We are all special: Talking to children about race and racism
Racism is a hard topic and it can be especially tough to bring up with children due to the negative feelings it brings up. However, as the parents, guardians and trusted adults in their lives, we have a responsibility to help them feel safe discussing difficult things. According to parenting writer Katherine Lee, “embracing diversity and acceptance allows kids to absorb their world with curiosity, self-assurance, and kindness.” But where to start?
Examining our own thoughts about race
It is helpful to begin by examining our own feelings about race. If you have experiences witnessing or being the target of racism, how did/does this make you feel? Similarly, if you have any internal challenges around race or have recognised bias in yourself, this is a good time to think honestly about that, but without shame. Children are incredibly perceptive and will mirror adults’ behaviours so noticing if we treat others differently because of race will help us to address that for ourselves and children who look up to us.
Start, and continue, the conversation
Although it may seem like a subject for older children, according to EmbraceRace, children can show signs of racial bias as early as four years old. With this in mind, the earlier you are able to speak about it in a positive, safe way at home, the better.
Bringing up the topic proactively helps to signal that race is not a ‘bad’ word and that your child can come to you with their questions and thoughts. Asking open-ended questions can encourage them to elaborate on their feelings.
Acknowledge gaps in knowledge
None of us have exhaustive knowledge about different races and backgrounds, but it can be frightening to enter into a conversation without having all the answers. If a child asks you about something that you don’t know about, PBS Teacher’s Lounge recommends giving “acknowledge[ment to] a child’s questions and observations, even if you […] feel uncomfortable.” They suggest responses, such as: “I’m so glad you brought this up, let’s talk more about it when we can sit down together,” and “I love that you are curious about this and I don’t have all the answers right now, but we can learn together.”. When you have found out more about that topic, returning to your child with an answer shows them that this curiosity is appreciated and a good thing, and that you see the conversation as important. It also demonstrates that the route to understanding is to take the time to learn something instead of going with assumptions.
Developing racial literacy and broader cultural awareness can be a journey you and your child(ren) take together. Embracing your own cultural identity and racial background is a great opportunity to discuss other racial backgrounds and highlight the importance of this part of identity for all people. Getting involved with activities that celebrate cultures and races outside of your own will help children to see difference as a positive thing and understand the importance of respecting others’ backgrounds and lives.
General resources for speaking to children about race
- How to Talk to Kids About Race and Cultural Diversity – Katherine Lee
- 10 Tips on Talking to Kids About Race and Racism – PBS Teachers Lounge
- 10 tips for teaching and talking to kids about race – EmbraceRace
- [Document] Talking with children and young people about race and racism – Red Cross
How to talk to children of different ages about race
- Talking to children about race and racism: An age-by-age guide – CHOC
- How White Parents Can Talk To Their Kids About Race – An age-by-age guide – HuffPost
Talking to children about racist bullying
Talking to children about race as a white parent