How to Talk to Kids About Racism
The last two weeks have been hard. Really hard. The iconic images of torches making their way down a Charlottesville path are devastating and haunting. They make my skin crawl, put me on alert, signal threat and danger in my nervous system as they resound with thousands of stored memories of similar images from other devastating times in this country’s history.
As the events in Charlottesville last weekend erupted in violence, death, and discord, we are left to wonder what to do and how to move forward. If we have kids, or work with kids, we are grappling with how to talk about so many horrific realities with young, confused minds.
I grew up in the South, and have a long, long Southern heritage on my mother’s side of the family. It’s a heritage that I celebrate with my family when we consider the family’s resilience, connection, and strength. It’s one I mourn when we consider the role and contributions that heritage has played in perpetuating racist and classist systemic intolerance. Racism was not a foreign concept to me growing up. It existed in subtle ways, and dangerously overt ways. I knew, although no one ever directly said it, that white girls were not supposed to date black boys (my community was also homophobic- girls dating girls wasn’t even on the table). I also knew the KKK was real, active, and not far away. I remember the neighborhood boys taking late night adventures to spy on their torch-lit meetings in the woods in my community. Even though I knew these things, I did not really understand what they meant. No one was talking to me directly about racism.
I came to learn about more complex social and racial dynamics through and after college. I learned about racism and its role not only in our country’s history, but also in our present-day reality. I was shocked, heartbroken, and angry as I processed all of this information in my young adulthood. It led me to begin to learn how to self-reflect and exam my own biases-- both the ones I knew I had, and the ones that showed up in subtle, less conscious ways. Now I believe that understanding and acknowledging social systems, oppression, and injustice is critical to who I am, who we are, and to my work as a therapist with others.
So, how do we talk to kids about racism?
I am a white woman, and the perspective I offer will be primarily directed towards white adults, and white kids. I will not pretend that I could ever know how to tell people of color how to talk about racism-- I can’t pretend to understand what your experiences are like, or that I know what your children need to know about growing up as a person of color in this world. I actively welcome feedback or criticism on my perspectives, and I share my thoughts with the intention of continuing to learn and share with others.
Following the events in Charlottesville, Obama tweeted what Nelson Mandela said so eloquently:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Many parents and adults think that if they don’t overtly teach hate, then children will naturally develop love and acceptance for others. Teaching, however, is both a conscious, overt action and a subtle lesson happening around us all the time. Parents often hope that by not directly paying attention to race they are teaching children to do the same. Article after article that I read while writing this referred to this as a colorblind approach to parenting-- that if you act as though you somehow do not see race, then racism is not there. Studies show, however, that children learn implicitly about race and racism from the actions of society around them. Here are a few examples from several different studies:
In a study recent study, researcher Brigitte Vittrup from the University of Texas found that children’s attitudes towards race matched their perceptions of their parents’ attitudes when race was not discussed openly. Her study found almost half of 5-7 year old white children studied said they did not know if their parents liked black people, and 14% said their parents did not like black people, even though their parents reported positive racial attitudes on a separate questionnaire.
In the same study, almost 35% of the children said their parents would not approve of them having a black friend, or that they did not know, even though their parents reported positive racial attitudes
Children develop racial bias at a young age. In a study of white American 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults, the 6-year-olds were seen to have a self-reported pro-white/anti-black bias as well as an implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way. To study this, researchers used a test to measure implicit bias, as well as self-report tests where participants shared their attitudes. 6-year-olds demonstrated implicit bias and reported bias. 10-year-olds demonstrated the same amount of implicit bias and reported less bias, and adults demonstrated the same amount of implicit bias and reported much, much less bias. Implicit bias is established at very early ages, and seems to remain constant into adulthood, often without conscious adult awareness of it.
In-group favoritism is the tendency to favor members of one’s own group over those in another group. In studies, children between the ages of 3-7 show greater generosity to ingroup members than outgroup members. 6-year-old children in these studies punished outgroup members more harshly than ingroup members for the same offensive behavior. Studies examining the relationship between ingroup favoritism and race have found racial bias demonstrated by white children as early as age 3.
Similarly, observations of children in a daycare setting by Debra van Ausdale and Joe Feagin (authors of The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism) found that children as young as 3 excluded kids from play based on race, and used race to negotiate power in their social networks
In a study published in the journal of Developmental Psychology, Bigler, Averhart, and Liben found that by age 7, black children rated jobs held by black people as lower in status than jobs held by white people.
The point? Children learn about systemic racial issues, and embed racial attitudes, at very early ages simply because they are constantly learning from society. Not talking directly about race exacerbates perceptions of racial biases and attitudes.
We know that talking with kids about racism is critical to helping kids see and recognize racial injustice when it happens, as well as to countering the learning happening through observation. Knowing how to talk about race can feel difficult and overwhelming. It likely feels pretty uncomfortable. With that in mind, below are a few tips for how to do this:
First, look in the mirror. Examine and question your own racism. Ask yourself what you learned about race and how you learned it. Educate yourself on race issues, and get really curious about any blind spots you may have. Commit to staying aware and curious, and understand that not being racist means actively engaging in constant self-awareness and self-criticism.
Talk with your kids about race and racism in ways that are age-appropriate and clear. Teach kids about the history of racism in our country, and the courage of those who have fought and continue to fight for social justice. Begin having these conversations early, and don’t stop having them. There are many wonderful kids books to help with this. Check out this list here.
When a young child makes a comment that seems racially offensive and insensitive, don’t just “shush” the child. Many times if a young child makes a comment or asks a question about a difference they notice in another person, the child is using developmentally appropriate observation and categorization skills to learn about and understand their world. Use this as an opportunity to offer some education. Shushing a child can communicate that a topic is taboo, and, as we’ve seen, silence on the issues does not help. Work to avoid the “colorblind” approach to discussing race.
Be honest. It’s ok to share age-appropriate, honest responses to issues of racial justice.
When racial incidents occur, help kids understand and express their feelings about them. Common feelings are confusion, fear, anger, and sadness. It is important that these feelings are validated for children. Validation helps children process these events. Make art about these feelings and events to help kids express the things that might be hard to say. Provide healthy ways to grieve and to feel safe. These may be times when soft blankets, hugs, and favorite stuffed animals are available without hesitation.
Acknowledge and celebrate diversity in your home- both verbally and in practice. Encourage and supply toys that reflect diversity (figurines and dolls of various skin tones, books that reflect diversity, etc). Promote diverse role models, and celebrate the accomplishments of people of color. Pay attention to what comes on tv, or is viewed on other devices. Promote shows that celebrate and uphold diversity in their casting and character representations.