How To Talk To Kids About Race

It's important that we as parents, set a positive example about inclusion for all.

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?