It would be wonderful if you could just say to children "people might look different and come from different places, but we're all equal and should be treated the same" and leave it at that. But if recent news has taught us anything, it's that reality is not so simple, and we need to face the topics of race and racism head on.
Why the Race Conversation Is So Important
Kids notice. Kids notice from an early age that other kids are similar to or different than them — in every single way they can possibly be similar or dissimilar — because that's part of how they figure out where they fit in the world. Racial identification plays a large part in our self-esteem, how others treat us, and how we function in society.
A couple of years ago, when she was about five, my daughter said to me, "There is only one black person teaching at our school." I replied, "Is that so?" (my default response when I don't know how to respond and am waiting for context). She said yeah, it's interesting, but then left it at that, as if it were just an observation, like one house on our block having a grey roof while the others are all green. (I missed a really good teaching moment there.) More recently she's been complaining: "People keep asking me 'Are you Chinese?' Why are they all asking me if I'm Chinese?!!" in a frustrated and judgemental tone, and it became clearer that it's time for more conversations on racial stereotypes, racial identity and the politics of race.
I've been thinking about this for a while but haven't known where to start. Like many other parents, I've been afraid of saying the wrong thing or emphasising race too much, and as enlightened and superiorly unbiased as I am (please read than in a joking voice, if you will), I know that we've all got prejudices we're not aware of and can unknowingly pass on to our children.
If you're raising a child of another race or culture often discriminated against, you'll need to have "The Talk". As Janice Fuller-Roberts Dame says on Salon, it's a very delicate balance:
We have to teach our children that not only do they have to follow the general rules of society, but they also have to abide by a special set of rules set up specifically for them because of their race. And we have to walk a thin line between teaching them how NOT to be killed by the people bound by law to protect them, and at the same time how to maintain their dignity and command the respect they deserve.
Parents of white children should talk about racism too if they aim to raise kids who aren't racially biased and who can function in our interracial society. Silence on the matter doesn't prevent racism, it actually helps perpetuate prevalent prejudices, the New York Times reveals:
It's the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the colour of our skin.
Cultural racism is like smog in the air, says author Beverly Daniel Tatum in her book Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. They're the cultural images and messages that "affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of colour". Like smog, stereotypical messages aren't always apparent, but we're all breathing it in.
Parents of all backgrounds have the same concerns, I imagine, when trying to address issues like what's happened in Ferguson and other controversial and racially-charged current events. How do you explain that race plays a big part in how everyday events play out when we're all claiming to be colourblind? What should we say if we learn our child has used racial slurs or experienced racial bias? (Kids as young as three to five can show racially-biased behaviours — even when their parents or other adults don't mention or endorse racial beliefs. They pick up on the social cues around them.) How can we raise compassionate and confident children?
So I tapped a few parenting and psychology experts on how to have these kinds of tricky conversations and teach "tolerance" to kids, because the earlier we start the conversation and the more mindful our part in it, the better chance our kids (and future generations) will have of getting closer to that fairness and equality ideal.
When To Talk To Your Kids About Race
Parents sometimes avoid discussing race because they think young children don't even see race or won't understand racism, but the critical period for starting the conversation is the five-year-old to eight-year-old stage, Civilrights.org says:
Between five and eight, children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs. By the fourth grade, children's racial attitudes start to grow more rigid. Our guidance is especially crucial during this impressionable, turbulent time.
In all likelihood, the subjects will come up unprompted with your kids at this early age out of their natural curiosity. You might be mortified if your young child makes a crude observation out loud about someone else being different, but instead of shushing them, use these opportunities to reinforce the lesson that different is both normal and good. Mummy Masters blogger and author Ellie Hirsch says:
It can be embarrassing but if you have the right tools, you can turn a weird situation into a beautiful learning lesson. Do not scold your child for being curious.
Example: When my son was younger, there was an Asian girl at the pool and he said to me quite loudly, "Funny eyes Mummy". I was mortified but knew it was an opportunity to teach him something very important. I quickly responded, "Yes, aren't her eyes beautiful? She is such a pretty little girl." When we got home, I addressed the situation in more detail letting him know that if someone looks differently than you, we don't make fun of them or express our opinions out loud in front of them. Questions are wonderful and that is how we learn, but Mummy prefers we discuss in private as we would not want to make someone feel uncomfortable." This has also happened to me with someone that was overweight, bald and elderly. Kids are curious! There are tons of opportunities to teach your child about tolerance and the idea that everyone is different and different is ok. Parents need to seize these moments and educate their child instead of laughing or punishing their child.
If the subject doesn't come up naturally, books will always be to the rescue (here's the Institute for Humane Education's list of picture books exploring race).
Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month, and other events are also good times to approach the subject. You could discuss what the kids have been learning in school, what they thought and felt about those subjects, and take the conversation even further. Even if schools teach about racial issues though, it's important that you, the parents, talk about them with your kids up to their teenage years, clinical psychologist and author Dr John Mayer says. By taking the initiative, you establish yourselves as "the holders of the facts" (and correctors of misinformation or generalisations) they might hear at school and in the media.
It's an ongoing process, and talking with pre-teens and adolescents is also important, especially with current events blowing the lid off of a topic many families don't talk about meaningfully. Young adults are able to understand more complex answers and discuss social context and history, and will hopefully still look to you for guidance.
How To Address Difficult Topics About Race And Encourage Inclusion
In addition to starting the conversation early and piggybacking on lessons learned in school, here are a few tactics you can use during the discussions.
Always meet the child where they are first. "It is always important for parents to first understand how their child makes sense of what is happening," says Dr Joseph Shrand, psychiatrist and Medical Director of CASTLE in Brockton, MA. "This gives the parent a guide as to where to begin," especially with respect to controversial current events.
Try finding out what prompted your kids' comments or questions about race (such as school incidents or something they read). Then perhaps further the discussion with questions like "How do you feel about that?" and "Why do you think that?" This is also helpful if your kid says something insensitive or if your kid has experienced racial bias. Before responding to the statement, figure out where it came from and what it means to them from their perspective.
Keep your child's developmental readiness in mind too. Educator Madeleine Rogin writes on PBS that Kindergarten students don't need to know about Dr. King's assassination (and it could scare or distract them), but you can emphasise the themes of peaceful change and justice through stories. At the same time, Rogin says, it's impossible to teach about historical figures like Dr King without "telling the ugly truth about racism."
Some of the skills children of all ages should develop include analysing media critically (to counter those subconscious messages), recognising stereotypes, and understanding why racism matters on an individual, community and institutional level. This article in the National Association of Independent Schools, What White Children Need to Know About Race, explains these skills.
Use upfront, factual and honest answers. Try to respond in non-judgmental ways and stick to the facts, especially if you're talking with young children who might not understand more complex answers. But also be accurate and don't dumb down the conversation as well, this University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee guide points out:
[D]on't encourage children to believe that negative racial talk or discriminatory action is the conduct of only "sick" individuals or that it indicates a peculiar character flaw or just "bad" behaviour. Talk about the fact that the social world we live in is often unfair to people of colour simply because they are people of colour and that persisting racial-ethnic inequalities are unjust and morally wrong. Make it clear that racialethnic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform and not just something that individuals do.
When talking about Martin Luther King Day, my daughter expressed incredulity that black people had to sit at the back of the bus. We agreed and explained how it was a law back then because the people in power, many of whom didn't consider people different from them equals, made the laws — until Dr King and others (black and white) challenged those assumptions. And planting the seed for further conversations: Even though there aren't discriminatory laws like this now, we still have social segregation and mistrust.
Instil a sense of cultural pride. For parents of kids of all colours, it's a good idea to celebrate the differences and benefits of your culture. One study shows that "teaching kids, especially black children, to take pride in their culture is an integral part of their success." And another study found that teaching eight-year-olds to 11-year-olds the value of diversity (rather than taking a colorblind approach) were more likely to detect racial bias.
More important than having "The Talk" about the different rules in society for black people, Fuller-Roberts Dame taught her son that these rules aren't a reflection of who he is, and he's learned to not internalise the prejudices:
I also can't afford for my son to buy into the stereotypes of Black manhood that still persist today. And so my son knows his value and his worth. He knows he deserves respect. He's made a conscious choice not to live in constant fear. He's proud of the melanin in his skin, his dreadlocked hair and the rich and beautiful heritage that both represent. The problem isn't with how he looks, how he wears his pants, or what kind of music he likes. He gets that the problem is an insidious one, woven into the fabric of our country, and that it rests squarely upon the shoulders of those racists who allow it to continue.
Vanessa Coppes, teacher, parenting blogger and mother of "mixed" boys, says she focuses on teaching her kids the benefits of being biracial:
The race conversation has been constant since the day my eldest son was born. From getting stopped at the grocery and asked, "Is he yours?", I've heard many things over the past 6 years.
My explanation [when the kids ask about their racial differences] is simple: mummy and daddy fell in love and when 2 people fall in love, they go on to get married and encase of that love, you and your brother are here. Mummy is Latina and daddy American. How cool that you get to experience different cultures, languages, food and more? He loves that!
And for the people who make those insanely rude comments she just laughs at their ignorance and responds with humour and kindness. "It's not about them," Coppes says, "It's about the example we are setting for our children."
Don't tolerate other family members' racist comments around your kids. Laughing off strangers at the supermarket is one thing, but if you have relatives or friends who are quick with racist jokes or opinions, make it clear that you don't agree with them. Says Dr. Shrand:
Explain to your child that Uncle Timmy has a view of people that you do not share. All people are valuable and worthy of respect. Liking something and respecting something are two different things.
That's probably the most important theme to keep driving home: That regardless of our differences, we're all part of one race (the human one) and should be treated equally with respect and kindness. (I know that sounds really simplistic, but let me then suggest watching American History X — with your kids if they're old enough. That movie made me realise how passing comments at the dinner table can lead to so much anger, hatred and violence.)
Be a role model. Finally, if you want others to believe what you preach, you have to exhibit those behaviours as well. Your everyday comments and actions will say more than anything else. You might want to test your own hidden biases, such as with Harvard's Project Implicit online test.
Having diverse friends helps, as does travelling with your kids to other countries, which our own Heather Yamada-Hosley says can help them "fully understand that there is a diversity in the world that might not be represented in the community that you live in."
Whatever you do, have those conversations, though, as awkward and uncomfortable as they might be. Because with or without you, your kids are probably already thinking about and forming their views on race — and those views, in turn, will affect them and everyone around them.