How do you talk to kids about racism (especially in a multi-cultural family)? Here are 5 things to consider when you talk to kids about racism.
My daughters (ages 3 and 5) are a blend of two races and cultures: Indian and American. Their dad’s complexion is very dark and mine is light – the girls are somewhere in the middle.
Before our first daughter was born, I did not give a lot of thought to how other people would look at or treat her as a girl of mixed race.
I didn’t even consider that someday she might even have to face racism herself. I was excited to see and meet her and that was it.
Now that I have 2 girls, I am getting used to frequent stares and comments. The majority of the time when I receive a random comment from a stranger it’s simply, “Your girls are so beautiful!” (And I can’t argue with that!)
But the other day I was in an office with the girls and I gave a lady some forms. She briefly left and then came back and asked me “You’re of Latino/Hispanic background?” (Never in my life has anyone assumed that by looking at me. Only once someone assumed that when talking to me over the phone, probably because my name is Maria.)
I was surprised, and probably looked confused, and said “no.” She responded with “Just the kids then?” It was her turn to look shocked when I said no.
I didn’t understand where she was going with her questioning and after a shocked pause she exclaimed: “I need everyone’s ethnicities for the form.”
Ah! Well, you could have saved us both a lot of trouble if you had asked that at the beginning! I was having a hard day and was a little frazzled and slightly irritated that she had jumped to conclusions without asking me first, but I tried not to let it bother me.
Another incident that showed me the potential struggles my daughters may face occurred last year when a local Indian man was harassed outside a grocery store one evening. Another man approached him, called him a racist name, and assaulted him.
Thankfully, someone else saw and called the police. The Indian man was bruised and beaten but luckily he wasn’t badly hurt.
My first thought was “This could have been my girls’ dad!” I felt sad and ashamed and also worried.
Remember babies are not born racists.
Adults who are racists were not born that way.
Racism is either caught or taught.
Kids will learn racism through observation or, more sadly, through someone actively teaching them to be racist.
Even if you think that you personally will never encounter racism (but my guess is you will), I encourage you to honestly reflect on these things and be prepared for situations where you may be a witness and have to step up and say or do something.
I also invite you to seriously take stock of your own hidden biases. Here are some important things all parents should know when they talk to kids about racism.
Be friendly and calm
Whenever you’re faced with racism, be polite! Don’t automatically assume that someone (like the lady I mentioned above) is trying to be rude on purpose.
Yeah, some people truly are rude, but I honestly think many people say weird things out of ignorance or because they don’t know what else to say.
If someone is rude or obnoxious on purpose (and/or won’t quit) then I’ll just walk away. (Obviously, if someone is threatening or violent, I’ll just get away fast and call the police.)
Educate the other person
Try to kindly teach the other person.
If someone makes a false assumption, I will gently correct and explain why.
Looking back, I probably should have politely addressed the lady in the office about her false assumption, maybe saying something about not judging appearances and asking first instead of just assuming.
If your children are with you and are witnesses to any kind of racism, here are some other important things to consider:
Don’t ignore the issue
When I’m with my girls and I see something happen that is inappropriate (or rude or wrong), I talk about it with them (in an age-appropriate way).
Children are very observant.
They notice what you do and don’t do, what you say and don’t say, and how you react to each situation.
Talk with them. Make sure that you explain what is wrong and why. If you can’t talk about it right then, have a conversation later.
If you regularly avoid talking about race or racism, then your children will pick up on that too.
Have ongoing, honest, age-appropriate conversations with your children about race, culture, and ethnicities. Teach them about their culture and family heritage, including grandparents and great-grandparents.
Make sure you interact with people of other races on a normal, regular basis as much as possible.
Here are some specific things you can do:
- Talk about your life when you were a child. (My girls’ dad loves to tell them girls stories of his childhood growing up in India and how life is different there.)
- Talk about physical differences.
- Read books about physical differences – skin, hair, eyes, etc. – and discuss.
- Read books about different cultures
- Play music from many different cultures. (My girls’ dad shares Indian songs with them and they love to sing and dance along.)
- Share your own experiences.
- Talk about current events (in age-appropriate ways)
This article gives more ideas about how to talk to kids about racism, giving ideas for different age groups.
Be aware of your own biases
This is a big one!
I think most people want to see themselves as loving and accepting of everyone and not at all racially biased. The thing is we all have biases of all kinds.
People tend to favor other people (or people groups) like themselves.
Here are some things to consider:
- How do you treat other people, especially those who are different from you? (Be honest!)
- How do you talk about your own culture to your children (or in front of them)?
- How do you talk about another person’s culture? (For me, how do I talk about my girls’ dad’s Indian culture?)
- How do you refer to people of another race?
- Do you avoid talking to certain kinds of people?
- Do you treat everyone you meet with the same warm courtesy?
- What about your body language around different groups of people?
Children will pick up on our subtle cues and body language (and what we do and don’t say or do). In fact, a recent study shows how children can “catch bias” simply by observing our actions.
You need to educate your children about race, cultures, and ethnicities and examine the way that you yourself look at other cultures and people. It’s important to realize the ways we stereotype or form bias about other people groups, cultures, and races.
Check out my other post on some simple ways that I am trying to raise children with an openness to other cultures and races.
Another powerful resource can be found in this video which shows the power of letting go and not fighting fire with fire. I love how the narrator just wants his kid to be proud of what he sees.
As a parent, you often need to have difficult conversations with your kids. How you talk to kids about racism might just be one of those hard (but important) conversations. Remember kids are not born racists. I’d love to hear your thoughts, please share them in the comments.