Talking about Race and Racism with Young Children
By Ellie Springer
Many of us have been taught that talking about race is rude or inappropriate. But if we teach our children that, by shushing them if they point out someone's different skin tone or pretending that we don't see race, we won't be doing what we can to end racism.
So how do you talk with young kids about race? How do you raise children to be race-conscious and unbiased?
**Please note: I am white, and many of the tips I am including here are for white parents with white children. Parents of color, or parents with children of color, might have some different or additional conversations. I have focused on white families, because I do not think it is appropriate for me to speak for people of color. I have included a couple pieces written by people of color to share their perspective, and I will continue to look for more. This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas, books, or articles, and I am still learning about these topics.**
From the reading I have done, the most common advice experts give is:
- Reflect on your own feelings and biases about race. Children learn the most from what they see us do, so be aware of how you react in encounters with people who look different than you and of the people you choose to spend time with.
- Talk with your kids about race. Ask questions about what they know and what they think, and be honest and open when you answer their questions. Be factual but age appropriate.
- Expose your children to a wide variety of people, in real life, and/or in books, toys, and media.
- Be prepared to be uncomfortable. This is tough stuff!
Here are some concrete examples of things you can say to your children, based on age:
- Your child may notice the skin color of a person or toy, "Why is her skin so brown?" That can make us feel embarrassed, especially if other adults hear it. But it's okay for your child to notice difference--aren't we always asking them what color something is? So, you can say something like, "Yes, she has darker skin than you do. Different people have different skin colors." With older children, add, "Humans have something called melanin in their skin, and if you have more of it, your skin is darker. We all have different amounts of melanin in our bodies." Compare your skin tone to your child's and others in your family. Sometimes people in the same family have similar skin tones, and sometimes they have different colored skin. If your child has darker skin, affirm for them that their skin is beautiful and that they are just right the way they are.
- Some children will say something about preferring certain toys or friends because of the way they look. This can be very upsetting, because you might feel your child has already absorbed some racist ideas. But this is common and doesn't mean your child is "a racist." Preschool-aged children are learning to categorize things and people, and they often think that like should go with like: all the blocks go on one shelf, all the dolls go on another; therefore, white children go together and brown children go together. You can actively counter these ideas by telling your child that anyone can play with anyone, no matter their skin color, and remind them of people they know who look different than they do whom they like. Point out that people have different eye and skin colors, people are different heights, some people wear glasses or hearing aids, and none of those things make on person better or worse than any other. Try not to have a big reaction, because this will reinforce the idea that race or skin color is taboo and something we shouldn't talk about.
- With older preschool-aged children, you can tell them that our country has a history of some people being treated unfairly because of their skin color, and we (if you and they are white) have to be very careful that we don't do that, as it really hurts people. As they grow, talk with them about the history of our country as it relates to race: Native people, Africans brought here as slaves, immigrants from Asia and South America. This is important history for all of us to know and understand if we are to understand current attitudes about race in the United States.
- You should be careful about assigning a racial identity to someone without knowing how they identify themselves, but you can tell your children that some people who have dark skin are called African-American or black, and some people who have light skin and dark hair and eyes are called Asian-American. Tell them that is because their ancestors (their great-great-grandparents) originally came from a part of the world called Africa or Asia.
- If you know people who are immigrants and were born in another country, tell your child those facts, "Her mom and dad were born in a place called India, and they moved here to the U.S. Many people in India have brown skin. Their family speaks another language with each other, and they also know how to speak English. Isn't that cool that they can say the same thing in different ways?"
- I read a blog post where someone pointed out that in the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, the colors of the humans are not noted, whereas the colors of the animals are. So she said she reads, "I see a white teacher looking at me" and points out the many different skin colors of the children. That's a great way to talk about skin color in a neutral, matter-of-fact way.
- When talking about protests, you can tell a 5-year-old, "A police officer used his body to hurt someone (or kill someone), and many people believe he did that because the man was black. Most police officers know that is wrong, and they wouldn't do that. These people are angry that it happened, and they are standing here to say that it is wrong and shouldn't happen." With a 2-year-old, you could say, "Sometimes people are unkind to other people because they have a different skin color. We know that's not okay, and we have to treat everyone with kindness. These people are here to say that we should all be safe, no matter what color our skin is." With an infant, just point out that someone has dark skin, and she has light skin.
Here are some articles I found that give more good tips:
https://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/talking-with-children-about-racism-police-brutality-and-protests (This blog post gives specific language you can use with your children.)
A list of FAQs in early childhood from the Anti-Defamation League: https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/question-corner
Embrace Race is a great site for learning how to talk with children of all backgrounds about race. They have webinars, articles, and tips for choosing books with diverse characters. Here are their 10 tips for talking with all children about race: https://www.embracerace.org/resources/teaching-and-talking-to-kids
This is one blog post from a black mother on how she cares for her children: https://www.mother.ly/news/racism-and-mental-health-african-american-kids
Here is a post about how to talk with Asian-American children about race and stereotypes: https://www.emkpress.com/pdffiles/racism.pdf
Some things you can do starting at birth to help raise race-conscious and unbiased children:
- Choose dolls and other people toys with different skin tones, regardless of your child's skin tone.
- Talk explicitly and in positive terms about people's skin tones--people you see in person, and in books and on screen, even if their race is not the focus of the story.
- Choose books, movies, and television with people of different races in them, but not only books about racism and prejudice. Choose stories with characters of color that are not about race or prejudice, and talk about those characters just the way you would about a white character. "She loves horses, just like you." "He doesn't want his sister to knock over his tower." Be careful to avoid stories that exploit stereotypes--a LOT of old books and movies (and some not so old ones) have those stereotypes all through them--and if you do see stereotypes in your child's movies or books, call it out and talk with them about it. "This book shows a Native person wearing feathers and calls him an Indian. Native people don't always wear feathers; that's a stereotype. Native and Indigenous people wear clothes just like us, and many of them don't like to be called Indians."
Tip sheet for examining the media your children consume for stereotypes (you could do some of these things with older children, but for younger ones, these are tips mainly for adults): https://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/tipsheet/TipSheet_TalkingKidsRacialStereotypes.pdf
Books for babies and toddlers with children of color in them:
- Any books with photographs of babies of many races are great. Some examples: Global Babies (series); Smile! (Baby Faces series); My Face Book; Making Faces
- Whose Toes are Those?
- Everywhere Babies
- Peekaboo Morning
- Please, Baby, Please
- Baby Dance
- One Love and Every Little Thing (based on Bob Marley songs)
Books for preschoolers about skin color, race, difference:
- I Am Brown
- Same, Same but Different
- Shades of People; All Kinds of People, both books with photos of children by Shelley Rotner
- It's Okay to Be Different, Todd Parr
- Mixed: A Colorful Story
- A series of books with photographs of children all over the world by Ann Morris includes: Bread, Bread, Bread, and Houses and Homes
- Little Humans, a book from the Humans of New York author
Books for preschoolers that have characters of color but are not about race:
- Saturday, Oge Mora
- Yesterday I Had the Blues
- Julian the Mermaid
- Last Stop on Market Street
- Ada Twist, Scientist
- Bee Bim Bop!
- Hush: A Thai Lullaby
- The Wheels on the Tuk Tuk
- Round is a Mooncake; Round is a Tortilla
- Shopping with Dad
Again, these book lists are FAR from complete. These are just some I know and like.
I will continue to read and listen, to keep learning, and I will share more perspectives of people of color on talking with young children about race and racism. If you want to talk more with me about this blog post: to educate me further, correct me about something I got wrong, or ask me questions, please email me at [email protected]