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A little encouragement from across the fence. Photo by Joshua Huston

Talking to kids about racism: Tips for what to say — and do

Start by expanding their definition of “us."

Since the death of George Floyd, and the public outcry that followed, many parents are asking: “How do I talk to my kids about racism?” The answer depends on who your kids are, and what they need right now.

If your children aren’t white, talking about racism isn’t just any talk, it’s The Talk. You’ve been thinking about it since they were born. How do you tell them that some people will fear them, hate them, hurt them — because of the color of their hair and skin or the shape of their eyes? If your kids are Black, especially if they’re boys, you’re wondering how to tell them not to walk through certain white neighborhoods, not to wear a hoodie after dark, not to run or reach into their pockets when the police are there.

If your kids are white, it’s a different talk. How do you help them understand privilege, institutionalized racism and implicit bias? How do you tell them that they are part owners in a legacy of oppression and violence that began long before they were born?

Some parents wonder if they should talk about race at all. Shouldn’t we try to move beyond race, and work toward a race-blind world? Other parents worry that race will be the only aspect of their child’s identity that will matter. They see a racism that’s as ingrained in our culture as gender, class, money or power, and that for their child could be a matter of life and death.

Arbitrary categories

Race, the way our culture defines it, has no scientific basis. We lump people together into arbitrary categories based on skin pigment, hair color, and historical precedents that have little relation to behavior, physiology or genetics. It’s an imaginary construct, and on a historical scale, it isn’t even that old. The concept of race was promulgated by slave traders during the 17th and 18th centuries, to justify an expanding and highly lucrative market for West African slaves. Slavery had existed throughout history, but had been driven by geography and military conquest, not skin color. The idea of race was just a public relations strategy, designed to make the brutal, large-scale trafficking of human beings more acceptable to European sensibilities.

An idea, though, can be a powerful thing. Nationality is an idea. So are corporations, religions, money, and human rights. Because we collectively agree that they exist, they shape and direct our lives. Race is the same way. It’s an idea so powerful that it sometimes kills.

So yes, we need to talk about racism. It’s a moral issue, just like lying and cheating and stealing — a critical piece of any child’s education about right and wrong. But children can only absorb so much at any given age. Detailed discussions of police brutality or systemic racism won’t do much for your 4-year-old, except confuse them. Early in a child’s life, when it matters most, we need to speak to them using more than just words.

“Us” and “Them”

Children, like all of us, are hardwired to label people as “us” or “them.” It’s an impulse we evolved, millennia ago, to survive a hostile world. Young children sort people by appearance — they can recognize racial differences as early as six months of age. Depending on the cues they pick up from the adults around them, some show signs of discrimination and bias as early as preschool.

If all our close connections are to family and friends of one race, that molds our definition of “us.” Our experiences with our own race are mostly positive, and we see its members as individuals. But we may only experience those of other races as strangers, or through the distorted lens of our monochromatic culture. This is how they become “them.” We judge them as a group, and we generalize what we observe, or what we’re told. Those generalizations become the stereotypes at the foundation of racism.

The mental hardware for categorization, and the instinct to divide the world into “us” vs “them,” are present in everyone. What differs is how wide a circle our “us” includes. If we want to teach our children to be anti-racist, we can’t wait until they’re old enough for nuanced conversations. We have to expand their definition of “us” from the very beginning.

Who are our family friends? Who do we break bread with? Worship with? Go to school with? When we walk down the street, how do we react to the stranger coming the other way?

Our kids are watching. Their brains are sorting, and categorizing, and checking off boxes labeled “us” or “them.” They don’t need our words to follow our lead — they can see for themselves which boxes we choose.

This moment is a turning point — for us and for them. Choose well.

 

More Dad Next Door in Seattle’s Child:

We need to choose, or create, a culture of civility for our kids

 

About the Author

Jeff Lee, MD

Jeff Lee, a family physician, lives, works and writes in Seattle.