How to talk with kids about racism
The police killing of George Floyd thrust the realities of racism into homes across America. Early childhood education expert Rosemarie Allen provides guidance for starting the conversation about race with kids of all ages.
Rosemarie Allen, Ed.D.: It’s important to start talking about race early. Children categorize differences from as young as 2 years old, and it’s OK to discuss and celebrate those differences. If we don’t guide these categorizations with our children, they will fill the void with their own conclusions. Preschool-age children should be encouraged to discuss differences in a casual and neutral way.
Studies show that when parents talk about race with their kids, the children don’t internalize race but develop a strong racial identity. For that reason, black children have a more positive race-relations outlook than white children.
Learn what they know
RA: As parents, our job is to give children a vehicle for their feelings and trust what our children feel. Let them talk about their observations of current events and ask them questions. Ask if they have noticed that people on TV are upset and angry. Ask if they know why. Tell them it’s because not all people have been treated fairly and that some people are protesting and marching because of unfair treatment, especially black people.
Expand the conversation as children grow
RA: Talking with your children about race is critical at every age, and you give them more information as they mature because they are seeing more. From ages 2-6, we can talk about differences and fairness, but by age 7 they begin to better understand justice and consequences. By 11, you can teach them that they can do something about it, that it’s their job to stop it when they see it. Middle-school kids are learning about intervention and what they can do to change the system for social justice.
Recognize that every family’s conversation is different
RA: There is a saying in black communities: “At what age do I break my child’s heart?” It begins the moment they experience or see something racist, and that is sometimes very young. We make great efforts to ensure our children’s safety with scripts about what to say when confronted by police; we tell them not to put their hands in their pockets, that when they go to the store, they need to get a bag and a receipt every time.
These are the experiences of black families and people of color that differ from white experiences.
When discussing systemic racism with white children, ask them if it’s fair that black people are treated this way and if they would like to be treated this way. Tell them it’s OK to be angry about unfair treatment but when they see something happen like that, they should speak up about it and say, “That’s not fair!” Teaching children social justice from a very early age is happening now in classrooms across the country.
Emphasize empathy, understand anger
RA: Ask your child how they would feel if they were treated unfairly because of their complexion, hair or eye color. Ask, “Is that fair? How would you feel?” You don’t want them feeling sorry for someone but to feel anger and want to do something about it. Anger can be an action for positive change.
Nobody is colorblind
RA: It’s a fallacy to suggest that people don’t see race. There is an unconscious bias that we all have. While it lies outside of our consciousness, we have to do the work to bring it to the conscious level. Call out the obvious, that everyone sees race and it’s OK to notice that. What matters is that you are aware of your response afterward. What comes up for you when you notice someone’s race? You can choose how to shape your response.
I always tell my students, “Aware is halfway there.” I challenge them to “notice and wonder why.” When they respond to a person that they perceive to be different, they should notice their own behavior and wonder why they are responding that way. Once we are aware of our bias, our responses to that and what triggers our biases, we are better able to decrease and eventually eliminate the bias.
Some people take comfort in claiming not to see race, but that makes them not responsible for their actions or feelings. But you see race. Celebrate differences and tell your children, “Everyone is beautiful and different, and we all have a right to be treated with fairness.”