Ask I-LABS Outreach: How Do I Talk to My Kids About Race?

Having open, honest conversations about race with children helps counteract racism. Here's how.
 
We may want to live in a "colorblind" or "post-racial" society where race doesn't matter, but the reality is that stereotypes do matter and they affect all of us.
I study racial stereotypes in children and teens. I see how they grapple with stereotypes and how they affect their own identity and ideas of who they can be and what they can achieve in life.
As adults, knowing how children understand race and having open, honest conversations with our children about race is one of the best ways to acknowledge and address inequalities in our society. These conversations make us more in tune with our children and help them make sense of the racial complexities in our society.
When we don't talk about race, biases can grow unquestioned. Kids will fill in the missing gaps with cues from other sources, like the media or their peers.
But parents, or other adults, often don't know what to say, or don't feel "qualified" to talk about it.
Everyone is qualified to have this conversation, and in this installment of “Ask I-LABS Outreach,” I’ll give some suggestions on how to talk about race with your children.
When to Start
Talking with kids about race shouldn't happen all at once as a one-time event that you can check off your list. Instead, talking about race and equality should be the lens through which we engage in parenting, teaching and modeling. It can and should be an ongoing part of kids’ development.
Since kids develop over time, the best ways to discuss race change as they grow. We will focus on how to talk with kids about race when they are between three and seven years old.
To learn more about how to talk to kids about race during middle childhood, check out the I-LABS Online Training Module, "Racing’ Towards Equality: Why Talking to Your Kids About Race is Good for Everyone." It's free, lasts about 25 minutes, and can be viewed online.
Encourage Questions
Even very young children are aware of and have questions about race. They notice racial differences and noticing is a good thing – it means they are paying attention. We want to them to be able to explore what is happening. Talking about race is one of the best ways to counteract racism.
Questions are a good thing—from you and your child! Not only do questions help our children understand themselves, others and the world, but they can also prompt us to consider our own beliefs and attitudes.
Books As a Conversation Starter
Let’s imagine that for the first time your 4-year-old will be in school during Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month. In your home, you have not yet talked about America’s racial history. How can you prepare your child for the information he might hear or learn about at school?
You might make a trip to the library and find an age-appropriate book about Civil Rights leaders. Read it together and talk about how White people and Black people were treated differently.
Ask your child to put themselves in the shoes of the character(s) that was excluded or treated unfairly. For example, ask your child about a time when they felt different or excluded. How did it feel? Allow your child to ask as many questions as they need and be willing to answer these questions honestly.
Also, taking the time to reflect on your own biases and privileges will make these conversations easier. An awareness of times when you may have acted on your own bias can help you to understand or relate to your child’s experiences. It may also help your child understand or relate to yours.
When Children Point Out Differences
Maybe your 3-year-old says that a dark-skinned child is “dirty.” Or another child points to your 5-year-old and says her hair is “fuzzy and weird.”
How do you turn that into a broader conversation about race?
First, you want to acknowledge the differences that the child notices, and then explain. For example: “His skin isn’t dirty, it is darker than yours. Your skin is light and his is dark but you’re both clean!” Or, “Yes, her hair is fuzzy and yours is smooth. They are different. But different is not weird.”
Children need to know it is okay to see and talk about race and racial differences—their own and others. It's a starting point for them to notice racial inequalities. But they also need to know that making value judgments about those differences can be untrue and hurtful. Again, noticing difference just means they are paying attention. But, if we teach children not to notice race but instead to ignore it, we inadvertently teach them to ignore injustice and inequality.
Quick Tips to Remember
A few things keep in mind when talking to children about race:
  • Take time to reflect on your own perceptions of race. What feelings do you have when you hear or think about race? Do you promote colorblindness, for example, do you find yourself saying things like, "race doesn't matter" or "everyone is the same inside, skin color doesn't matter?" Consider how racial stereotypes affect you and how you respond to them.
  • You do not need to have all of the answers. You only need to be open and willing so you can offer a safe space to talk.
  • Keep an open mind. Kids are forthcoming with ideas, but when they face resistance they learn quickly what's OK to talk about and what's not. Be open and accepting to their ideas.
  • Keep the focus on learning, not right or wrong answers. Focus on encouraging children to ask their own questions and on learning together.
  • Your conversations will be ongoing and will keep changing. Talking about race with your child won’t be a one-time event. So if you freeze in the moment or don’t know how to respond to a question, you can (and should!) always circle back.
I talk more about my research findings and how parents can talk to kids about race in a KUOW interview and in an I-LABS news story. You can get other ideas from a ParentMap article, "Racism: Families Push for Racial Justice."
###
About the Author:
Rogers is a former research assistant professor at I-LABS and the UW College of Education. She currently is an assistant professor at Northwestern University in the department of psychology. She studies youth identity development and how cultural norms, expectations and stereotypes influence how youth see themselves. She has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology from New York University.
About "Ask I-LABS Outreach:" This is an occasional series based on discussions the I-LABS Outreach team has with parents, caregivers, educators, and others interested in the science of early learning and how it applies to everyday interactions with children. Suggest a topic by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.
Follow the series on the I-LABS websiteFacebook or Twitter pages. Or, sign up for the quarterly Outreach newsletter by emailing ilabsout@uw.edu.
###
Links to Resources:
About Ask I-LABS Outreach:
I-LABS Online Training Modules:
KUOW, "How Stereotypes Affect Adolescent Black Males' Perception of Themselves"
I-LABS, "What Black Adolescents Say About Stereotypes"
ParentMap, "Racism: Families Push for Racial Justice"
Leoandra Onnie Rogers, Ph.D.
###