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Talking Race and Racism with our Kids

If you’re asking yourself how and when to begin the conversation about race with your kids, the answer is right here… and right now.

It won’t be easy. The subject is thorny for many adults, so it will be understandably uncomfortable to share with those you hope never experience racism — or propagate it. Rise to it. The videotape of George Floyd’s last moments and the coast to coast unrest that’s followed means our kids are already seeing and hearing plenty. They need help processing it. There are many different approaches, and there’s no one-size-fits-all, but if there’s one thing most experts on the subject seem to agree on, it’s that not talking about it is not one of them.

For minority families, avoidance is never an option. Navigating is not only a necessary heartache, but a survival tactic. At what point does a mom tell her adorable little boy that not everyone will see him for what he is? Things will be said. For no reason, suspicions raised. On the day to day, just ‘being’ is harder. As Georgina Dukes so eloquently asks in “When My Beautiful Black Boy Grows From Cute to a Threat: “When do I have The Talk? The Talk about how it doesn’t matter how good of a person he is, how smart he is, how caring he is, that he is still a black person in America and black people are seen as scary to white people and police officers.” Romeo is 8.

For white families, the conversation is infinitely less gut-wrenching, but it’s not without challenges. For many, the first hurdle to clear is thinking we need to be an expert. We don’t. My uber-educated, loves everyone no-matter-the-color friend Sara summed it up this way. “I’m a privileged white chick who is too nervous and ill-equipped to talk (to my kids) about it. But I will. I need to.” California Family Medical Practitioner, Dr. Adia Scrubb, agrees. “It’s better to talk about it and struggle,” she says, “then to avoid the subject altogether.”

Next, is doing away with the well-intentioned belief that acknowledging racism somehow contributes to it. Perhaps the less we speak of it, the more we appear blissfully and magnanimously colorblind. Unfortunately, science doesn’t back up the silence.; multiple studies suggest the earlier you start the conversation, the better. Why? Because researchers have found that children begin noticing differences in skin tone when they’re as young as two and a half. Cheree, an African-American mom of two African-American daughters, says not only is it ok for kids to notice, but important for them to question: “It’s natural for non-black children to have that curiosity.” When her girls were younger, she encouraged them to “lean in - help others understand why their hair and skin is different.” And beautiful.

Whatever you do, don’t shy away from it. “Not speaking to your child about racism” says Dr. Scrubb, “leaves them vulnerable to adopting unhealthy perspectives from other sources.” In fact, studies show that by kindergarten, our kids have already picked up opinions and attitudes from the media and their orbit.

Listen. Engage. Discuss. Debate. We need to make the topic the exact opposite of off-limits.. Cheree’s girls are old enough now that they want to know why some of their white friends never bring it up. Is it because they simply don’t know how,. or is it something else? The answer makes a difference.

Basically, any conversation is better than no conversation. Below are tips on getting the ball rolling from Dr. Scrubb, Parents Magazine and MomsRising; a multicultural organization dedicated to building tolerance and racial harmony.

  • Start early. Let your kids know it’s perfectly okay to notice differences and talk about it; reinforce that people come in all colors, shapes and sizes on the outside, but inside, everybody’s the same.

  • Encourage them to ask questions, share observations and experiences, and be respectfully curious.

  • Be mindful that you are a role model. What you say is important, but what you do even more so. How diverse is your friend group? Do you correct stereotypes on television and in the movies?

  • Face your own biases. Share your own struggles.

  • Encourage empathy. Ask your kids how it would feel to be on the receiving end of teasing over how they look. That might make them think twice about judging.

  • Be honest with them about what they’re seeing and hearing. The fight for racial fairness is still happening and we all have a part to play. Talk about the changes you’d like to see and ways to bring about that change

  • Plan for a marathon, not a sprint. Make race talks routine.

And cut yourself some slack. It’s okay to not have all the answers, especially when peaceful protests turn violent. Tell them you’ll circle back around; just make sure you do. The best kind of dialogue starts early and doesn’t stop. Not only will that reinforce the value of talking openly about it, but it’s more likely to lead to a kid comfortable and confident enough to take a stand in the face of injustice. And to Sheila M. of Chicago, we say thank you for your nudge. KidNuz will always be the place for age-appropriate, uplifting, nonpartisan news, but silence on the tough topics isn't the solution.


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