By Ijeoma OluoUpdated Feb 16, 2021
Conversations about race are difficult. It’s a topic that’s so difficult, and filled with pain, division and complexity that many adults do everything they can to avoid them. Many white parents feel that the topic of race is one that can wait until their kids are teenagers—if it’s necessary at all. They’d like to prolong the time of innocence for their kids, free of racial strife and division. Some even hope that by avoiding the topic altogether, their kids will be able to grow up in a race-free world.
For most parents of colour, however, it’s not an option to postpone the discussion—they need to prepare their kids for a world that often discriminates against them regardless of their age. Race is an issue in our schools, at our parks, at our sleepovers. Your kids are learning about race right now. They are learning from their television and movies, from the internet, from their teachers, and from their peers. With the amount of ignorance and racial hatred in this world, this is not an education that you want to leave to chance.
I’ve been writing and speaking on issues of race for years and as headlines about police brutality, white supremacy and immigration battles are on the rise, I regularly hear from white parents (of white children and children of colour) who realize they need to talk to their kids about race, but they aren’t sure how to start.
If you’re nervous about talking to your kids about race, here are some pointers:
A lot of people assume that because racism is a learned trait, that seeing race is learned as well. But your kids see race. Most are capable of picking up on visual cues that some people look “different” than others, as early as in their infancy—especially if those people look very different from the immediate family that they spend the majority of their time with.
I’ll never forget the first time I realized how terrified some white parents were of acknowledging race. I was a teenager, working at my local bookstore during the holiday season. As the checkout line grew, the chatter from customers combined with the endless loop of and the Christmas music over the speaker system and made for a cacophony of sound. There was one kid standing with his parents in the long line. He was fidgety and tired of waiting. Whenever I looked up to wave the next customer over to my register he was staring at me intently. Finally, after about five minutes of staring, the kid couldn’t take it anymore.
He yelled out to me, “Hey! You’re black!”
Suddenly, you could hear a pin drop. It felt like even the Christmas music had stopped playing. I looked around at a line full of now very nervous and embarrassed white people who were stealing fleeting glances at me, waiting to see what I would do, while the parents of the young boy frantically explained that it wasn’t nice for him to say things like that. The faces of the white people in line weren’t just nervous, they were afraid.
I looked at the kid, smiled, and said, “I sure am!” And then called the next customer to my line.
It’s not racist to notice someone’s race. It’s not racist to see dark skin or a broad nose and realize that it looks different than yours. The racism comes from the value judgments we place on those differences. When your children notice racial and cultural differences in other people, it’s far better to say something like, “Isn’t it wonderful how different people can look from each other and all be so beautiful?” or, “Isn’t it great to live in an area where we can make friends with people of so many different cultures?” rather than, “Honey, it’s not nice to comment on that person’s hair.”
As a black mom, I’ve always known I’d need to sit my children down to talk about race. I never expected them to bring it to me first. Around the age of four, my youngest son started asking me and his dad about race.
“Mom, why are there no brown people in this movie?”
“Dad, why can’t I pick any characters for this video game that look like me?”
Soon, he had similar questions for his teachers and his friends. And as they all awkwardly tried to figure out how to avoid discussing race, my son became more upset. He knew he was different. And he knew that he was missing from most TV shows, books, movies and video games. And nobody would even acknowledge it, let alone tell him why. He was being gaslit by adults everywhere, and it was doing him real harm.
If you are the parent or caregiver of a child of colour, please understand that you have to acknowledge their race. Make sure they can see themselves in their toys, books, television shows and movies. And make sure that when they ask you about race, that you are validating the experience they’re having.
This doesn’t mean that you have to get into a long conversation about institutional racism with a 4-year- old who has noticed that none of his favourite superheroes have brown skin, but they do need an acknowledgement that what they’re seeing is real, it matters, and the pain it causes them is valid.
For younger kids, try something like, “A long time ago, a lot of people used to think that people with brown and black skin weren’t as important as people with white skin. It’s gotten better, and a lot of people know that was a really wrong and unfair way to think, but there are some people who still haven’t learned any better. And there are some people who are so used to only seeing white people on their TV screens that they haven’t realized it isn’t fair, and that their shows would be even better if they had people of all different colours in them. But we are working hard to help people know better, and if we keep asking about it, and if our friends ask about it, it will continue to change.”
Last spring, my older son’s high school held a social justice fair. Educators and activists set up to talk to kids about race, religion, feminism and more. One exhibit showed artifacts of black history. There were shackles that once held black men, women and children in slavery, there was African clothing and instruments. As I browsed the colourful dresses, I heard a teen yell, “Nah man, you’re lying.” I turned to see a black teenager at the exhibit of African-American Inventions, loudly arguing with a teacher.
“You’re telling me a black man invented this? Nah. Quit playing.”
The teacher calmly assured him that a black man had indeed invented that.
The teen then pointed to another invention, “And that too? You’re telling me a black person invented that too? You’re trying to tell me that we invented all this? Nah man. Nah.”
The teacher, an older black man, just reached up and patted the kids shoulder while he stared at the display, in complete shock. It was all I could do to not break down crying right there.
This young man’s education was almost finished before his school showed him that he could be an inventor, before he was told he could make so many amazing, lasting contributions to society. He needed to see that at age 3 and 4. He needed to read it in his textbooks in 2nd and 3rd grade. And as my heart broke for this and so many other kids of colour who are told by the rest of the world that they are not inventors, explorers or leaders, my heart also broke for white kids. They also had no clue of the amazing things that their friends of colour could be. They had no clue of the beautiful legacy of their non-white friends and classmates.
Your kid, no matter what their race, needs heroes of colour. Who is in your kids’ schoolbooks, who is in their comics? Who are they seeing in the movies you take them to or the television shows you watch? Who are you inviting over for dinner? The fact that there are many amazing black inventors—and Asian-American, Latinx, Middle-Eastern and Native American—in our history should not be a shock to your kids. They should know that children of all races can accomplish great things, because they see people of all races accomplish great things.
When everyone is discussing headlines around racial violence—like the killing of black children of Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice by police, or the white supremacy marches in Charlottesville and the killing of counter-protester Heather Hyer—your kids are likely to hear about it and have questions. They may even feel unsafe for themselves or their friends and family. If your children are white, this is a very good time to help them build empathy by discussing how these events might be impacting their friends and classmates of colour. “Some of the kids in your class who are black might be feeling very unsafe right now, after hearing that someone was killed for looking just like them.” Conversations like this can help kids practise seeing outside of their own lived experience and to see that important issues are not only the ones that impact them directly.
But don’t just leave it at empathy. You can help turn fear and despair into hope and empowerment by showing your kids how they can make a difference in their community. Follow up with something like, “And this is why it is so important to always stick up for your friends if anybody at your school tries to treat them badly because of their race. It’s important to show your friends that even if the world seems scary, that they are safe and loved at school. And all your other friends can help learn from your example, that we have to stand up for each other, and that being mean to someone because of the colour of their skin isn’t okay.”
My 9-year-old son can feel very scared and powerless. He sees headlines about kids who look like him who have been killed. He hears about racist marches around the country. I saw him googling “What is White Supremacy” shortly after the election. It’s very easy for him to feel like the grownup world is letting him down and there is nothing he can do about it.
I remind him that, even though he can’t do much about the grownup world, he can do a lot about the kid world. He has friends who love him and think he has great ideas. And he can talk to them about how they can all make their classroom a place where all kids feel safe and respected and appreciated. I explain that it might not seem like much now, but he and his classmates are going to be the grownups making the decisions one day, so they can start learning how to make better decisions now.
And that really is what it is all about: Our children will be inheriting this world and shaping it in their image. We see our kids as perhaps future lawyers, doctors, even presidents—but do we see them as people working for equality, justice and love? Just as we don’t neglect to teach our children math and then hope they’ll become physicists, we can’t neglect to teach our children anti-racism and then hope they won’t grow up to be racist. These are important skills for your children to learn, and it’s never too early to start teaching them.
This article was originally published online in August 2017.