Race and racism can be intimidating topics to broach. Often, parents will avoid talking about these things with their children altogether, for various reasons. Isn't calling attention to race counterproductive? Why point out differences my children don't even see? The reality is that children absorb much more of their environment than we may want to accept, and sadly, that environment very often includes racism. Of course, necessity doesn't make it an easier conversation. I consulted experts and spoke to real moms about how to talk to your kids about racism before you send them back to school. Like any sensitive topic, it's much more productive to speak to them at home before sending them off into a sea of other children.
Not only is it important to teach children to be loving and accepting of all people, but it's crucial to have open communication with a child who might be a victim of racism. Rachel Berman, graduate program director of the School of Early Childhood Studies at Ryerson University and a researcher on a project called "Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-Blindness in Early Childhood Settings" spoke to Today's Parent about the effects of ignoring these topics. "Children need adults to help them develop respect for and acceptance of others. Not talking about race and racism sends a message to children that this is a taboo topic, no matter what their age," Berman said.
For Suzanne Kiani-Knight, mother of two little boys, talking about racism is a non-negotiable responsibility that comes with raising kids. "Parents who think it is unnecessary to talk to kids about racism are likely coming from a place of privilege or a place of denial," Kiani-Knight tells Romper. "Racism exists at all ages and all levels of society. Our kids are not immune from experiencing racism or from being racist."
So how do you start the conversation? After the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, USA Today asked several parents how they approached the subject with their children. Dr. Melissa Sporn, a child psychologist, weighed in on the best practices.
The best way to begin a conversation about race and racism is to listen to your child's own thoughts. "Find out from your child what they know, recognizing that some of the things they may have heard may be misconceptions or misrepresentations of what actually happened," said Dr. Sporn to USA Today. You may be surprised at what your child has heard and seen, and what ideas they've already formed about racial differences and racism. This is your opportunity to start a dialogue — which is typically much more effective than a speech or lecture.
The blog "Raising Race Conscious Children" is a treasure trove for parents searching for ways to do exactly that. They've compiled various strategies for discussing racism with your child, not just during back-to-school, but in day-to-day life. Something to note is that most productive conversations don't occur when you've scheduled a "Let's Talk About Racism" chat. They can and should occur every day.
One main strategy that "Raising Race Conscious Children" encourages parents to use is simple: speak up. Point out things that seem discriminatory or racist. Let children ask questions about race, appearance, diversity, and so on — and thank them for asking questions and voicing their thoughts. Remember, the conversations you have at home will shape how your child sees the world.
Brenda Lyons, Chicago mother of two, asks questions to get a discussion started and lets her daughter lead the conversation. "I asked her if she ever felt she was treated differently because of her race and she said no. She understands that it’s not OK and would tell the teacher if she felt a kid was being mean or racist," Lyons tells Romper. Though her daughter hasn't experienced racist behavior, Lyons continues to check in — and most importantly, make sure her daughter knows what to do if it ever occurs.
This letter, entitled "An Open Letter to Our Children on Why #BlackLivesMatter," published on the blog Little Nectar is a brilliant example of how to speak to white children about racism they may see or hear about, but not experience directly. The author, Corri, wrote, "We need to teach you that silence is an action. When we see anyone being a bully, it's our job to help. When people say and do things (even jokingly) that put others down, let's make a promise that we will stand up for them and for what is right. Even if it makes us uncomfortable — especially if it makes us uncomfortable. Both Mommy and Daddy need to get better at this, too." I encourage you to read this aloud to your children before school starts, and open the floor for questions and discussion afterwards.
The moral of the story? Race, and racism, are not issues you can ignore. Racism is nowhere near gone — as much as we wish it was — and it does our children a disservice to ignore the topic. As parents, you have a responsibility to teach your child about the world. That includes teaching them to identify, report, and help stop racist behavior. If we want to create a truly inclusive, loving society, we need to raise an inclusive, loving generation.