How Do You Talk to Kids About Race? This Guide Can Help
Too often the topic of race is reduced to encouraging our children to ignore the racial differences around them, with the idea that this will result in creating a "colorblind" child who is more inclusive in her ability to see beyond color. In order to promote inclusivity, we would do better to give our children a basic understanding about skin color differences and the value that being in a diverse community has for all of us. In this sense, becoming colorblind is not the ultimate goal. The real objective is recognizing, appreciating, and understanding differences within the larger context of building inclusive communities.
So how do we actually talk about race with kids? I've created a guide that taps my perspective of being a white kindergarten teacher and mother of two bi-racial daughters, having thought a lot about how to lead developmentally appropriate conversations about race with my students and my children, and having thought about what it means to be white in the context of talking about race. I've also had many conversations with other white parents who have voiced their questions about what is developmentally appropriate to talk about with young children—ages 3 to 8-years-old—around topics of race and racism.
Three to Four-Year-Olds
At this age, children are full of curiosity about the world around them as they try to make sense of new and exciting environments, like school. What a great time to begin a conversation about race and skin color! Read picture books that celebrate all the different shades we come in. Some of my favorites are: The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler, All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka, and Skin Again by bell hooks.
Tell your child that being surrounded by different skin tones makes the world a richer, more beautiful, and interesting place! A fun activity around skin color is to gather together various shades of paint, including different browns, white, peach, etc. and mix paints together to find your child's—and your—skin tone. You can use this paint to make artwork together. Most importantly, celebrate the diversity of skin tones in your own family, in your larger community, and the world while stressing the importance of not using these differences to put each other down.
This is also the time to give children language they can use to be inclusive with one another. For example, I often observe white Kindergarten students being fascinated with the hair of African American students, especially girls, and wanting to touch their hair. In my class, we talked about the importance of giving each other personal space. We also read books about different hair types, in order to gain a better understanding of different hair types and why it’s important to appreciate these differences. One good one is Hair Dance by Dinah Johnson. Another great resource for reinforcing the beauty of all different types of hair is the Sesame Street video, I Love My Hair:
Five to Six-Year Olds
At this age, children begin to voice their questions about why we are the way we are and how we got the skin colors we have. Read books to your child that give a more scientific explanation of melanin and where skin colors come from. The best one I've found for this age group is All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger.
Encourage your child to add skin color to their drawings of people and especially on their own self-portraits. You can purchase skin color pencils and crayons at most art stores. The attention paid to the idea that everyone has a skin color, not only people of color, will work to build your child’s understanding of race and the importance of being inclusive. It will also work against any tendency white children have to view their skin as "colorless," which can be dangerous in the context of our shared history around racism, where being white was often seen as being just "American"—or as Toni Morrison writes in Jazz, "In this country American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate."
In order to help them recognize situations of bias and racism when they occur, it is also important to talk explicitly with your child about racism. Your five or six-year-old will probably learn about the story of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement this year if she doesn't know about it already. This is an important time to stress the dangers of excluding others because of race. Use puppets to act out scenarios of exclusion around skin color and engage your child as a problem solver to come up with inclusive solutions. Connect the story of Dr. King to someone your child knows who works to stand up for a community and make positive change. This will help your child make sense of the story and of the larger themes around social justice and working toward peaceful change.
Seven to Eight-Year-Olds
At this age, children should have a basic understanding of where skin color comes from, how to be inclusive with one another, and how to recognize bias or racism when they see it. If they don’t have this basic understanding, go back to the section on three to four-year-olds and start there! It's okay to start at square one in the conversation about race, even with an older child. Think of it as how you might prepare your child for higher math by helping them gain a basic understanding about numbers. There’s no shame in "skilling up" in any important learning area, whether it be math or learning about race, racism, and empathy.
Help your child find books to read that feature characters of all different races—and not just books that tell stories around racism, though those are important. It is also critical that your child sees characters of all races in "every day" books that experience relatable problems and situations. This is especially important as children get older and begin to pay attention to, and receive more, messages about people of color in TV shows, advertisements and movies that are not always positive or affirming.
In the conversation about race with slightly older children, we can give more strategies around how to be anti-racists. Teach your child about people from the Civil Rights Movement of all different races and genders, including people like Bob Moses, Myles Horton, Diane Nash, and Fannie Lou Hamer. Find people in your own family or community who work to solve problems. Talk about how change happens when many people work together to fight against injustices. Ask your child what problems they see in their community and find ways to take action together.
Continue to create space for your child to ask their growing questions about race and racism. And if you don’t know the answers or how to respond, it's okay to say, “I need to think about that and get back to you." Then do some reading to increase your own knowledge. Books that have helped me as I explore these topics include White Like Me by Tim Wise, Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum, and Nurture Shock by Po Bronson. No matter what, keep having the conversation.
Click here to add reading Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria to your GOOD "to-do" list.
Madeleine Rogin teaches kindergarten and dance at Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito, California and serves as the diversity and inclusion representative for her school.
A version of this post originally appeared at Inculture Parent
Two friends image via Shutterstock