How to Talk to Your Kids about Race in a Way that Matters

My 5-year-old and I are on her bedroom floor, scrutinizing a couple of dozen faces on a screen. Finally, I say, “Is the person someone who might say that they’re Asian, or Asian-American, do you think?”

“What’s Asian?” she asks me. “Is that light skin?”

I fumble for the right words. “Sometimes,” I start. The world map on her wall seems possibly useful, so I start pointing to it. I say something about how there are different places on the planet, and we all have relatives from a long time ago in at least one of those places. I try to explain how people in certain places may have sort of similar skin or hair or eye colors, and some of that relates to why people all look different.

I’m stumbling all along, but if my little one notices, she’s unphased. “Not Asian,” she says, and taps the last face on the screen that matches her understanding of whatever it was I just conveyed. Another face pops up on the screen, and I read my daughter the words: “I consider myself Dominican,” and then a speech bubble that elaborates with what the woman in the picture wants to tell us about her culture and other people’s views of her.

We’re playing “Who Am I?,” a race awareness game created by a Harvard University expert in diversity (available on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad; $0.99; for kids 3 and up). The game’s purpose is to get parents and kids talking about race in a responsible way. It’s a subject that’s been pretty top-of-mind since Trayvon Martin became a household name.

If 17-year-old Trayvon’s mom and dad are living a parent’s worst nightmare—their son’s life was taken after a neighborhood watch volunteer found the unarmed teen suspicious—surely his shooter’s parents are experiencing a nightmare by another name. Whatever the trial’s outcome, there doesn’t seem to be much question now that the chain of events that ended with Trayvon’s death started with a rush to judgment. The sort of judgment no parent wants to think their child is capable of making.

Wishing our children will grow up color blind doesn’t make it happen. A few years ago, when a Newsweek magazine cover poked parents with the headline, “Is your baby racist?” many moms bristled. The article, an excerpt from Po Bronson’s book NurtureShock, kicked off with an anecdote from Austin. A UT researcher couldn’t get the white parents in a study to follow through on having discussions with their children about diversity and racial attitudes. The parents found it really hard to talk openly about race with their 5, 6, and 7 year olds. But research finds even little kids—6-month-olds—see differences in skin color and can make judgments. (I lived in Africa for a couple of years and vividly remember babies who had never seen a white person before bursting into tears at the sight of me. Even to their innocent eyes, I was different.)
AdvertisementAs with so many things, if we parents don’t fill in the gaps in our kids’ understanding, the culture is more than happy to step in for us, and in not-so-helpful ways. If you Google “talking to children about race,” much of what you find on parenting web sites is outdated, with recommendations to have a talk in the school years or about how “all people can be friends,” for example. But the evidence says it isn’t “a” talk, it’s many. And those talks should start early and include concrete language that kids can grasp.

What’s a mom to do?  Presuming the mom in question, white or from a community of color, has very motherly feelings about this, I think she wants to protect her children, yes. But she also wants to equip them to be part of the solution in a world where race remains thorny. A few ideas:

  • Start somewhere. The “Who Am I?” game worked for us, because it comes with really tangible tips. Looking at a map and trying to get your child curious about the world was one tip. Others included seeking out books, toys, and dolls that represent other races and cultures, and reading “I Am Rosa Parks,” “A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World,” or “The Night Boat to Freedom” with your child. There’s even a tip about how to use Disney’s The Princess and the Frog as a starting point for a talk about inequality, including concrete examples of what a parent can say.
  • Do some digging. There are a range of good resources out there, along with the not-so-helpful ones.  A free resource to try is A Family Guide to Talking about Race from the American Anthropological Association. For families who adopt children from a different racial background than their own, Casey Family Programs has online learning modules that are helpful. For the classroom setting, has a lot of good stuff.
  • Walk the talk. Getting out to enjoy a cultural festival unrelated to your heritage trumps just telling your child to embrace diversity. Examining your own biases is better than urging your child not to have them. And inviting families from different racial backgrounds into your life is most powerful of all for sending the message we really are all different and the same.

If all this seems a little heavy and complicated to get into with your children, just think: When your kids are grown up and having these experiences with your grandkids, it might come a lot more naturally for them because you made the effort. In fact, it might be in an America whose people have become a lot better about appreciating one another for who they are. That, too, will happen thanks to the parenting that happens today.

Have you found a good way of discussing race with your children? Has your little one had a surprising comments that caught you off guard? If so, how did you handle it?

Written by: Christine Sinatra


About Christine Sinatra 53 Articles
Christine Sinatra is the communications director for Texans Care for Children and mom to a kindergartener. Her past experience includes working as a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and the Oakland Tribune company, being a Peace Corps volunteer for high school girls in Africa, and studying at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

2 Comments on How to Talk to Your Kids about Race in a Way that Matters

  1. When my oldest was about 4 (he’s now about to turn 7) he started asking questions about why some of his preschool classmates were so dark. So, anthropologist that I am, we pulled out the globe and I showed him where the sun’s rays hit the earth the most directly in the center and that if those closer to the center (the equator) didn’t have dark skin they could get sun burns over and over again and get sick. Then I showed him where on the globe my ancestor’s were from (Norway above the Arctic circle) and talked about how little sunlight gets there and how in Winter there may be days without any sun and that people with light skin don’t have to worry about sun burns (over simplified as light skin is also necessary to let in sun’s rays and as much Vitamin D as possible to help reduce likelihood of childhood rickets and dark skin at the equator is necessary to filter too much vitamin D to prevent hyper calcification which could build up in the organs and cause them to fail and lots of other reasons, but he was 4).

    Anyway, we also spent time talking about how skin color and features are on a continuum. If he lined up all the kids in his class (and we mentioned specific kids as example) he would see a gentle transition from light to dark skin. We also mentioned how our outsides had no reflection on who we were inside. We also don’t use race as a descriptor (Example: “You mean the lady in the red shirt?” Not “You mean the Asian woman.”) By identifying people by race we set them apart as different from us, by identifying them by clothes, we show they are just like us, just wearing a different colored shirt. We have also made sure that our children have had contact with a diverse group of people. My adopted brother is from Nepal, I have good friends who moved from China to the U.S. in the late 80s (who’s aunt was arrested on Tiananmin Square during the student demonstration) and whose kids are friends with mine, we have other US born friends that we interact with socially beyond FB and work whose ancestors came from all over the world, my kid’s have attended a great pre-school with a diverse group of kids, and my oldest is now in a dual language program which teaches bi-culturalism along with a bi-lingual curriculum and he has strong friendships with kids from all walks of life from school, soccer, and taekwondo. I think the best way to combat racism is to open your kids to the world. And to lead by example and open yourself to diversity as well.

    I think the hard questions will come when my kids realize racism exist and they want me to explain why someone could treat another person so differently based on outside appearances. It is so alien to how we are, I don’t think it will be an easy concept for them to grasp.

  2. This is so important. The thing that is often on my mind is the messages that children get outside of their families. As a young Mexican American child my mother was always very positive and loving about my skin that always got darker in the summer. But by the time I was 8 years old I knew from millions of other messages from school mates, movies, commercials, off handed comments and conclusions from comments made about other darker people that being dark was bad. It wasn’t until the identity political awakening of college that I really became ok with what I still call my “summer brown.”

    In the mean time, my sister often comments about feeling like others look at her as if she’s the nanny when she takes her much fairer children out in the more affluent areas of town – their father is of European extraction. I imagine that I’ll face a similar confrontation with race, color, and class with my own children who will also have a very fair father with European ancestry.

    I’m heartened that this is something fairer people are willing to have a thoughtful struggle with. Its not easy, but it is so very important.

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