Many families are wondering how to speak with their children about racism. But you can’t start to talk about racism without also talking about race. And if you haven’t explicitly talked to your child about race or racism before, it may be because you feel that you haven’t had to. Black families and families of color don’t get to avoid these conversations — Black children and children of color learn about racism early as parents prepare their children to live in a world that discriminates against them.
Talking about race and racism — and learning how to be actively anti-racist — is important for all families to do. It’s also a process, so you need to start wherever you are. If actively being anti-racist is new to you, you may make mistakes as you go, but it’s okay to acknowledge that you, like your child, are still learning. Admit that you’re wrong, and commit to continuing to learn how to do better. This isn’t easy, but the stakes are too high to not do the work.
This is a resource for families looking for guidance on how to engage in what should be an ongoing conversation about race and racism that will evolve as your child grows. But this is just a start. At the end, we also provide further resources that can help you continue on with this work.
Children note racial differences even as infants — as early as 6 months old. Kids are astute and observant, and as they grow and develop they learn to notice so much — different colors, body parts, and also how their body compares to other people’s bodies — so it makes sense that they, like you, are not blind to race. For example, it’s not wrong for them to note differences between themselves and their classmates, and you shouldn’t pretend that physical differences don’t exist. If your toddler or preschool age child notes that their classmate has a different skin color, it’s okay to say something like, “Yes, your skin is different than hers. You both have beautiful skin.” If you want to foster inclusion and the acceptance of all races, start talking about race when a child is very young.
Talking about race should be part of an ongoing conversation that will inevitably become more nuanced as your child gets older. And you’ll need to revisit the topic again and again, in the same way that you’ll continually revisit other important issues as a child grows. Having frequent conversations in response to what’s happening in your child’s immediate world and the larger world is usually something a child responds to better than just having a single, loaded very important conversation that you engage in once and then move on from.
Don’t shy away from curious questions or uncomfortable conversations
Every parent knows that children are extremely curious. But if you shut down a child’s curiosity about race or differences, they’ll quickly get the sense that it’s something they shouldn’t talk about. Silence on these issues is a signal to children to avoid these topics. Instead, use moments when they ask questions about race or when you encounter racism as an opportunity to discuss the topic with them. Meet these moments head on.
Push back against all forms of racism
Don’t shy away from pushing back against racism when you encounter it. This includes more subtle forms of racism, like negative stereotypes, racist tropes, or cultural appropriation. If you encounter a negative stereotype while watching a movie, you should note it and talk about it. If someone makes a racist joke, you should call them out on it. Children are like little sponges and absorb everything in the world around them, so don’t let these moments go by without saying something. And if your child does or says something themselves that is biased or prejudiced in any way, you also can’t let that go ignored. Try to find out why they did what they did and then talk with them about why it’s not okay. Considering that these conversations will look different for kids at different ages, keep in mind that instances of racism and racial bias don’t exist in a vacuum; work through these issues with your family when they come up and help your child understand that they’re symptoms of larger structural inequalities in our society that we all must work to understand and dismantle.
Don’t ignore differences
Helping your child note the ways in which people of different races are similar to them can certainly help them connect with people with different experiences. But focusing only on the idea that “we’re all the same on the inside” can do more harm than good. “Colorblindness” — when differences are glossed over, when individuals’ memberships in racial groups are ignored, and when there’s an overemphasis on common humanity — denies the fact that race does make a difference in people’s lives and, again, suggests to children that they shouldn’t talk about race. Instead, teach your child how to interact and get along with people who are different from them and to respect and appreciate differences.
Be honest in an age-appropriate way
The way you speak about race or racism — or related issues like discrimination, racial profiling, or slavery — with your four-year-old will inevitably be different than the way you speak with your fourteen-year-old. Talk with your child in a way that makes sense for their age and level of understanding. In the same way that it’s possible to talk with a young child about other challenging topics (like death, sex, or love), you can find a way to talk with your child about race and racism too — it’s never too early. Regardless of age, lead with honesty. And keep in mind that children can understand complex ideas better than we often give them credit for. If you have ongoing conversations with your child, they’ll always have a chance to revisit the topic with you soon and they’ll feel more comfortable coming to you with questions.
Read diverse books and explore other diverse media together
Reading books with your child is always a great way to explore complex ideas and start conversations. Books are also a wonderful way for children to both see themselves represented in stories and to form positive associations with people who are different from them. It’s important for all children to read engaging books featuring diverse characters — books that show the accomplishments of people of color, books that address our nation’s racist history, and books that show children of color just being kids. Make an effort to seek out books by authors and illustrators of color too. For all children, and especially children of color, representation is important. When children can see themselves represented and take pride in their culture and heritage, it can help build self-esteem and foster a positive sense of self and identity. So make a point to choose books thoughtfully. The same goes for other media like movies, TV shows, and video games.
Acknowledge any privilege or biases
We’ve all been raised and live in a racist society. So it’s important to investigate how you were raised, how you live now, and how your everyday life, actions, and behaviors might reproduce racist ideas and inequalities. Asking questions such as Am I encouraging my child to have a diverse group of friends? Am I exposing my child to diverse communities? can reveal a lot. If you experience some discomfort when exploring these ideas, it may reveal privilege or biases that should also be investigated. Even if this work is uncomfortable, it has to be done.
Go beyond talking and take action
Because our children learn so much from us, it’s important to go beyond just talking, but to also take active steps to model anti-racist behavior. The National Museum of African American History and Culture shares, “Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do… When we choose to be antiracist, we become actively conscious about race and racism and take actions to end racial inequities in our daily lives. Being antiracist is believing that racism is everyone’s problem, and we all have a role to play in stopping it.” You are your child’s best teacher. If you live in an anti-racist way every day, your child will follow your lead.
Start here, but go further
We hope this list helps you better understand how to talk to your child about race and racism, but, again, it’s just a start. To learn more, you should explore the following resources:
- Talking to children about racial bias by Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, MSHS, FAAP and Jacqueline Dougé, MD, MPH, FAAP, from healthychildren.org and the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Life Kit: Talking Race with Young Children podcast episode, from NPR and Sesame Workshop
- Being Antiracist, Bias, Race and Racial Identity, Whiteness, and a wealth of other topics, from The National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice by Dana Williams at Teaching Tolerance
- Where to Find Diverse Books by We Need Diverse Books
- Books with Characters of Color, Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners, and Apps and Games with Diverse Characters (each with lists that can be filtered by a child’s age), and How White Parents Can Use Media to Raise Anti-Racist Kids, all from Common Sense Media
- 30 Children’s Books About Diversity that Celebrate our Differences, from Book Riot
- Parent, Family and Caregiver Resources, including Books Matter (a roundup of books on identity, bias, and bullying that can be filtered by topic and come with discussion guides for parents), Early Childhood FAQs, and Table Talk: Family Conversations about Current Events (for bigger kids), from the Anti-Defamation League
- Resources for Talking About Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence with Kids, from the Center for Racial Justice and Education
- Various educational resources, including articles, webinars, and action guides, from Embrace Race
- Resources, from the Anti-Racism Project
- An Anti-Racist Reading List by Ibram X. Kendi at the New York Times
- Anti-racism resources intended for white people to engage in anti-racism work; a few resources of note include the 1619 Project from the New York Times Magazine, exploring how integral slavery has been in shaping our nation, 13th, a documentary about slavery and mass incarceration by Ava DuVernay, and the short essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh