With the August 18 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the topic of race is on everyone’s mind—as it should be. But how do you talk to your kids about issues of race and racism when you may be uncomfortable with discussing race?
First, keep in mind that your kids need you to talk about it. “Children need adults to help them develop respect for and acceptance of others,” said Rachel Berman of Ryerson University in Toronto. “Not talking about race and racism sends a message to children that this is a taboo topic, no matter what their age.”
Recognize that “I don’t see color” is not an adequate statement. Even if you don’t see color, it’s guaranteed that your kids do—maybe not in a hostile way, but they certainly see that some children look different than they do.
Preschool and Kindergarten kids are going to notice those skin color differences, and some kids may even say that darker-skinned students look “dirty.” This isn’t the time to hush up your kid or change the subject. Instead, ask them why they think that and explain that people have different skin colors—some darker, and some lighter—and darker skin isn’t dirty.
Once your kids are in elementary school, they’re already noticing that some people have more power and some people are more valued than others. Because of this, you can have talks that encourage critical thinking. When discussing race with them, ask questions like “Who gets to be considered ‘pretty’?” or “Are there certain groups of people who never get to be the hero in books or TV shows?”
Berman recommends the book Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester for kids in grades 1 through 5. It helps kids understand our differences and similarities by asking open-ended questions—and at that age, kids are more likely to grasp that race is “just one of many chapters in a person’s story,” as the School Library Journal said in its review.
This is a good age range to introduce your kids to the idea that some people get treated unfairly because of their race, culture, or religion. Once they understand that, you can also teach them about ways they can combat racism and prejudice.
Once your kids are teenagers, discussing race gets both easier and more difficult. Since they’re more aware of current events, you can have more sophisticated discussions about the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, the president’s response (or lack thereof) and Black Lives Matter. They can start learning about white privilege by seeing the ways it’s at work in their lives. This subject builds upon their previous learning about unfair treatment of people of different races.
Tweens and teens should also be reminded of the importance of critical thinking, particularly since at that age they begin spending a lot more time online. Teach your kids about considering the source of a story, how to fact-check, and what to do if they have friends and peers who are developing racist beliefs.
This isn’t a comprehensive guide to discussing race with your kids, of course, but it’s a good place to start.
What other tips do you have for white parents on discussing race and white privilege with your kids? Please share them in the comments!