Talking to kids about race

Recent protests are sparking questions from children. Not shying away from those conversations is the first step in raising an anti-racist child.

Over the weekend, intense protests fueled by the killing of an African-American man by a white police officer in Minneapolis took place around the world. No matter how much we want to shield our children from these upsetting images, kids will likely be overhearing conversations about race, racial differences, and racism—and asking questions. Experts say that how you answer could shape your children’s feelings about race for years to come.

“This moment in time provides people with an opportunity,” says Candra Flanagan, director of teaching and learning for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Adults might want to turn off the TV or be silent. But kids are getting their information and understanding from other places. It makes it that much more important to have these conversations so they aren’t getting outside messages different from what [parents] want them to have.”

For some parents, the protests taking place after the death of George Floyd will result in their children’s first questions about race and racism. Those initial conversations can be unnerving, but educators urge parents not to shy away from them, even if the children are young. Underestimating their ability to comprehend issues around race and injustice would be a mistake, says Caryn Park, a professor at Antioch University in Seattle, whose research focuses on children’s understanding of race and ethnicity.

“Children as young as three years old are aware of race and skin color, and they aren’t afraid to ask questions,” Park says. “Their identities really matter to them, and racial identity is a significant part of their total identity. They also understand the power in talking about race and racism, and that when they bring those things up, they can get the attention of grown-ups and other children.”

Race is relatively simple to address when a young child notices skin color for the first time. Racism is understandably harder to talk about. Few parents would consider themselves or their children racist, with its connotations of intentional, angry, or mean behavior against different groups of people. But according to Ibram X. Kendi, executive director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C., intention isn’t always part of racism.

What that means, Kendi says, is though most people don’t intend any harm, they’re still making judgments based on race. And according to Maggie Beneke, assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, often those judgments come from implicit racial bias, something we might internalize through everyday interactions and social messaging, resulting in beliefs that we might not even realize we have but can still cause unintentional racist behavior. “For instance, after viewing movies with mostly white princesses, a child might say something like, ‘I only like princesses who look like Elsa, and I don’t like Moana’s brown hair and skin,’” says Beneke, who studies equity in education.

The goal, Kendi says, is to raise children who are antiracist. “As parents,” says Kendi, author of the upcoming Antiracist Baby board book and co-author with Jason Reynolds of the young adult book, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, “we should raise children who can express notions of racial equality, who can see racial disparities as a problem, and who can do their own small part to challenge this big problem of racism.” And that means recognizing racist ideas kids might have internalized—unintentionally or not—and steering them toward antiracist behavior.

Developing empathy, compassion, and a sense of justice at an early age helps kids grow into adults who want to help make the world a better place. For parents, that often means taking a deep breath and having those tough conversations about race and racism. “Regardless of how the conversation begins, parents should be sending the signal that it’s OK and important to talk about it,” Beneke says. Here’s what the experts had to say about raising an antiracist child.

Be prepared to talk about race-based events and the emotions that they bring out

If the recent uprisings prompt your children to ask questions about race and protest, use the moment as a starting point for a broader conversation, Flanagan says. Part of those conversations will require some deep thinking by adults.

“It’s not just about the child but the work that the adult needs to be doing,” says Anna Hindley, director of early education at the NAAMHC. Understanding the history of race relations in the country and the variety of ways that demonstrations can take place will make it easier to discuss these subjects with kids. (Check out these articles for children about African-American heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr.)

For instance the NAAMHC recently launched Talking About Race, a web portal with resources to help parents and teachers navigate the discussion with concrete tools. It introduces the idea of oppression as “a combination of prejudice and institutional power that creates a system that regularly and severely discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups.” It’s a good prompt to have kids think about what might have led to these global protests beyond the death of one man: that African-Americans are disproportionately poorer than other groups of Americans, that this group has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 because of access to healthcare and other reasons, and that Black people are killed (“hurt,” if you have younger children) by police officers at a much higher rate than white people.

Both Hindley and Beneke suggest that withholding that information from children might hurt their ability to process issues around race and oppression.

“We know that children are capable [of understanding], but they might need some support given all the messages that they’re receiving about themselves and others,” Beneke says.

However, Flanagan reminds parents that children—just like adults—are being impacted emotionally by events like the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. Conversations should keep those feelings in mind.

“We respond in emotional ways to many of the injustices we see across time and all over the world,” she says. “Give space to kids for their own emotional journeys and their own emotional unpacking.”

Watch for statements that link race with value judgments

If your child says, “That lady is brown!” and she is, then just agree with her. “It’s not racist to notice someone’s race,” Park says. “An unwillingness to acknowledge her observation might send the wrong message to the child.”

What parents do need to listen for are any value judgments kids may be unknowingly placing on those differences, and then gently correct them. “Respond with open, non-judgmental questions to understand why your child might be making that assumption,” Beneke says. “Simple questions like ‘Why do you think that?’ or ‘What makes you say that?’ can help get the conversation started.” You can then explain what stereotypes are, and then work with your child to think about examples that show how these stereotypes aren’t actually true.

Help your kids recognize the harm of a racist idea

If you hear your child expressing an idea about a group of people that they don’t realize is prejudicial, engage them in an age-appropriate conversation about it. For younger children, you might center the conversation around why the words are hurtful and how they might make someone feel. And though most older kids have been socialized not to make blatantly racist comments, they can crop up. Park encourages parents to help children examine both the statement’s intent and its unintended impact. For instance, your child saying that “People of color can also be racist,” is an invitation for a conversation. “Ask the child if something happened to make them feel that way, and talk about what they were feeling when they made that comment,” Park says. “Who benefits and who loses from such a comment? Listen supportively for hurt feelings of rejection or exclusion, and think about a plan to reconcile those feelings.”

The older the child, the more sophisticated the conversation can be. “But we should never shy away from pointing out racist ideas to our children,” Kendi says. “And we should never shy away from protecting our children with antiracist ideas.”

Update your home library

Take a hard look at the books, movies, and TV shows your child is consuming, and you’ll likely notice a pattern about which groups are represented the most. Consider introducing your family to media that reboots notions around what a hero, neighbor, or friend might look like.

“We know that the majority of picture books centers around white characters, and that Black and brown human characters are even less represented than animals and other cartoon characters,” Beneke says. Look for books that feature Black, brown, and indigenous characters in normal situations, not only the ones that focus on enslavement or injustice.

Look for books with illustrations and stories that celebrate diversity and expose your child to different perspectives. Find something great? Buy an extra copy and donate it to your school’s library.

Introduce diversity to different aspects of your life

In order for kids to embrace antiracist ideals, they need to be exposed to people who are different from them. If their friend group looks a little too similar, it might be time to encourage a little diversity at those playdates.

It can also be an opportunity for parents to bring more diversity into their everyday lives as well. Manka Varghese, a University of Washington professor who specializes in multilingual education, suggests expanding your own social network to include race, gender, ability, and religion. This models antiracist behavior to your children and provides an opportunity to talk about the value of difference. “It has a trickle-down effect for children because you’re suggesting that different is good,” Park says. “It gives children access to a range of perspectives, foods, stories, and points of view.”

Of course, the goal isn’t to simply run out and make a friend simply because the person is a different race. Instead, examine what you might be doing unconsciously that limits who your family interacts with. “Think about where you as a parent or family are investing time and resources,” Beneke says. Consider trying out an extracurricular activity in a new-to-you neighborhood, or exploring beyond your normal weekend activities to allow for relationships to develop naturally.

Look for other activities that will expose your children to different perspectives. Try attending events at your local library, visiting museum exhibits that touch on race, or stopping in at cultural events at local community centers year-round. Exposure can help broaden the idea of inclusiveness.

Don’t make talking about race a one-time event

You don’t have to set up a time to have a “race talk.” Conversations can naturally occur if you’re paying attention to your child’s statements and staying aware of ways that unconscious bias can slip in.

For instance, if your child notices a commercial that lacks cultural diversity, chat with him about how the ad could be more inclusive. If your tween is wondering why there aren’t any Black people on Friends, engage with her on what might make the show more representative. “Encourage critical thinking and invite tweens into conversation about what they notice,” Park says. The conversation could lead to a "diversity audit" of the media you both consume to track people of color in leading, supportive, authority figure, hero, and villain roles. Then come back together to compare notes. Based on what you find, you might want to make changes to your media diet.

You can also look for ways that you as a parent can naturally call out disparities too. If your child points out that most professional basketball players are African American, it’s OK to also bring up that most of the team owners are white, and to ask what your child thinks that means. Varghese suggests engaging your child with questions like “What do you notice here? Why do you think that is? Who benefits from the situation? What can we do about it?” The answers can lead to fruitful discussions about privilege, race, and inequality—and help your child develop antiracist ideals.

Don’t pretend to have all the answers

Above all, remember that there’s no one “right” way to have these conversations. Just like other important and uncomfortable conversations, you might find yourself wishing you’d answered a question differently in retrospect. Own it.

“This takes practice,” Beneke says. “Model that even though you’re a grown-up, you’re still thinking through these ideas as an adult. Show them that these are hard conversations to have, but also important ones.”

A version of this article was published in February 2020 and has been updated to reflect recent events.

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