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Talking to Kids About Race


Say your kindergartener comes home with a question: “Why are some people called black and others white?” How will you answer? Next to the sex talk, talking to kids about race is perhaps the hardest conversation for a parent. Sure, America elected a black president, but we still live in a world that’s far from color-blind. While it’s natural to want to shield your child from life’s harsh realities, staying silent about race isn’t OK. Discussing the subject openly allows children to build bridges and respect others.

When’s the Right Age to Talk Race?

Think your children are too young for the “race talk?” In fact, children as young as 3 can spot differences between racial groups. A few years after that, they start to make judgments about people from different races. What does this mean? Whether you talk to your kids about race or not, they’ll form opinions about it anyway. If they make a remark that stumps you, investigate until you form a coherent response. You might just learn something in the process.

Go to a Cultural Event

How much do your kids know about people from different cultures? Whether they’re totally clueless or ambassadors-in-the-making, they’ll have loads of fun at cultural celebrations. With the food, music and learning that take place at these events, what’s not to love? The great thing is that cultural events take place all year.

Enjoy a Chinese New Year celebration in January, a Black History Month event in February, a St. Patrick’s Day parade in March or a Cinco de Mayo bash in May. During these outings, your children won’t only have the chance to learn about the history and cultural significance of different events, they’ll also get to mingle with folks from all sorts of backgrounds. This gives a real boost to kids who live in places where they’re racial anomalies, like trans racial adoptees with a better chance of meeting a celebrity than someone from their birth country. Want tips on how to talk race with children you’ve adopted cross culturally? Check out the Fusion program, which offers suggestions to parents just like you.

Take a Trip to a Cultural Museum

Slavery. The Holocaust. Japanese American Internment. How do you bring up racial oppression with children? A trip to a cultural museum is a great starting point. Throughout the country, you can find museums with a social justice bent. Drop by the Museum of Tolerance and the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. There’s also the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Chicago and Alabama, respectively.

Get Out of Town

Don’t have a museum like this in your area? Forget about Disneyland and the Grand Canyon. Make a visit to a cultural museum the focus of your next family getaway. If it’s hard for the entire family to leave town, sign your teen up for a camp hosted by a group such as the National Conference of Community and Justice (NCCJ). There, your kid will learn about race and bias with the people they respect most—their peers!

Stop Racism in Its Tracks

You’ve probably heard that racism is taught. Well, so is anti-racism. It’s never too soon to teach kids to say no to prejudice. Want proof? After Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder in 1968, Jane Elliott taught third graders not to discriminate by separating the blue-eyed children from the brown-eyed children in her class and treating the latter as if they were superior. Elliott’s experiment turned out to be unforgettable, not just for her students but for those who witnessed it. Get the lowdown on Elliott’s experiment from PBS’ Frontline program.

Lots of videos and books make excellent teaching tools about racism. Take documentary Eyes on the Prize and novel Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, for example. Both show how African Americans struggled for civil rights. Visit the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website for a list of age-appropriate literature about race and racism.

Practice What You Preach

You can’t raise non-racist children if your own biases are left unchecked. What kind of remarks do you make about racial groups? Does the idea of your kids hanging out with people from certain races make you cringe?

Maybe you keep your thoughts about other ethnic groups to yourself. Instead, you cross the street to avoid members of particular backgrounds or have no friends from ethnic groups other than your own. Children will pick up on this behavior and follow suit. So, if you want them to value people of all backgrounds, be a role model.

Teach Your Child Cultural Pride

It’s hard to swallow, but one day your child may come home crying, the victim of a racist taunt or gesture. Children don’t have to be helpless in these situations. Teach them self-love in racism’s wake. Compliment that beautiful head of hair or set of eyes a classmate made fun of. Give your child dolls and toys with features similar to theirs or magazines with positive images of people from their cultural backgrounds.

In Closing

Talking about race isn’t easy, but it marks one of the most important things you’ll do as a parent. How you address race can influence your children’s choices in friends, not to mention their view of their own heritage. That said, don’t delay the race talk. By speaking honestly about race, you can empower your little ones.

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