea is to stop using generalizations—about anything—when talking to kids.

“How many times do teachers or parents say, “Girls are this or boys are this or 6-year-olds are this?'” Gilboa said. “We do it a lot. [And] when we hear other people do it in front of our kids, we have to say, ‘I wonder if that’s true. … Do you think that’s probably true?'”

By challenging these ideas, we are helping our kids to think of people as individuals.

Racism Is Everybody’s Business

A final, and perhaps most important, step parents can take to stop racism is to encourage their kids to speak up—and to speak up ourselves as well.

Like Sanders said, “Children have to see that people will stand up to them and call out their ignorance.”

Allers reiterated this point to LiveScience. “We have to teach our children that this is everybody’s business,” she said.