Discussing Racism with Children

By Laci R.

Racism isn’t a new issue. However, it is one that people all over the world have recently come together in order to take a stance against. How do you bring the conversation into your own home? Were you ever directly told about racism, yourself? 

I’d like to share some vital information: 

  • As early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences.”
  • By ages 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias.”
  • By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs—giving parents a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves cultural understanding.”

(Authors Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, MSHS, FAAP & Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP 
Last Updated 7/29/2019 
Source American Academy of Pediatrics (Copyright © 2019) 
https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/Building-Resilience/Pages/Talking-to-Children-About-Racial-Bias.aspx)

It’s not always easy to provide an explanation to a child; whether it’s the mechanics of something (why a toy will no longer beep and light up), safety (why it’s important to hold hands and look both ways before crossing a street), or why some people are treated poorly, hurt, and killed based on nothing other than the color of their skin.  
 
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano shows children as they discuss with their families the incident of a local black man who was shot by the police. These discussions look different in the home of Emma (who is White) and Josh (who is Black) but share a similarity in the feeling of injustice. The use of historical and present-day context is utilized in a way that promotes compassion and eagerness to learn. The story shows Emma and Josh applying what they learn when a new student from another country named Omar arrives at their school. This book provides general guidance for parents and caregivers full of vocabulary definitions, conversation guides, and additional online resources to visit to continue the conversation about racism.  
 
Opening up a safe space for children to learn about racism and how to be actively anti-racist is a necessary step in parenthood, guardianship, and adulthood in general. It’s crucial to be proactive during such an impressionable time.  
 
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson is a story about Clover, segregation, and a determined friendship. Clover’s mom says it isn’t safe to cross the fence that segregates their African American side of town from the white side where Anna lives. The two girls bend the rules set in place by their grown-ups by spending time together sitting on the fence that separates their homes. This is where they are allowed to exist in the same space, one they have created themselves. A lyrical narrative and thoughtful watercolor images show how this friendship is formed during a time when it seems impossible. 

It’s important to keep in mind that these discussions and questions that arise will look different in every family based on a variety of details and factors, including race. Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham invites white families and children to become more invested in the reality that is racism and, in turn, to cultivate justice.  This story explains how each of us are affected by power and privilege from the very moment we’re born and offers an honest explanation for kids about racism, white supremacy, and civic responsibility. Pair these books with others about racism and segregation such as: Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh, Ruth and the Green Book by Calvin Alexander Ramsey, and Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson (also available from Libby/OverDrive in eaudiobook format).
 
It can be daunting to know where to start despite the vast amount of resources flooding our social media accounts. Keep in mind that the conversation about racism can easily become a fruitful one, full of eagerness to learn and the desire to be kind. I strongly believe in the importance of embracing curiosity, including the tough questions. If you don’t have an answer ready for the child in your life, be sure to let them know you’ll have one for them soon- and then, follow up. Whether it’s just the beginning or you’re continuing the conversation about racism, don’t ever let the discussion end. No matter what.

Laci is a Children’s Instructor and Research Specialist at HCLS. They love a wide variety of music, spending time in the garden, Halloween, cats, and crafting. Their “to read” list is always full of graphic novels and picture books.