What We Talk About When We Talk To Our Kids About Racism

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During the 2016 election, Americans opened a public discourse that sparked new and old fears, evoked unsettling and painful emotions, and surfaced certain real and perceived divides. When elections center solutions in the background to highlight problems in the foreground, it can be distracting and confusing, for adults and kids alike. Post-election, often those intensities fade. But this time, parents may find themselves confronting sustained and sometimes increasing worry, in the emotions and experiences of their children and their children’s classmates. These are the times when parents consider how they will explore complex and potentially charged topics with their children and teens.

As parents examine their values and their hopes for their children in this post-election climate, it may be helpful to consider how to approach a topic that is as oft-used as it is misunderstood – racism.

What are we talking about when we talk to our children about racism?

And how do parents start the conversation? 

When we talk to kids about racism, we are primarily talking about 3 things.

First, we are talking about history – things that happened in the past that are important to understand what is happening now and why it matters.

To illustrate the history of racism in America, some parents may find it helpful to review age-appropriate details. For example, teenagers may have knowledge of historical events like slavery and the civil rights movement. Starting with what they know, consider extending the conversation to other demonstrations of institutional racism like government-sanctioned red-lining practices that decreased the home values of people of color, particularly African Americans, and contributed to current racial wealth disparities in America. Or examine the implications of Japanese internment camps during WWII that used race and nationality to deny Japanese Americans their civil liberties. These events and the history they represent are the embers of old fires still kindling in our present and the more we understand them, the more we are equipped to recognize their reemergence.

Second, we are talking about feelings – the prejudiced assumptions and ideas about others based on race. When stated aloud, as a part of targeted comments or unintentionally as a part of repeated narratives, prejudiced feelings can result in trauma, stress, and anxiety for the people who become the butt of a hurtful joke or the demeaned character in a story. These types of one-on-one interactions highlight episodes of personally-mediated racism.

To help kids identify prejudice and its form of racism, parents may use children’s books to share helpful lessons. Some can be found here and here.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, we are talking about actions – everyday choices, big and small, to treat people differently because of their race. This is called discrimination and it is powerful because it not only hurts people’s feelings, it can also make them sick.

Simply put, racism – like many of the “isms” that have been heightened by this recent election – is about exclusion and harms. That exclusion can happen at the lunch table just as much as it can happen through laws. And the resultant harms can range from emotions like embarrassment, humiliation, and shame to physical violence, psychological stress, poverty, and disease.

As kids come home crying or with troubling stories of what they’ve seen or heard, resist the urge to dismiss their emotions with avoidance or denial. Instead consider these helpful tips:

DON’T tell kids it is unconditionally going to be okay, because for children and families who stand to lose their health insurance, residence, or civil freedoms, it may not be.

DO offer reassurance by discussing and modeling how to unconditionally support and care for classmates and friends who may be facing unique worries and stress at this time.

DON’T avoid conversations about racism, sexism, nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and intolerance.

DO put those conversations in an age-appropriate context that includes ways children and teens can stand up for peers when they witness their exclusion.

DON’T try to minimize a child’s fears by normalizing distressing language and behavior.

DO listen to their fears and talk about reasons for hope, including their ability to actively express empathy, support, and advocacy for peers whose fears may be different, more acute, imminent, or sustained.

These moments are opportunities to model engagement, tolerance, and compassion for children and teens trying to make sense of a world in which their values may be challenged, demeaned, or disregarded. Ultimately, what we are talking about when we talk to our kids about racism, is the type of person they can actively become.