How to Help Kids Build Racial Literacy

Here’s how to begin the process of seeing more and talking productively about our differences.

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 

This story is part of From The Start: A Parent’s Guide to Talking About Racial Bias, a series created in partnership with Johnson’s®, Aveeno® Baby, and Desitin®. We’re here to help parents tackle the difficult task of talking to their kids about race. With a topic this big, it can be hard to even know where to start — so we’ve teamed up with experts who have real answers to parents’ questions.

Traci Baxley thinks that the death of George Floyd at the hands of police created an unavoidable urgency. The associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and creator of Social Justice Parenting says that the incident forced parents to stake out a position on the right side of history. “It wasn’t enough to be or raise good people,” she says. “They want children who will be change agents.” The unavoidable urgency is talking to kids about race.

So how do parents position themselves on the right side of history and raise agents of change?

For that to happen, kids have to see, not ignore, skin colors, celebrate the differences, and understand they dynamics of privilege. It starts by talking, and there’s no early enough time to do it. Babies can start making preferences in the first three months. “By the time they are five, kids associate different racial groups with higher status,” adds Kamania Wynter-Hoyte, assistant professor of early childhood education at University of South Carolina.

Children will make connections regardless. So, as a parent, you want to aid that process with thoughtful lessons. Racial literacy is the goal. Our little “change agents” will need to move through the world without prejudice, says Amanda Lewis, distinguished professor of Black studies and sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago.

Along with talking, you need to find ways to expand who children see. Parents must be deliberate and do away with “We don’t see color. We see people.” mindset, which is dismissive and a byproduct of privilege.

“As a Black mother, I don’t get that privilege,” Baxley says. Wynter-Hoyte also calls that thinking both ineffective and a lie. People see color at traffic lights and with their clothes. When they overlook it in people, “they don’t see the unique experiences, struggles, resilience, beauties and stories,” she says.

So how do you help children to see color — to notice and then qualify differences without attaching judgment? Here are a few first steps.

Look to Books, Toys, and TV Shows That Are Accurate and Inclusive

Children’s books are the easiest introduction to diversity for kids. Baxley recommends Chocolate Me!, Hair Love, and Pretty Brown Face. Lewis suggests The Colors of Us and The Skin You Live In. Wynter-Hoyt mentions Baby Blessings, Bedtime for Sweet Creatures and Black Magic.

One benefit of books, per Lewis, is that they give you and your kids a shared language to refer back to. But Wynter-Hoyte says to make sure that the pages aren’t filled with only animals, another way of staying color blind. Your child should see authentic, non-token representations of people. And it’s not merely with stories of struggle, but also, “Does it have Black joy in it?,” she asks.

The same goes for the games, toys and shows a children plays with or watches. You want to look at what they’re exposed to and how inclusive and accurate it is, a process, per Wynter-Hoyte that helps to “decenter whiteness”.

Use Your Words Wisely

A common early out-the-house experience is when your child sees someone who looks different and, sometimes within earshot, says, “That girl is dark.” Parents can freeze, because they worry that the words reflect what they’re teaching. But Baxley says young kids are making observations, not judgments. “Children,” she notes. “are naturally curious and are insightful.”

Those are the qualities you want to encourage. A good response, she says, is to start with the facts. “Yes, that person’s skin is darker because of melanin. We all have some. The more you have, the darker your skin looks on the outside.”

You can transition to the qualitative with, “We are mostly the same as human beings, but we have differences like with skin color, hair, maybe foods we eat, and that can make us unique.” And then add, “What makes me sad is that we treat people differently because their skin color is different. That’s unfair.”

You also want to talk about privilege and how you and your family benefit, or don’t, from appearance and/or gender. It’s also important to talk about your differences and how they’re positive. It elevates the idea of diversity, and since it’s being talked about, kids don’t grow up needing to be defensive about, and denying, that advantages exist, Baxley says.

Expand Your Circle — And Reach Past What’s Familiar

True representation goes further than books. You want to examine if all the adults in your kids’ lives look like them. If not, you want to fill out the picture. It might mean venturing out to museums, festivals, businesses, and restaurants. When your kids see more people, that gets reflected in the pictures they draw and stories they create, Wynter-Hoyte says. You also want to search out dentists, eye doctors, barbers, music teachers, to not only expand your circle, but also to normalize Black excellence in their lives, Baxley says.

But more than what you say, kids learn from how you conduct your life and who you have in it. “It’s about living your values,” Lewis says. Baxley recommends to look through your phone contacts. If it’s lacking in diversity, expand it and model that behavior for your kids.

It all may require reaching past what’s familiar. Children can ask questions, and you might not have the answer, but per Wynter-Hoyte, it’s all right to say, “I don’t know. Let’s go see if we can find out together.”

Parents, Baxley adds, sometimes don’t say anything because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. But with race, you will probably say the wrong thing at some point. It happens. When you do, make amends and move forward — yet another important lesson for your kids. “Even in the fear and uncomfortableness,” she says, “doing nothing is worse because nothing changes.”

For more stories, videos, and information on talking to our kids about race, click here.

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