Skin deep: Talking meaningfully with your kids about race, identity, and justice



Until fourth grade, I never rode a school bus. So at the end of that first day, standing in line with the other kids, I kept worrying that I’d get on the wrong one and never make it home. I was so preoccupied that when another bus pulled away from the curb, I didn’t notice several kids leaning out the windows. I only looked up when I heard their strange, sing-song voices. They were pulling up the corners of their eyes, and chanting: “Ching-chong-ching-chong-ching-ching-chong!”

I’d never heard that before, but it didn’t matter. I knew they were making fun of me. I knew that I wasn’t like them. I knew that I felt ashamed.

What I didn’t know was what to do about it. I told no one — not my parents, not my teachers, not my friends. That’s what shame does to you. It makes you disappear.

These days, I live in a diverse, progressive city, and the daily taunts and insults of my childhood seem far away. I could almost believe that the world has changed, but the world won’t let me. In Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Charleston — our country keeps erupting into violence on a weekly basis, and all over something that seems like it shouldn’t matter at all. Every day, cities are burning and people are dying over the color of skin.

As parents, it’s our job to prepare our kids for a world where race matters. But how do you explain something so far beyond reason? What can a 4-year-old comprehend about slavery, and hate crimes, and police brutality? Why can’t we just raise them colorblind, in a world without all that strife?

We can’t because that world doesn’t exist. It won’t in our lifetimes, and it won’t in theirs. And unless we figure out how to prepare them for the world they will face, what chance do they have of making it better?

Most parents are reluctant to talk about race with their kids. The reasons are many and complex.  Often, white parents fear that they’ll pollute innocent minds. They believe that racism comes from imitation and instruction, and that the best way to avoid it is to ignore race altogether.

Nonwhite parents worry that they’ll make their children fearful or discouraged by pointing out the hatred and bigotry that someday awaits them. Unless, of course, they’re the parents of black teenage boys. For them, discussing race is a matter of life and death: “Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t give them a reason. Don’t expect the benefit of the doubt.”

But all parents need to understand that awareness of race is not optional. Studies have shown that children as young as 2½ distinguish between races, and prefer pictures of children who look like them. By age 3, they start to exclude others from play based on race. And by age 7, they rate jobs held by blacks as lower in status than those held by whites.

We humans are social animals. From the day we’re born, we’re hard-wired to understand inclusion and exclusion, position and power. By not talking to kids about race, we don’t tell them that it’s irrelevant. We tell them that it’s extremely powerful — the Voldemort of human qualities. “That Which Shall Not Be Named.”

So how can we prepare our kids to live in such a racially charged world?

  • Be age appropriate. Kids can only wrap their heads around so much at a time. My partner Charlotte once created a lesson for her preschool class on Martin Luther King’s birthday. She told them all about his marches, his speeches, his nonviolence and his vision for a better world. But then she mentioned his assassination. From then on, all they remembered was “A man killed him with a gun.” 

  • Talk about fairness. Kids have a very strong sense of justice. They know when one half of a cookie is bigger than the other. They know about sharing, and waiting their turn.  And they know how it feels when they get the short end of the stick. Equality is all about fairness. That speaks to them.

  • Ask Dr. Science. Objective truth is a powerful thing. Skin color comes from melanin, which protects us from the sun. If your ancestors got a lot of sun, they needed more of it.  If they got less sun, they needed less. Hair color, eye color, and skin color are just chemistry. Not destiny.

  • Make it personal. How many people do your kids know who are a different race? In your school? Your neighborhood? Your family? Your friends? The cutting edge of racism is the blade that divides the familiar “us” from the unfamiliar “them.” Bend that blade. Break it.

In the end, the exact words you choose aren’t that important.  But whether your kid is inside the bus chanting, or out on the curb fighting back tears, someone needs to talk to them about race.  Shouldn’t it be you?


Jeff Lee lives, works and raises his daughters in Seattle.