20 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Race

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Courtesy of the Race Awareness Project

Many parents and teachers don't know what to say to children regarding one of the most sensitive issues in American society, race. Adults may sincerely want their children to grow up colorblind, and they think that avoiding the topic may produce that desired result.

Unfortunately, that's not the way it works. Kids from a very young age are extremely curious about the cultural world they are going to inhabit, and they will pick up on subtle clues all around them. Therefore, it's critical that adults don't shy away from difficult discussions about race with children. By teaching them age-appropriate ways to think through complex issues, you'll empower children to deal with challenging situations they may encounter.

Whyzz wants to support parents and encourage them to talk about this issue. We've teamed up with The Race Awareness Project to bring you these twenty simple tips to keep in mind when starting these discussions.

20 Tips for Talking to Your Kids About Race
  1. Don't call white people "Caucasian." The term makes it sound like there is a real biological category. There isn't, just like there isn't for any other racial group. Just say "white."
  2. Because racial and ethnic categories are ambiguous, kids' understandings are often different than adults'. Don't laugh if they have different ideas than you - this might close the lines of communication. Use those moments to talk openly about race.
  3. Teach children to be curious about the world and empower them to find out information. If you hear about someone being from a different country or culture, look that place up on a map or on the Internet and learn about it together with your child.
  4. Pay attention to race and ethnicity in the TV shows and movies your child watches. Is the cast all the same race? Are some races used more for heroes and others more for villains? Look for subtle messages along with more explicit ones, and use those observations to start conversations.
  5. Explain to your child that racial terms are not just about skin color. For example, people have many shades of pink, tan, brown, and yellow that are grouped together under the category white. That's because white, just like other racial categories, is not a literal physical description, but rather a social category referring to people with assumed European ancestry.
  6. Check out library books from different cultural traditions. These stories will foster curiosity and respect for different peoples around the world.
  7. Many children as young as three-years-old know that race is a sensitive, taboo subject. They may even avoid talking about it, just like adults do. Let them know it's okay to ask questions and to talk about race in a respectful way.
  8. Children pay very careful attention to what you say to other adults. Be aware of what you say or imply about race, even if you think kids aren't paying attention.
  9. Ask your child's teacher when the class will be discussing issues related to diversity (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is an obvious example). Then ask your child specifically about those activities.
  10. Don't let your kids describe some people as "normal" and others as "different" or "weird." Explain that people are all different in one way or another. And all people deserve respect.
  11. Try inviting everyone in your child's class to their birthday party, rather than just a select group of friends. It's more work, but it teaches children to not be exclusive and to consider the feelings of others. In addition, it may make the party more inclusive of racial, ethnic, or economic diversity - an important benefit.
  12. When you buy books, toys or dolls, you don't always have to pick the one that matches the race of your child. Let your child pick which one they want and use that as a springboard to an interesting discussion.
  13. Encourage children to get specific about skin colors in any way that makes sense to them - light brown, dark brown, tan, etc. Explain that people have more or less melanin in their skin. Melanin is a natural skin coloring that blocks out some of the sun's rays.
  14. If your child has friends or classmates from other cultures, encourage them to ask questions to learn about other people's lives. Model some questions they can ask: What language did you grow up speaking? What foods are different where you grew up? How are the houses similar or different? What do kids do for fun?
  15. What should you do if you overhear your child making an offensive racial comment? Make it clear that this won't be tolerated, but also explain why it's wrong. Maybe it's wrong because it hurts people's feelings or because it's based on false stereotypes rather than reality. Probably it's both.
  16. Explain to your child how the racial term black doesn't literally mean black skin. It's a word used to refer to people with various shades of darker skin who have some ancestors from Africa.
  17. What should you do if your child says the "N-word" or some other derogatory term? They probably are not doing it maliciously but are rather trying out some words they have heard. Don't just tell them it's wrong - explain to them why it's wrong. Tell them about the tragic history linked with these words.
  18. Psychologists used to think that kids learned about race by observing physical features and forming categories. But more recent research suggests quite the opposite - that kids learn categories by hearing them in language. That's why it's especially important to talk to children directly about these issues; if they have questions, you can answer them or figure them out together.
  19. One of the most powerful lessons you can give your child is to gently confront someone who says something offensive. This will teach your child how to stand up for what they know to be right. Make sure to discuss the incident later so your child fully understands what happened.
  20. What should you do if your child generalizes something done by an individual to a whole group? (For example: "That girl was mean to me. I don't like Japanese people.") Explain that individuals are responsible for their actions, and one person's actions do not predict anyone else's. Ask your child how they would feel if someone prejudged them because of something someone else did.

These tips, along with many others, can be found on the app, "Who Am I? Race Awareness Game." This app uses pictures of real people to engage children in a "guess who" type game that also provides a fun and engaging context to start these important discussions.