How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism

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Racism has long been an issue in America. Throughout history, people have been bullied, persecuted, harassed, and killed because of the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage.

But racism isn’t always overt. It affects the opportunities that marginalized people are offered; it affects how they are treated on a day-to-day basis; and it affects their mental health and physical well-being.

While racism has been an issue in America for quite some time, it has truly come to the forefront of our national conversation in 2020. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed have brought the racial injustice experienced by Black Americans—and marginalized Americans of all races—center stage.

This is a good thing, because talking about these issues, and coming up with concrete ways to address them, is long overdue. If you are a parent, you are probably wondering how to talk to your children about racism.

Let’s face it: some of these conversations can be uncomfortable, and you may feel unsure exactly how to approach them. You may feel concerned that you will frighten your child, or say the wrong thing. That’s understandable, but now is not the time to shy away from these conversations.

The only way we can tackle the issue of racism in America is to turn towards it, not away from it. And that means having difficult conversations with our children.

This doesn’t have to be as difficult as you might imagine, though. We talked to several experts for tips on how to navigate these sometimes challenging, but vitally important conversations with our kids.

Why We Need to Talk to Our Kids About Racism

In this day and age, and in this pivotal moment in history, the “racism talk” is not something you can skip with your children, or sugarcoat. Discussing instances of racial injustices as they come up in the news—and addressing the systemic issues that perpetuate them in the first place—has become a vital part of our children’s education.

“Given the current political situation, it’s crucial that parents educate themselves first about how to discuss racially motivated police violence and the history of the criminal justice system, so they can talk with their children about these issues understanding the structural issues at stake,” says Anita Chari, PhD, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon and co-founder of Embodying Your Curriculum.

The fact is, whatever the racial make-up of your family, racial issues are a part of all of our lives. They are a part of our communities, our schools, our places of worship, and more. And we are all responsible for making sure that each and every other member of our community is treated with respect.

Making this a reality starts with the conversations we have with our children, from their very earliest ages.

Kids Know More Than You Think They Do

Even if we wanted to try to push the issues away, the fact is that our children have probably already heard about some of the divisive current events that have unfolded—so shielding them in some way may even not be possible.

Our kids’ access to social media, along with the fact that these topics are now part of the national conversation, means that our kids probably hear about these things before we even realize that they have. Even young children overhear what we listen to on the news, or the conversations we may have with each other.

“Children are not oblivious to what's happening in the world around them,” says 15-year-old Alejandra Stack, former NAACP Youth Council President and author of Activate Your Activism. “Kids get information from their phones and tablets, television stations, as well as overhearing conversations from adults.”

“This information then gets spread around their peers and turns into a ginormous game of telephone,” Stack says. “Wouldn't you rather your children know the whole story rather than only knowing what Tommy’s friend's cousin told him?”

How to Approach the Topic

When it comes to talking about racism, being clear and straightforward is your best bet. You may think that speaking in vague terms will make it easier for your children to understand or absorb the information, but children actually can understand these issues easier than you may think.

“These discussions are basic for all,” says Stack. “There are ‘softer’ approaches to speak with kids of younger ages about racism and police violence; however, don't make it seem like it isn't as large of a problem as it is. What works for a 14-year-old isn't going to be the same thing you can tell your 4-year-old. Don’t try to ‘dumb it down’—simply find other things similar to these real life situations or use softer language.”

Being honest about what is happening from the onset means that these conversations will continue to be easier as time goes on.

Like the “sex talk,” or other difficult conversations you may have with your children, the conversation about racism is one that should be ongoing, starting when your child is young, and increasing as time goes on. Having a clear, honest, and straightforward framework to work with will make each iteration of the conversation that much easier.

Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD—teacher, therapist, lawyer, and author—explains it this way: “Be open with your children. Tell them the full history of our country and why we still have so much to resolve. Remember that it is OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Let’s learn about this together.’”

“As a parent I understand the desire to let children be children,” Cummings says. “It would be lovely if they really could just play and not worry about the ills of this world, but this is not realistic. Talking about and figuring out problems is and should be a part of childhood.”

How to Address Racism With Children of Different Races

It’s important to note that the way you approach the race talk will vary considerably depending on your own family’s experiences with racial issues. If you are a family of color or of an ethnic minority, your “racism talk” will look much different from a family who doesn’t deal with those challenges.

Sonia Smith-Kang, an AfroLatina mom of four and President of Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC), shared her experience of “the racism talk” with her children:

“Black and brown parents don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not we need to talk to our kids about current events and racial violence,” says Smith-Kang. “From a young age, my job has been deliberate. I showed them a realistic picture of what is happening in our country, our state, and our community.”

That also meant arming them with information about how to stay safe from racial injustice, bullying, and harm.

“All my children receive a version of ‘the talk,’” explains Smith-Kang. “For us, it extends beyond ‘the birds and the bees,’ ‘say no to drugs,’ and ‘social media dos and don’ts.’ It includes driving/shopping while Black and brown. Being intentional in our discussions and educating them is an important aspect of what we have to do. It can be the difference that saves their life.”

How to Talk About Difficult Current Events

Some of the current events surrounding racism and racial injustice can feel difficult to discuss, because they are full of unsetting and scary facts and images. Again, though, these are not topics we should shield our kids from, especially because they will likely hear about them on their own, and having a grown-up to talk to about them is vital.

Cummings has a few steps she recommends you take as you begin to broach the subject of current racial events with your children.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Ask your children what they already know about subjects like police brutality, or why people are protesting in the name of Black Lives Matter.

Clarify Terms for Them

For example, your child may not know what “police brutality” is, but they may have heard about the fact that some Black people are afraid of being pulled over by the police.

Admit That You Don’t Have All the Answers

If you don't know something, you can show your child how you go about learning—what resources you look to, and how to educate yourself.

Reinforce the Concept of Racial Justice

All of the current events—no matter how difficult they are to talk about—highlight the need for us all to come together and to care for and respect each other.

Make a Plan of Action

Maybe your child wants to write their congressperson a letter. Maybe your child wants to attend a protest. Maybe your child wants to educate themselves further on the event or topic. Use this as a teachable moment.

How to Talk About Racism By Age

Talking to younger children about racism has different challenges than talking to older children. But that doesn’t mean that you can't begin the conversation from the earliest ages.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

When talking about racism with very young children, Cummings recommends using simple language, and presenting the topic in ways young children can understand.

Talk about the people in your neighborhood, in your family, and at preschool or daycare. What makes these people different? What makes them the same? Talk about the diversity that makes up our world, and how beautiful and important that is.

Elementary School

In elementary school, the issues of race can be discussed using some of the many wonderful books out there on diversity. But even more important than that is exposing your child to diverse authors and books that contain diverse characters.

“Books with Black characters and toys with black or brown skin are not just for Black people,” says Cummings. “Your children should both read and play in a world that reflects the real world from a young age. Interact with your children so you can hear the things they say in role-play. This will be eye-opening. Children do not always know how to answer questions, but they know how to act out what they are learning.”

Cummings also encourages parents to make sure that their children’s actual lives contain diversity as well. If you don’t live in a diverse neighborhood or attend a diverse school, you can still bring your child to places where more racial diversity is present. These little things plant a seed and help your child normalize the diversity that makes up our world.

Teens

Alejandra Stack, 15, is an advocate for having blunt conversations with our children, especially as they get older. “Although these conversations are difficult, they are 100% necessary,” she says. “I remember being in school and not being allowed to talk about what happened with Trayvon Martin. This sense of what is ‘appropriate’ for kids to talk about is absolutely ludicrous.”

So what does the “racism talk” look like for older children?

It’s going to be about education, about frank discussion, about learning together, as a family. But it’s also very much about action. And this generation of teens is definitely showing up in big ways when it comes to racial injustice. Many of the protests over the past few months have been organized by teens, and many teens are attending them.

“Show your children how to be a change agent,” says Cummings. “There will be plenty of opportunities to talk with your child about things you would like to see done differently. Identify things you can do together. Going to a rally or peaceful protest together can be a powerful experience.”

A Word from Verywell

If this is your first time talking about race with your family, you are in good hands. These days, there are so many resources out there for educating your children about the issues and about the history of racism in our country. And there are many opportunities for your family to become part of the fight toward ending racial injustice in America.  

However you go about it, it’s vital that you do the work, and that you don’t try to ignore the issue. For too long, so many white folks have done just that, while people of color have been working to right the wrongs of racism for decades.

“It’s important to note that parents of color can’t be the only ones doing the heavy lifting by having these conversations,” says Smith-Kang. “We don’t have a choice to have these conversations with our children. What we also need is for everyone to be against racism and not see this as a Black issue. It’s all hands on-deck to help keep our Black brothers and sisters safe and alive.”

As upsetting as it can feel at times to realize the extent that racism is alive in America, we can’t turn a blind eye to it. Talking to our kids about racism is the first of many steps we all need to take to address the inequities that continue to impact the lives of so many in our country.

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