Black History Month is a terrific celebration of all of the wonderful Black Americans whose determination, heart, brilliance, and, creativity changed the course of American culture. For many parents, especially parents who don’t feel comfortable or knowledgeable enough to address racial injustice or ideology with their children, Black History Month can be a great way to begin these conversations.
But, this work shouldn’t stop at the end of February.
Diving into Black history often prompts kids to ask questions about slavery, unjust laws, the Civil Rights movement, discrimination, the lives of Black Americans, and even topics currently in the news (like police violence or kneeling during the National Anthem). These questions are good—kids are naturally curious and their questions mirror the confusion in their minds. As little beings, they inherently want to make sense of their world. They want to know the “why” behind certain social establishments, what caused people to behave as they did, and what it all means now.
And, you know what? They deserve to know.
Too often, as parents, we try to shelter our kids from the realities of everyday life with the utmost good intention—we want to keep them innocent and carefree with open hearts. The problem we run into here is that kids are a product of both their parents and their social environments—we are not their only teachers. Many times, especially when we’re not comfortable or have enough practice in talking about difficult subjects, we search for the safest things to say or we dance around subjects without saying much at all.
Heather Bryant, M.Ed., Director of Innovation and Impact at the Momentus Institute, which works to build and repair social-emotional health of children and families across the globe, talks at length about making “space for race” in conversations with young children. “Back in the day,” she tells us, “the message was, ‘kids are kids and don’t see color.’ I was told on more than one occasion that young children didn’t notice race. Ugh. What a mistake.”
We now know from research that children as young as three months old make discriminations of faces of people of different races and show a preference for own-race faces over other-race faces.
As parents and educators, Bryant explains, our influence on children is enormous and the repercussions of that influence are real. “It’s a huge responsibility,” she says. “Part of that responsibility is making sure that all children feel safe, seen, understood, valued, and capable. In order to do that, we must challenge ourselves to open up space for honest, messy, and courageous conversations about race. When we don’t have those conversations, we are failing our children. And the cost of that failure is just too high.”
But, how can you go about that? Or, where do you even start? We talked to a few experts to get more insight on how to go about this hard, but necessary, work.
Educate yourselves first
Abdullah Muhammad, an anti-racist educator, workshop facilitator, and consultant at Monarch Training and Development, tells us, “Parents or caregivers need to realize that culture is socializing children into race practically from birth. Parents raise children within a social context, and the American social and political context bends toward whiteness as ‘normal’. As a result, the default reference point for anything children will interact with will likely support that cultural ethos.” This is just how our culture and society currently works. In order to counteract this socialization, we need to balance our kids with similarly subtle inclusive messages.
We must challenge ourselves to open up space for honest, messy, and courageous conversations about race. When we don’t have those conversations, we are failing our children. And the cost of that failure is just too high.
“Historical knowledge of the ways racism (and sexism) was a part of our country’s legal, economic, and social structure will help parents make sense of things that they didn’t learn as children themselves,” adds Dr. Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi, Diversity and Inclusion Expert and Vice Provost at the University of San Francisco. This opens up the possibilities of how parents can be better and raise their children to be more inclusive than generations prior.
We’ve all seen a child staring at another person who may be different from them or from the world they know. Sometimes it can make us as adults uneasy, immediately thinking that the child is acting rude or being disrespectful to this person. In reality, “children are still learning and growing — their minds are developing and are studying the world around them and who lives in it,” explains Sherrie MacLean, RECE, and Director of Tiny Hoppers Kingston West. “It is our responsibility as adults to share information with them at a level they will understand, so that they see that all people, regardless of ability or race,” she explains.
With young children under the age of two, MacLean suggests introducing and reacting to people of different ethnicities and abilities with kindness. When we use a person’s race or ability level as a primary identifier when so many other physical characteristics are available to us, we’re teaching our kids to lead their judgments of others race or ability or gender-first. Similarly to how we should say, “Let’s go ask that child with the cool truck if we can play with him,” rather than “Let’s go play with the boy in the wheelchair,” avoid using race as your first-response way to introduce people to your child’s world.
And, less obviously, be aware of how your body language or mannerisms might change around various kinds of people—young children are absorbing mannerisms from you as their parents and they will mimic your lead.
“Show compassion and kindness to all people young and old,” MacLean says, “and your child will learn to follow suit with empathy and courtesy.”
Make diversity a fact of life
People are different, Muhammad explains: “We come from different cultures, ethnic groups, countries, and other groups that impact how we think and behave. These differences should be normalized for children.”
For example, when reading children’s books, parents should have books that both reflect and celebrate diversity as a normal part of life. Parents should also be deliberate about making the spaces you inhabit diverse. The more representation children are exposed to, the more normal it becomes, Muhammad explains.
Representation does matter. A lack of representation in books, movies, and culture can make children of color want to hide, but it can also prevent white children from getting an accurate portrayal of the world in which they live.
Be aware of how conversations may be internalized
“You have to keep in mind how much the initial conversation about race affects a child’s self-esteem,” notes Quentin Bell, the founder and Executive Director of The Knights & Orchids Society, a Southern-centered grassroots startup that provides life-saving resources to minorities. This is true especially when the child is a racial minority. “It can be very damaging to teach a 6-year-old child of color about slavery or other forms of racial oppression that heavily affected people who look like them,” explains Bell.
When young kids presently they don’t see themselves represented frequently in a positive way in the media, any knowledge of racism or oppression, past or present, can seem particularly threatening. “Using stories that celebrate people of color who have overcome adversity,” suggests Bell. This will not only empower children of color, but it will also inform and inspire all young children who may not have heard of certain historical figures that often get left out of history books.
“Not seeing color” has come to mean ignoring differences, Muhammad tells us. “But just because you’re not actively pointing out color doesn’t mean you should be avoiding it at all costs,” he says.
Much of what children learn is through observation and repetition and is not taught directly. Messages about race are often implemented and reinforced in this way. Muhammed explains with this example: “If a child is with a parent at a supermarket and she remarks, ‘Daddy, look at that brown man in a dress’ when she sees someone wearing a thobe (the long robe worn traditionally by Muslim men), the response of the parent is just as instructive as any active teaching.”
Parents are typically embarrassed when this type of interaction occurs, he continues. Responding to the child in a hushed or whispered tone, regardless of what is said, reinforces in the child that the ethnic and cultural differences perceived by the child are somehow inappropriate to discuss.
Conversely, responding in a way that demonstrates that you are eager to teach the child about how awesome the difference is will go far in teaching the child to celebrate difference, he says. All parents should continually examine their bias and possible stereotypes of other groups, Muhammad notes.
Seek out diversity
Quentin Bell encourages parents to stretch their social boundaries as a means of social instruction for their young children. “Look for age-appropriate local events where your child can interact with or learn from people of different races without the contextual aspect of ‘othering’ people of color,” he suggests.
Library groups and classes, as well as park district gatherings (in your town or neighboring towns if your own town is not very diverse), are more accessible to all types of people, and so may offer more diversity than private classes or social groups.
Dr. Mary J. Wardell-Ghirarduzzi agrees: “Parents or caregivers should seek and create opportunities for their children to have bonds and relationships with both white and non-white children and children of various races, genders, disabilities, and social classes.
“Let your child know that as humans we are all more alike than we are different,” Bell tells us, “and the things that make us different should be celebrated by everyone.”
Use your resources
Public television is one of the greatest resources to families with children on learning about important racial issues and consequences. “Sesame Street deals with issues of race, as do the other epic series public television develops – all for the purpose to help children and their families learn more about themselves through the lens of race, gender, class, disability and understand systems of oppression and privilege,” says Wardell-Ghirarduzzi.
Your public library is also a great place to scope out diverse books, movies, and even groups in which to take part and meet parents and kids of other races. “There is nothing like a dynamic children’s librarian who can pull age-appropriate books for your child that acknowledge racial difference, teach lessons on social justice, and helps the child learn what to do through the characters of the story,” Wardell-Ghirarduzzi notes.
Ask the librarian for books written by authors of color who often address diversity in their narratives. If the library doesn’t have a collection by children’s authors of color, as a taxpayer, parents can request the Library Director to make more diverse acquisitions to be made available to all children in the community.
Race and racism can feel like such a heavy topic that some parents avoid it altogether, Bell explains, but for women raising children of color, even if they don’t directly bring up a conversation about race, they are still having to teach their children how to navigate a world where they will be discriminated against because of the color of their skin. “Don’t make the next mom’s job harder than it already is,” Bell tells us.
One way to do this is to remain vigilant in your own learning so you can readily counteract inaccurate portrayals of history that your children may learn in school. A good way to start these sorts of discussions is by saying, “When I was in school, people didn’t tell the whole story, and many people who were a part of this history were left out. But now, we want to add everyone who is supposed to be in the story and learn about their perspective.” Continuing our own race education requires vigilance, but knowing our children have the power to change the culture in which they’ll grow up is worth the effort.
“Raising children to be healthy, brilliant, and happy is all that any of us want as parents,” he emphasizes. “But committing to teaching your child to appreciate racial differences can help the next generation of kids, who may one day be parents themselves, enjoy parenting and the world in a way that no one has ever known before.”
How have you approached the topic of race with your kids? Tell us in the comments below.