How To Explain White Privilege To Very Little Kids
Our Skin, from authors Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli, delves into the basics of identity and race, speaking with clarity and ease to our little ones.
From Daunte Wright to Tamir Rice, Ma’Khia Bryant, and so many others, we know that Black children are not protected by their age, as white children are. Many parents of younger kids have been struggling with how to have conversations with their kids about race. There’s a need to be honest and address it for their own safety and wellbeing, but it’s also important to find age-appropriate ways to discuss race and racism. Our Skin, the first book in the new First Conversations Series from authors Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli, delves into the basics of identity and race, speaking with clarity and ease to our little ones.
Ralli works on early childhood education at the Brooklyn Public Library and is a mother of two, while Madison works at the intersection of early childhood and antiracism education. The pair got together to create the First Conversations series, supporting first conversations about race, gender, consent and bodies. They give simple questions to jumpstart conversations and even tackle how to address white privilege, a topic that’s increasingly important to demystify and address as the national debate about how schools can — and should — approach the teaching of American history is boiling over in the news cycle.
“When explaining something complicated, new, or potentially sensitive or scary for young children, it’s important to scaffold, or build upon what they already know,” Ralli says. “It helps to give them context and connection to something in their own lives.”
Kids love us. They want to know how we identify. They want to know how race and racism makes us feel.
Madison and Ralli structured Our Skin with this in mind. “The book follows a path that starts with a child’s awareness and affirmation of self, then gives them simple and accurate language to describe diversity and difference, a beginning look at patterns of injustice as they relate to a young child’s world, and finally the inspirational and empowering message that they can act to make our world more just and fair,” she explains of the book, which is illustrated by Isabel Roxas. “There are no metaphors, no preachy generalizations.”
I recently chatted with Madison and Ralli via phone and email about the concepts in their new book, their tips for parents who might feel under-equipped to broach these topics, and why we need to give even very young kids a lot more credit than we do.
Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs: What are some pitfalls parents can fall into when talking about race and racism with small children?
Megan Madison: It’s challenging in general to talk about anything. It feels more scary when it has to do with a topic like race. One major pitfall is thinking that you just talk about race and racism once and you’re done. Another one is waiting until a kid brings it up, which might be way later than it should be. Kids rely on us to give them language to describe patterns they’re noticing. We don’t wait for them to bring us books to expose them to books.
Chleo, my daughter, got upset about the melanin page — she got upset because she didn’t have as much melanin as other people. She started crying. I said, ‘You have just the right amount for you. Everyone has the just right amount for them.’
Another pitfall is perfectionism. Some parents are waiting until they know exactly what to say. Others tend to outsource it by directing their kids to talk to “this Black person I know.” Another big pitfall is not talking about our own racial identity. Kids love us. They want to know how we identify. They want to know how race and racism makes us feel. Sometimes, we’re afraid of biasing their opinions. Many kids are good at forming their own identities. It’s ok for kids to know where you stand. Another pitfall is feeling the need to sugarcoat it. Kids confront big hard things all the time. We can talk to them about it.
TSB: How do you balance the line of explaining white privilege but encouraging self love in kids?
Jessica Ralli: Chleo, my daughter, got upset about the melanin page — she got upset because she didn’t have as much melanin as other people. She started crying. I said, “You have just the right amount for you. Everyone has the just right amount for them.” It opened up a broader convo about how a 2- or 3-year-old will interpret this book. We spent lots of time with the illustrations and being intentional.
MM: There’s an arc where there’s a white girl on one page. In the page where they define racism, she is on the stairs noticing the teacher scolding the Black girl for talking. In another page, she’s perpetuating a microaggression by touching the hair. On the next page, she’s being held accountable even though she didn’t mean to cause harm. On the final spread, she is protesting.
White people don’t get to choose who they are but they can choose how to act. They get to choose how to see and how to respond. They need to be taught that there are options of what to do with white privilege.
JR: The way I have talked about white privilege with my kids goes back to this idea of “fair and unfair,” which they deeply get. There are some rules and beliefs in our country that make it easier for white people to get more — more power, more housing, more education, more money — than everybody else. These unfair beliefs and rules also mean white people are treated better: they are stopped less by police, it may be easier to shop in stores or catch a cab, they may get paid more for the same job a person of color has.
This can make white children feel pretty bad about being white. And that is a huge barrier for many white parents in terms of talking about white privilege to their children. I’ve found that building in a sense of activism and action can help white children focus less on feeling bad about white privilege and move them to a place of empowerment to make change and increase self esteem and self-awareness.
I always explain my values too: I want to know how people are being treated unfairly, and how I might be getting more just because of the color of my skin. It makes me feel good to use the advantages and privileges I have to make things more fair. And then I give some examples of how I do that at my job, at their school, and in other parts of my life. We have such a window to share our values when kids are young and actually want to be like us!
TSB: What can parents do to prepare their kids to delve into convos about racism?
JR: Preparation is key for parents and kids! And you can start early. You can even start conversations or read this book with babies, especially if you are uncomfortable talking about race — it can be a great way to practice before your child starts to respond and ask questions. Once they do start to respond or ask questions, it’s important not to shut them down or delay the conversation. If your child brings up a race-related observation in public, try making a calm observation, like “I see you’re noticing that___.”
Follow with an affirmation, like “I love how curious you are!” Then redirect if you can’t talk about it more in the moment. “Right now we need to ___, but I want to talk about it more when we get ___.”
Make sure you don’t forget to address it later. If you don’t know the answer, be honest about that. It’s important for children to see that adults don’t know everything — and it’s important to model ways of finding out together: reading, watching a video, listening to a podcast, or asking a librarian or teacher.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
#OneAction To Take Today
Read Our Skin with your kid to start that first conversation with them about race and identity. If your kids are older and haven’t tackled this subject, they can read this book to you and you can discuss the themes that exist throughout. Maybe you don’t need a book to open up a conversation but it’s always a good place to start. If you’ve been tackling these issues with your kids, be sure to continue. Consistent action is needed to truly address these issues and raise kids who are race conscious.
Madison and Ralli offered these tips for what not to do when having these conversations — their advice will really help you feel at ease:
Don’t worry if the conversation isn’t perfect. Talking about race is hard, and it’s likely you didn’t have models or teachers for how to do this with your kids at a young age.
Don’t feel bad if you are really uncomfortable. Take a breath, and reflect on why you are uncomfortable. Then, you can lean into that discomfort and keep going. That is where the transformational change takes place.
Don’t shut down or gloss over questions you don’t know the answer to. It’s ok not to know things. Even when you are a parent! It’s a really important thing to model for children. When you don’t know the answer, you can find out together. Read a book, or article — let them see your process for learning about something you don’t understand.
Don’t freak out if your child interprets this information in ways that aren’t accurate at first. It’s a lot to figure out and work out in their minds. My kids have said things that are not necessarily where I wanted them to land, but I could tell they were on their way.
Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Instagram.