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It’s Time to Talk to Kids About Racism. Here’s How to Do It

"Children are not immune to either being the one who demonstrates racism or perhaps receiving racist action."

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The recent shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin — which comes just three months after the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, and six months after Breonna Taylor was murdered in her home by the police — is yet another horrific illustration of how unfairly black men and women are treated in America. The ensuing racial justice protests in cities nationwide and the reactions to them make it abundantly clear that we all must reckon with issues of race, privilege, and diversity to create a better way forward. 

It’s difficult to talk about race, diversity, and privilege with anyone, let alone children. Such topics can often breed discomfort and lead to the brushing aside of curiosities or the idea that children are too young to be exposed to such things. But it is imperative to talk to kids early and often about them and also to learn how to engage in the discussions to the best of your abilities. 

“Children are not immune,” says Dr. Y. Joy Harris-Smith, a New York Special Education Teacher, lecturer, and co-author of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (And Ourselves!) Embrace Differences. “They’re not immune to either being the one who demonstrates racism or perhaps receiving racist action. They may not have the language for it, but they are not immune.”

In order to have productive conversations with children, Dr. Harris notes that parents must first engage in critical self-reflection, asking themselves questions like, Am I honest about our level of privilege? Do I demonstrate enough empathy at home? Do we exist in an echo chamber, where all our family hears and sees are those of our own race, views, and privilege? Parents must also learn to sit with the discomfort they feel when kids bring up certain topics, and shouldn’t be afraid to admit when they don’t know something. The most important words a parent can say are sometimes “I don’t know. Let me get back to you.”

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“You’re telling them you don’t know everything because you don’t know everything,” she says. “You’re not telling them that you cannot engage. We can still have another conversation; we can still move forward. But acting like you know everything can lose a kid’s respect and lead to the parent feeling imposter syndrome.”

Fatherly spoke to Dr. Harris-Smith about what parents need to ask themselves before engaging with kids about issues of race, diversity, and privilege, how to encourage productive conversations, and why sitting in discomfort is one of the most useful things a person can do.

What do parents first need to recognize about themselves before having conversations about diversity, race, and privilege with children?

As parents, we teach our children things implicitly. We have to recognize that while we can teach explicit lessons and we should, our kids are going to learn a whole lot of things that we did not explicitly teach them. 

One of the things that parents have to do is recognize their own current narrative or their own history, and say Where am I lacking on this? Because a lot of time as parents, we’re in a society that has put us in a position of teaching our children all things. But as human beings we can’t possibly know everything.

 It’s recognizing where we might fall short. And that it’s okay to fall short. That’s not a bad thing. It’s saying, Well gee, if I have to talk to my kids about an issue of diversity, how well am I positioned to talk to them about that? It doesn’t mean you have to talk to them about everything. But it means asking yourself Do I have enough information? Am I still informed enough to talk about it? Or do I feel informed enough to be able to explain it so that my child understands it? 

Absolutely.

 And asking yourself these questions doesn’t mean that your child is going to want to know everything that there is to know at that moment, especially if they’re only four years old. They might just need a little bit of information. 

But parents do need to ask themselves: Do I have what I need for this moment? And a parent might already have what they need for that moment when talking to a four-year-old. But if a child is six, they may have a tougher question for you, and you may be unsure of how to answer. That’s when you say something like, “Hey that’s a really great question, I’m glad you asked that. But mommy or daddy doesn’t know everything, and I think I might need to check up on that.”

For a parent to admit they “just don’t know”, there’s a self-consciousness involved, a sense that if parents admit that they don’t know, they’ll look weak. 

Right. And if a parent says “I’ll get back to you,” they remind their child implicitly that they don’t know everything. And then you also establish a sense of respect because they begin to have a different kind of respect for you. And if a parent continues to say, “You know what? I don’t know. I need to check up on that,” a kid knows you’re being honest.

By doing this, you’re doing several things. You’re creating an implicit and healthy level of respect, you’re taking some of the pressure off yourself, and you’re letting the child know that while you might know a lot, you don’t know everything about everything. And this also allows you to engage in real discussion, especially as they get into the teen years. 

Still, I think there’s likely reluctance in saying something like that because when parents don’t have an answer, or are uncomfortable because of a question about race or diversity, they either shut down the question or distract.

Absolutely. Parents who find themselves in that kind of situation really need to stop for a moment and say “It’s okay. It’s okay if I don’t know. It’s okay if I’m uncomfortable. I need to sit in this discomfort. And it’s okay for me to say, I’ll get back to you.”  

Many have a problem sitting in that discomfort. Why do you think that is? 

I think that’s a reflection of our culture. We don’t like to be uncomfortable. And that speaks to our larger issues. When we’re inconvenienced, that’s where the discomfort comes from; when our kids ask a hard question, we’re being inconvenienced in the moment because we don’t really want to deal with this. But it’s your kid. So how do I deal with this in a healthy manner?

We have to push past being uncomfortable because a lot of people are uncomfortable every day and they don’t get to be comfortable, where being able to exhale or to breathe feels more like a luxury rather than a right.

A big part of self-reflection is acknowledging one’s privilege. Why is this so crucial?

Questioning one’s privilege leads to realizations that some of the privilege is because of your ethnicity or your race, but some of it is related to socioeconomics, and sometimes those things are very much intertwined.

You can’t completely separate them. And so, yes, it’s to recognize that, Hey, some of the things that I do on a regular basis, is [an example of] privilege because there are other people that don’t have that. 

You have to think about: What are the things that are not widely available and accessible but that I have access to? It’s also important to look at whether you exist only in circles of family or friends that reflect back to you what you enjoy as privilege and if, as a result, you rarely get to see the other things.

Critical self-reflection is something we have to do as human beings regularly. If parents would do that and if they would practice empathy and not just “Oh, we’re going to go to the soup kitchen today.” They need to practice empathy in the home and demonstrate it with children. 

Now, when a parent is discussing diversity, racism, privilege, or biases, what are some things they need to understand about engaging in these discussions?

Children are not immune. They’re not immune to either being the one who demonstrates racism or perhaps receives racism. They may not have the language for it, but they are not immune. And they may have already experienced something or perpetrated something.

The second is that I think parents should listen and ask more questions. Because sometimes parents will be able to get a sense of what their child actually knows, or understands, based on the question [their kid asks]. If a parent says, “well that person is sometimes treated differently because of this,” and then follows up with “Well what do you think about this?” That is a good question.

Fairness is a very great way to begin when talking about these topics, especially with young children. They have a strong sense of what’s fair. And then we as parents can begin to build on that. We can ask, Well, do you think it was fair for everybody to get something and this person to not get it? Well why do you think they didn’t get it? And they might be able to tell you. It may not be the same word, the language might be different, but it doesn’t mean they’re not making any of those observations. 

But it’s good to allow them to tell you what they’re seeing. And as you’re doing that, you’re letting them lead you. And when they’re ready for more, they can tell you. Don’t be afraid to use visuals. Don’t be afraid to use stories. They’re great entry points into having these more difficult discussions in ways that are age appropriate.  

Emotions can run high during these conversations.  Is it important for parents to tell kids what they’re feeling?Is naming your emotions about a particular subject important?

I think it’s very important. But it doesn’t mean that you have to use the strongest word. Instead of “angry,” you might say “upset.”

This is important, normalizing human emotions and human feelings. We live in a society that takes those things away from us. Work and school will take those away from us if we allow it. We can’t demonstrate anger because then we get critiqued, or we are a bad person. But those emotions are what makes us human, and we will feel them until the day we die. So it’s completely right for the parent to name them because it’s important for mental health. Not naming them doesn’t help.

Children are naturally inquisitive. They’ll ask good questions. Are there particular phrasings of questions that you think parents should use when they want to extract more from a child?

A leading question is “What do you think about X?” And sometimes too you can pose the question back to an older child about what they are observing. 

I’ll give you an example that I mention in the book. My son and my daughter were coming home from school and getting on the elevator. There was somebody on the elevator, I didn’t know who the person was — just a person, meaning I couldn’t identify the gender. It wasn’t clear to me.  So in my mind, I’m going “Oh boy,” because I was wondering if it was going to be my daughter who is 4 and she was looking [at this person].

The person said hi and we all said hi. We come down to our floor and the door hasn’t closed, I’m fumbling for my keys, and my son goes, before the elevator closes, “Mommy is that a boy or a girl?”

And I’m like, oh, here we go. For some reason, the elevator door does not close. And he starts the question again. And the door starts closing. And I said, finally getting the key, “what do you think?” And he said, “I think it might be a woman.” And I said, “You might be right. But the person was being neighborly and that’s all that really matters.”  

I spoke to Dr. Jennifer Harvey, the author of Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, and she referred to the “grocery store incident.” That’s when white parents at the grocery store worry about their kids looking at someone who has a different skin color, and pointing out their skin color. And she said the white parents’ responses are often to dismiss them. She said “White folks aren’t sure if we’re supposed to notice that or not supposed to notice that. And so our children don’t get that development along their lines.”  

Yes, you don’t have to be so weird about it. But I think the other part is that that example shows that the children have not been exposed to many people who are different from them. And therein lies the discomfort. This is where critical self-reflection comes in again. If you feel uncomfortable because your child points out a difference, it means that they haven’t seen it before. You have to ask yourself, why? Why haven’t they seen somebody who is another color or complexion or race or ethnicity?

One more thing Dr. Harvey said was that it’s wrong to tell kids we’re all equal. She said it’s akin to “saying to my kids vegetables are really good for you but never giving them any actual vegetables.” Saying “we’re all equal” can often be a default response. Instead of saying something like that what do you think is more appropriate? 

I think saying something like “While we are all the same, we are not all treated fairly.” Or, “Everyone is equal in terms of being a human being, but unfortunately we don’t all treat each other fairly.” And kids will go huh? And it makes them more aware of being fair and where they experience those things.

What all of this is requiring from us is to be present in the moment. Right now, because of the pandemic, many of us are on pause and so we’re all a bit more present than we may have been. Moving forward, we need to ask How do we keep this practice of being present in the moment? When you’re hustling, how do you stop for a moment and think Oh, this kid is asking me a question. I don’t like this question. I feel uncomfortable. But I might try to answer it. Or you might try to say, Can we get to the car first? And then mommy or daddy is going to answer that question. And that gives you a bit of time.

But it’s about being present in the moment. Those are those teachable moments where we can influence our kids both implicitly and explicitly. Will we get each one right? No. But we can’t let them slip away.