You Should Be Talking to Kids About Race Earlier Than You Think — Here's How to Navigate the Discussion
Many parents have been there. You're cruising through a grocery store or minding your own business in a waiting room and your kid asks an innocent but utterly embarrassing question within earshot, along the lines of: "Why does that person look different?" or "Mom, why is that man's skin darker than mine?"
But rather than clamming up and standing or sitting there mortified, Sachi Feris — a writer at Raising Race Conscious Children — says that these uncomfortable conversations can make for a positive learning opportunity.
"[We need to teach children] that it's inappropriate to point or talk about other people even if we're pointing about something rather innocuous," Sachi told POPSUGAR. And while it's rude to talk about others within earshot, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the conversation itself. "Just responding with, 'It's OK to talk about this.' It's OK to notice that someone looks different. If they think that it's something negative, then of course, that's a little bit more challenging and uncomfortable for an adult to deal with. But start with something rather innocuous and say, 'We can notice that people are different.'"
Although speaking to kids about race may be unfamiliar to some parents, getting the conversation started at a young age is the best way to go, regardless of your child's ethnicity.
How and when do you start discussing race with children?
Shawnese Givens, a family and marriage therapist who splits her time between New York City and Philadelphia, believes getting the conversation started at a young age is important.
"I think it should be a constant conversation that you have with them from the time that they're very young and, of course, there's age-appropriate ways to do that," Shawnese said. Parents can get the conversation going by reading their kids books with nonwhite protagonists, for example.
"You can build pride in young kids of color when they're young, talking about their ancestry and their heritage," she explained, adding that, "You can also build a sense of responsibility in young kids who are white about the fact that our country has a long history of not always doing things fairly, and now, we're trying to be better. And you can do those things in age-appropriate ways."
As for some of those more serious conversations about race and racism, like the violent history of slavery in the US? Shawnese suggests holding off until age 11 or 12 to dive into those details.
Is it offensive to refer to people as "black" or "white"?
Using black and white as descriptors as to how people look can often be a healthy way to acknowledge that we do all look different, and there's no need to feel awkward about it.
"Sometimes people go out of their way not to notice and describe people without talking about race, and, in fact, it's OK to say, 'She's the black teacher in the third grade,'" said Sachi, explaining that it's perfectly fine to use race descriptors as long as they're within a respectful context.
"We need to be able to use the words 'black' and 'white' to have a conversation about race in a country where black and white is sort of a historical dichotomy around race," she pointed out. "We're not saying something negative about a person who's black. That wouldn't be acceptable. But simply noticing that someone is not white is not offensive."
Beyond that, Shawnese explained it's also acceptable to ask people of color how they identify. "It's OK to say African American and it's also OK to ask someone how they prefer to identify [as] some black folks don't like to be called African American, they like black. You don't know unless you ask," she said.
Is it ever OK to urge children to be "color blind" within the context of race?
The short answer: no, it's never OK. Although parents' hearts may be in the right place when they say they "don't see color," unless they're actually color blind, it's not a healthy way to approach the topic of race.
"The idea of colorblindness in our country may have good intentions, that color shouldn't matter," Sachi said. "While I absolutely agree that it doesn't define who we are, we know that most people literally aren't colorblind. We see color, and by ignoring it, we're really missing out on an opportunity to be able to talk about race. So if we're 'colorblind,' we're saying color doesn't matter."
Shawnese agrees, explaining that although it may be unintentional, using this type of language might minimize the black experience. "If you are a seeing person, then you see color," she said matter-of-factly. "I understand the intention, though, which is to say that I see people as equals, and that's a lovely sentiment; however, we live in a society where we're not treated equally and not given fair terms of life. So saying that you are color blind is actually a way of diminishing the fact that that's a reality that they are not given fair terms in life. It's hurtful."
Does the conversation change if your child is biracial?
Breaking down racially charged topics will look a lot different for biracial children. And unfortunately, the reason is rooted in the dark side of our country's history.
"It's really complex because the world is going to see those children as black even if they are half white," Shawnese said. "What I hear from people who are mixed race is that it doesn't feel very good. It's like having half of you ignored and invalidated. At the same time, there's also a conversation about colorism concerning how lighter-skinned people of color are treated differently than darker-skinned people of color. That there's privilege in that."
For mixed-race families, surrounding kids with a support system and with people they can relate to is key.
"It's really important to find community so that that child does have that the experience seeing other people who look like them and people who have similar experiences in the world," Shawnese said. "Again, I think it's an ongoing conversation that you start having at a young age in very simple words and add in the complexity and the nuance the older they get."
What if you've adopted a child who has a different race than you?
"It's important to give that child the opportunity to be connected to their heritage," Shawnese said. "If that's through books or through a community organization or even media that you expose them to, I think that's super important."
And while no one is refuting the fact that giving a child a loving home can ever be less than a positive thing, adopting a child doesn't automatically give parents license to speak for a culture they're not a part of. "There's this strange thing that happens sometimes where people feel like they are honorary members of that culture because they've adopted a child from another culture, and that's just not a thing," Shawnese said. "Please don't do that."
With that being said, adoptive parents can still support their children in a huge way. "Make space. Make space for that child to be proud of where they come from, and they'll be connected to the family that raised them because that's important as well," Shawnese encouraged. "It doesn't have to be either or, it can definitely be both."