Conversations About Race: Why and How to Talk to Kids

My mom tells a story about my sister, a precociously verbal 3 year-old, sitting on a bus with her and gazing at a Black man in an adjacent seat. She piped up, “Hey Mom! What color do you think his [insert body part you least want your child to mention in public] is?” Although my mom was mortified, she managed to calmly reply, “The same color as the rest of him.” The man, who overheard, kindly told my mom, “It’s okay, lady. I’ve got kids, too.”

Let’s be real. Most of us would be hard-pressed to muster my mother’s composure in that situation, but it’s certainly something we should strive for. Many people, White folks in particular, are reluctant to talk about race. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing or offending someone, so we say nothing at all. Well-meaning parents avoid the topic of race in an attempt to harness the natural “color-blindness” of their children. We know that racism is learned, so many parents assume that if they just don’t talk about it, their kids won’t develop racist attitudes. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true.

Dr. Brigitte Vittrup of Texas Woman’s University has done a great deal of research that led her to the idea that “silence breeds prejudice.” When we shush children who bring up race (like my sister did), we send them the message that discussing race is taboo. While parents’ intent is to treat the topic with sensitivity, children are likely to interpret the silence to mean something is wrong with “these people.” Vittrup found that “children’s attitudes matched their perceptions of the parents’ attitudes” rather than actual attitudes of their parents regarding race. The result is children who are more biased than their parents.

In the absence of conversations about race, children are left to their own devices. A growing body of research shows that even very young children demonstrate what is known as “in-group” bias. In other words, they show preference for people of the groups to which they belong. Combine this with exposure to media that perpetuates racial stereotypes, and you have a recipe for racism. As kids get older, they also start to pick up on the inherent privileges of being White in this country and develop “high-status bias.” They infer that privilege is a result of a particular race being better than another, and thus show preference for that group. Perhaps the most well-known study documenting this phenomenon is the “Doll Test,” which in its many incarnations since the landmark 1947 Clark study, has consistently shown that White and Black children are biased toward lighter skin tones.

Clearly, remaining silent on the issue of race is counterproductive, but the same can be said for conversations about racism. In a series of tweets, radio host Alex Haynes described his interaction with a White family at a local restaurant. Watching news coverage of Philando Castile, a boy asked his parents why police kept killing Blacks. The parents were visibly uncomfortable and told him to keep quiet. Haynes approached the family and used it as an opportunity to educate them on the dangers of silence: “The more you keep quiet, the more it continues.”

Adults (particularly teachers and parents) are on the front lines. Let’s be proactive and make sure the children in our care receive positive messages about race from us before the negative ones seep in. Here are some tips for how to do that:

1)Read picture books: This is my go-to for difficult topics. Quality children’s literature is a great age-appropriate way to initiate conversations about race (you don’t have to wait for kids to bring it up!). Some examples are Shades of People, All The Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color, The Colors of Us, and The Skin You Live In. It’s a good thing to get kids talking about different skin tones. It helps them develop the language to name and appreciate differences, which is foundational to developing positive racial associations for themselves and others.

2)Understand where questions and comments come from: When a child brings up race (possibly in a way that’s uncomfortable for you), it’s important to remember that it’s developmentally appropriate. Children start categorizing people by race at a very young age. I remember a second grader who told her Black friend she was “just like [her] favorite chocolate bar.” She wasn’t being racist. Many times, children are simply curious and trying to make sense of their world. Other times, they’re simply repeating something they’ve heard and maybe even testing the waters to see how you react. Find out where they’re coming from, and then…

3)Respond matter-of-factly: Simple, to-the-point responses work best with children. If a child remarks that someone’s dark skin is dirty, simply explain that it’s just as clean as theirs; it’s just a different color. If they question an interracial couple, say that color doesn’t matter when you love someone. My little brother came home from kindergarten one day devastated because another child told him he couldn’t marry his best friend because she was Black. Mom invoked our neighbors, an interracial couple: “Honey, you know that isn’t true. Al and Ursula are married.” Just in case you weren’t sure that racism is learned, my brother responded, “Al’s Black?” Look at situations like these as teachable moments, opportunities to engage children in positive conversations about race.

4)Keep your emotions in check: Questions and comments like the examples above, especially when they happen in public, can be embarrassing. However, children are especially attuned to the emotions of their caregivers. Remember that if you react by shushing them, giggling uncomfortably, or responding angrily, you’re communicating to the child that there is something wrong with talking about race and eventhat there is something wrong with people of different races. Do your best to remain cool and collected. Practicing what you might say in different situations is a great way to prepare.

5)Don’t shy away from difficult conversations: We often want to protect children from all the bad things that are happening in the world. While we can certainly spare them the details, we cannot (nor should we) shelter them from everything. In a media-rich society, children are inevitably going to hear about racially-motivated violence. If we are going to raise a generation that stands up to discrimination and prejudice, we must be the voices that name these wrongs. Even very small children understand the concept of “unfairness.” They should hear you say that what happened was unjust and that you treat all people with respect, dignity, and love…and then see you live it.

I’m not saying these conversations are easy – far from it. But then I think about the discussions Black parents have to have with their children. I’ll never have to counsel my child about how to avoid being shot by a police officer or help her to hang her license and registration in the windshield. It’s the least I can do to talk to her about race. It’s the least all of us can do.