How to Teach Your Kids About Racism

Discomfort is a powerful tool, and compassion can be a great teacher. Are you a well-meaning parent who wants to teach your kids about racism and racial injustice?

Understandably, you may not know how to talk to them.  As a rule, preventing prejudice and racial bias starts with White parents being committed to having difficult conversations with their kids about racism. Here are tips for starting the process, along with great resources.

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Talk, Teach and Tolerance

“Not talking about race causes children to come to a lot of harmful, problematic, and factually inaccurate conclusions,” says Dr. Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. 

Research shows that children often come to their own conclusions. The problem is, their developing ideas may not be aligned with your beliefs. In order for your White kids to not be racist against Black people, parents first need to talk about it with the whole family.

Furthermore, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns that “racism is a public health issue and the impact of racism is detrimental to child and adolescent health.” The AAP explains that racism is a “socially transmitted disease.” How do parents stop this devastating disease of White Supremacy from spreading? First, it starts with concrete steps in teaching our children.

It’s Never Too Early to Teach Kids About Racism

Being part of the solution includes exposing your children to different cultures. It’s never too early to teach your kids about the importance of racial equality through picture books showing diversity. In fact, you can begin in the infant years through age-appropriate board books showing babies from different races in a positive light. Most importantly, parents must make an active decision to diversify their family life.

Although the stress of COVID-19 has limited many families from having play dates, you can choose to take this time to check out kid-friendly books on racial equality and kindness or watching diverse movies. In fact, teaching your kids about the importance of standing up against anti-racist beliefs from an early age is part of dismantling systemic racism.

Kids and Racism: They are Not Color Blind

White parents teaching their kids to be racially “color blind” is ineffective. According to research, teaching kids to be color blind sets them up to not see the important differences in economic and racial bias. “This can cause more harm,” explains Amber Coleman-Mortley, Parent Toolkit expert and Director of Social Engagement for iCivics. In fact, denying differences can foster more bias. In addition, ignoring racial differences means losing an opportunity to celebrate and appreciate differences.

When young children point to other races and ask about skin color, White parents shouldn’t “shush” them. Instead, White parents can effectively use this as a conversation opener to discuss equality and racial bias. Furthermore, parents can stress that although all humans are equal, they aren’t always treated equally in society. In addition, this is a teaching moment to discuss the importance of treating everyone with dignity and respect.

“Kids are not color blind to race any more than adults are. They notice racial differences as early as age 3. And they also notice racial differences in the company you keep, the books you have, the media you consume, and the places you visit,” says Michelle Sharpe Silverthorn, Diversity Consultant, TEDx Speaker, and Founder and CEO of Inclusion Nation. Moreover, she explains, “Kids will learn much more from what you do than what you say.”

FamilyApp co-founder Laura Kraus agrees that making an effort to talk with kids about racism and inclusion starts with their parents’ example. “Kids are better than anyone at understanding authenticity,” she says, “and if I’m not living a life that’s embracing others or only around people who look like me, what kind of message does that send to my children?”

Racism is a Public Health Issue

Kids who suffer discrimination because of their skin color are often victims of long term trauma. In addition, the perpetrators of racism can also suffer from detrimental mental health outcomes. Notably, carrying rage and hateful emotions can increase chronic stress and inflammation in the body.

According to Harvard researchers, the effects of racism on Black children can be lifelong and hamper their future success. Though many White families do not consider themselves to be discriminatory, if you don’t talk to your children about racism from an early age, they could become part of the problem.

Harvard researchers state that racism is a disease. For example, racism and its effects can lead to chronic stress for children. It is important to note that chronic stress leads to actual changes in hormones that cause inflammation in the body, a marker of chronic disease.

Being part of the solution of ending White Supremacy includes exposing your children to different cultures and diversifying their life beyond only playing with White children. Silverthorn provides a series of questions to see if you are modeling racial inclusion and diversity.

Moms of Color Speak Out About Kids and Racism

A grim statistic states that 1 in 3 black males born in the U.S. today will go to prison in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 6 Latino males and 1 in 17 white American males. Furthermore, according to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, “racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested.” Understandably, these numbers are enough to make any mom of a Black child terrified of the inequity in the justice system.An essential step in countering racism in your life is by listening to the voices of people of color. Learning about the pain and views of people with direct experience of racism will begin to open your children’s mind and your own. One brave mother shares her story so that others might be saved from future pain.”I want to protect my kids. I want you to help protect them. I never want them to feel this pain. I never want them to suffer.” says Angelica Talan, Socialite, Blogger, and Social Media Influencer. She recounts her personal experience of racism as a child for Arlington Magazine. Opening up the race dialogue early on can be lifesaving.

paula fitzgerland talk to kids about racism
Paula Fitzgerald with her 3 kids

“Kindness is taught through modeling and encouragement. Proactive inclusion is important to help stop racial prejudice,” says Paula Fitzgerald, Executive Director of Ayuda and a Latina mother of three.

Every parent wants to keep their children safe. However, it takes a deliberate call to action of kindness and inclusion to keep black children safe from other children who may have an ill-conceived bias against them. By educating all children on the horrific effects of racism early on, this preventative measure can literally save future lives from a lifetime of emotional and physical scars.

Kids and Racism: Adding Diversity to the PTA

White parents can foster racial healing by ensuring their Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at their school actively invites and welcomes families of color to leadership roles. It’s important to note that social segregation can occur when White families create an unwelcoming environment in a school setting. Black children can feel like outsiders if they don’t see African-American families integrated into visible roles in the community.

The PTA at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy (LCTA) in Alexandria, Virginia is launching a 360 Inclusion Committee to ensure that all families, regardless of their race, feel welcomed at the school. If anti-racist initiatives are not enacted at the school level, Black children may not feel integrated.

The good news is, “the 360 Inclusion Committee has motivated families of all backgrounds to join the PTA to address cultural competence and equity at the school,” says April Bryant, the Alexandria mom who created this inclusive PTA committee. Prior to the launch of this program, non-White parents may have felt less inclined to volunteer because of a lack of diversity and pro-active inclusion.

A Black Firefighter Shares Hope

Capt. Patrick Evans with a student

Moms aren’t the only ones fostering change. There are real heroes in the community who save lives every day, like Captain Patrick Evans, a firefighter for the City of Alexandria’s Fire Department and proud father of two. As a community leader and part of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF), an organization that supports black firefighter professionals, Evans is optimistic about the future.

“It’s funny how everyone is saying 2020 is the worst year ever,” says Capt. Patrick Evans. “However, the Kobe Bryant death had people re-evaluating their family values. Father and daughter relationships improved… COVID-19 made us all slow down and re-evaluate what’s really important. We are spending more family time together. The George Floyd incident is in the midst of perfect timing to effectively promote change.”

To be part of the narrative in stopping systemic racism, here are a few simple tips.

Racial Bias Conversation Tips

Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) Office of Alternative Programs & Equity in Virginia offers suggestions on how parents of school-age kids can speak about race. In addition, ACPS suggests the following:

  • Reflect on your experiences and bias.
  • Educate yourself and be open with your kids about your learning.
  • Let go of the “color-blindness” and ensure your kids are aware of race and social justice.
  • Challenge stereotypical practices in age-appropriate ways.
  • Be proactive (work with your local PTA on inclusion).
  • Encourage your school community to support and infuse equity and fairness into the pedagogy and curriculum.

Start Talking with your Kids Today

Creating an environment where White children respect, appreciate, and include Black children starts with a conversation. Though it may be difficult to have these discussions, it is necessary to ensure the safety of all children.

It might begin with something as simple as buying a black doll or a toddler board book. The most important thing is that it starts with you.

Suggested Resources to Educate Your Kids About Racism

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