Talking to Kids About Race: 9 Tips for Moms

black and whiteEver ask an American child what they think about racial differences? A recent MTV survey found 89 percent of millennials believe everyone should be treated the same -- no matter their race. It's good news ... but it's also news that's masking a big problem in America.

Only 37 percent of the young people in that same MTV survey said they were raised in a home where their families talked about race. And when researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at how racism is discussed in families back in 2012, they found most white moms take a colorblind or colormute approach to the subject -- that is if they talk about it at all.

Why is racism something American families are largely ignoring?

According to Erin Winkler, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the answer goes beyond parents. 

"Our society as a whole is not comfortable having a national conversation about race and racialized inequality in the contemporary moment," Winkler explains. "As such, these conversations are not cultivated in school, in media, and in the public realm in general. So, it stands to reason, then, that many parents are uncomfortable talking about these issues with their children."

Unfortunately, ignoring racism doesn't work. It still exists in America, and as one study at the University of Washington found, children as young as 15 months old can show racial bias.

So what should parents be doing?

Winkler gave us some tips to help parents manage this tough conversation:

1. Get comfortable talking about race by talking to other adults. If you can't have the conversation with other adults, it's going to be much harder to have it with your kids, Winkler warns. Reach out to experts or other parents for support and/or practice.

2. Start young. "Research shows that parents have no problem talking to their children about gender at a very young age, but hold off talking about race until a much older age, if ever," Winkler notes, calling it a mistake. "What holding off the conversation does is simply (a) teach children that we do not talk about race (although they can clearly see through media, curriculum, and the world around them that it seems to matter), and (b) leave children to come to their own conclusions about why the racialized patterns they see in the world exist." Parents should start talking about race when their kids are as young as 3 or 4 -- preschool age.

3. Build off what you see. Teachable moments really are all around us, Winkler says. "Racialized representations in children’s movies and books are a good place to start. Which characters -- animals, cars, planes, etc. -- seem to have which kind of accents? Do the children think real people with those kinds of accents act the same way as the characters in the movie with those accents?" she says.

"Research also shows children are likely to transfer or apply linguistic connotations to people, so if you read books with your child that associate positive things with white -- 'Snow White,' 'the good witch,' 'pure as the driven snow' -- and negative things with black -- 'evil,' 'sin,' 'dirty,' 'the wicked witch' -- it is a good idea to talk with your child about, for example, good things they associate with darker colors or bad things they associate with lighter colors. All of this is to get them into the mode of critical and complex thinking, which research shows above all else helps reduce prejudice in children."

4. Be a good role model. Teaching your kids to be open and accepting is not just about what you say; it's what you do. If you tell them to accept diversity, but they don't see a diverse group of adult friends at your home, for example, you're not practicing what you preach, and it won't hit home.

5. Don't treat racism as something from the past. "Unfortunately, when talking about racism with children, adults often tend to focus solely on heroic figures of the past," Winkler explains. "While it is critically important for children to understand this history, research has shown that when we only present the history without helping children connect it to contemporary issues, children can actually have higher levels of prejudice." Teach history, but also talk about current issues, especially those in your own community.

6. Don't ascribe racist actions to "bad" or "sick" people. "This teaches children that the unfair, racialized conditions in today’s society are caused only by individual 'bad people,' when in fact this is a structural, societal problem that requires that it be addressed at a societal level," Winkler notes. Kids need to know that people they may love or like may say or do racist things too -- and that it's something we can all work to address, including them. 

7. Avoid colorblindness. It may seem like a positive thing to teach kids to ignore race, but Winkler says research shows it actually backfires. It can increase racial prejudice and make it harder for kids to recognize racial inequalities.

8. Don't stop your kids from talking about race. "Parents 'shush' their children when they make observations related to race rather than using those comments as an opportunity to open a dialog," Winkler says. Instead, use your child's comment to open the door. Explain to them why what they said was inappropriate (or not).

9. Get your kids involved. Kids don't have to wait until someone drops a racial epithet in front of them to be an agent of change. Winkler suggests taking your kids to meet someone in your area who is working for social justice or getting your child thinking about things they can do to make their town or school a fairer place.

Have you had the racism conversation with your kids yet? How did it go?


Image via © timsa/istock

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the4m... the4mutts

I 100% disagree!! I have never spoken about race to my children, except as a descriptive term. "That cute black girl that always has pretty braids in her hair. What's her name again?"

My kids are mixed race (as if you couldn't guess by my screen name) and they have friends of all racial backgrounds. Mostly hispanic and black kids. I am a firm believer in the color blind approach.

My daughter (7) came home from school one day, very upset, because the cute black girl with the braids was excluded from a game between a bunch of white kids, and my daughter. My daughter didn't understand why, and tattled to my SIL, who works at the public school they used to attend. When she found out that the girl was excluded for being black, she NEVER played with the white kids again. They invited her to games, and tried sharing/giving her toys to play with them. But she never would.

That little girl taught my daughter to tie her shoes when I failed. Taught her to jump rope, and braided her hair at recess. My daughter gave her candy, and brought her flowers.

Race doesn't have to be talked about if your family isn't racist. Kids learn by example. We have friends from all backgrounds, and my kids just grew up socializing with all of them. They inherently KNEW that excluding someone because they LOOK different, was wrong.

the4m... the4mutts

Oh, and to clarify, I don't mean that my daughter never played with ANY white kids again, just the ones that were mean to her friend

Katha... Katharine205

Oh the liberal stupidity in this article is making my head hurt.  Racism will stop being an issue when we stop making an issue out of it. We don't discuss racism in my house and guess what - my daughter could really give a shit what color you are. Her friends come in black, white and everything inbetween. She has pointed out skin color before (as well as hair color, eye color, etc) but that's because she was a little kid and that's what little kids do.  They also descriminate against weight, height, how many barbie dolls the other part has, etc.  I simply told her that isn't right and moved on...kinda like we do with ALL the little nuances that she picks at.  This business of repeatedly driving home how racist whites are is ridiculous.  People are people, end of story.  Now referring to the colors black and white are racist?  Are you f-cking kidding me??  The stupidity of this boggles my mind.  We Americans have become completely asinine in our request to not offend anyone (well, any non-white/christian/conservative/male one).

maya_... maya_rice

I agree with the above comments. My kids have friends of all colors and ethnicity. So do we, it's a non-issue. I have a story about when my oldest was 3. He had been watching little Bill (Bill Cosbys show) and was in tears over that no one would like him because he had colors. To him white meant the crayon color. He is a white, blonde haired , blue eyed boy. Made me furious that a kid show would make a child feel like that. If people would stop making it such an issue then the issue would go away.

Megan... MeganJune03

I agree with the above comments 100%. We don't talk about it our home because it's not an issue. Everyone is the same color in our eyes.

nonmember avatar Sarah

First off, a lot of babies and young children just don't like people who look different than what they're used to. That's totally normal and not at all racist.

But I really don't see the issue with not having long discussions about race? My parents never really discussed it, unless I asked questions. I grew up not seeing race, not seeing anything. My Papa was so proud when I played with a child at the park who had no arm. It made no difference to me, I knew some people had no arms or legs or whatever. These weren't things I was explicitly taught or told. I picked up on how my parents treated people and imitated them. I feel like you need to lead by example in the end. Frankly, depending on the age, the child could be very confused by conversations about racism. Unless it relates to them at that moment, you can hold off, and simply explain that everyone is a little different and that's okay. Just like when you teach them about sex you don't need to explain every single detail, every fetish, all about sexual abuse, etc. at the same time. Those can come later when they're more relevant and the child is more prepared to understand them.

Coles... Coles_mom

Thank goodness for the above comments! I came to say the exact same thing. I don't talk about race because I DON'T want it to be an issue. Stop talking about the differences!!! I don't know if my kids even realize kids are different skin colors...they've never mentioned it...because we accept everyone.

handy... handy0318

Did anyone stop for a moment and try to figure out that perhaps the reason why 89 percent of millennials believe everyone should be treated the same -- no matter their race is precisely because they were raised knowing it wasn't an issue? Let's give the color blind approach a few more years... I agree with Katharine205 "Racism will stop being an issue when we stop making an issue out of it."

katyd... katydidsmom

We don't talk much about it in our house (we are a mixed family---Mexican and white) only if my kids make any comments or ask questions. We live in a college town and have a lot of diverse friends, black, white, Hispanic, and Asian, so I hope that simply having a wide range of diverse experiences will sink in to them

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