How to Talk to your Children About Race

By: Mrs. Vanessa Clinton, Lower School Reading Specialist
How to Talk to your Children about Race
Have open, honest, meaningful conversations about tolerance, respect, and race

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." - Martin Luther King Jr.

Before one is able to learn how to hold a meaningful conversation about race with their children, they must first understand why it is important to do so.  In the text, Five Minds for the Future, author Howard Gardner provides the following explanation: “ Recognizing that nowadays one can no longer remain within one’s shell or on one’s home territory, the respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these “others,” and seeks to work effectively with them. In a world where we are all interlinked, intolerance or disrespect is no longer a viable option.” According to Gardner’s research, the Respectful Mind, as well as the additional four cognitive abilities outlined in the text, are to be highly sought after and cultivated by leaders in the year ahead.  Simply put, if one is unable to welcome the differences of others and/or work effectively with them, finding success (in a variety of fields listed within the text) will become increasingly difficult and/or nearly impossible.

With that in mind, conversing with your children about race is not only important but essential for their success in the future.  Whether these conversations feel challenging, or you feel inexperienced or unqualified, keeping the conversation simple while sticking close to these three paths is sure to help ease the discomfort that so often comes with discussing race.  

  1. Be Open
  2. Be Honest
  3. Be Yourself

Be Open
Many thoughts that children often have regarding why someone is different from themselves stem from a place of wondering about who they are in relation to others, solidifying their own identities in this world. Children understand themselves through active attempts to understand others.   

You might find that your children don’t have any questions about race. This could be due to lack of exposure to people that are different from you. Your child may have also have an intrinsic understanding that we are more alike than different.

In the event that you find your circle lacking diversity, children's books are an excellent “window” as children’s book author Kwame Alexander often says, into the world of someone “who doesn’t act, think, or look like you.” He goes on to say books are excellent tools to “help me understand me, and me understand you.”

Books that contain main characters of various nationalities and ethnicities, that steer clear of stereotypes and generalizations, are an excellent medium to spark questions and dialogue surrounding race and identity.

Push yourself to pick up a new children’s book or toy, that was not one of your childhood favorites, perhaps one that has a main character that does not look like you. Your child’s observations and wondering will flow organically from repeated exposure to these kinds of texts and/or toys.  

Another way to ignite dialogue around race, identity, and differences is to attend an event, festival, or religious congregation that is unlike the events you and your family typically attend. Find a Diwali Festival or a Chinese New Year’s Festival to attend on Saturday, or perhaps attend a Pow Wow of the Native American tribe nearest you. Allow your child, as well as yourself, to be engrossed and excited about something new and different.

Additionally, another way to broaden your families exposure and experiences is through cultivating connections with people who don’t act, think, and look like you. Try to say hello to everyone you cross paths within a day. Every. Single. Person. Imagine what sort of example you will set for your child by simply taking the time to place value in every person who crosses your path, saying hello to everyone who walks by, modeling the notion that everyone matters.

Be intentional about where, how, and with who you spend your time. Try connecting with the family of a student in your child’s classroom who is in some way unique, or different than you and your family.

Model for your children what it’s like to push yourself outside of your comfort zone, in order to gain more empathy and connections to the world.

Be Honest
Children have a natural curiosity and are constantly learning more about themselves as they learn about the world. A child’s observations, questions, and curiosity about new people or people unlike themselves are perfectly normal and should not be squelched or shushed.

Adults may feel uncomfortable with this conversation and worry children’s observations may come across as rude or insensitive. As adults, we have a tendency to stifle dialogue due to the fear of offending others. However, if we make space for and dedicate time to this conversation, you will be surprised at how well your children are able to note differences in others in a compassionate, curious way.

It’s important to make space for these conversations in an environment where your children feel uninhibited, comfortable asking questions and sharing observations.

Do you best not to lecture or preach your personal views. Instead, ask your child what his or her thoughts are about people who act, think, or look different from them. Ask questions as a way of understanding how your child is thinking about and relating to the world and people who are different than him/her. Try to refrain from using, or reword when used, words such a “weird” or “strange” when engaging in these conversations. Rather, present differences as a matter of fact. For example, “He has brown skin, and yours is white.”  

Be Yourself
Model a positive self-identity. Talk with your child about personal and/or physical traits you love about yourself. These conversations can incorporate family traits passed on from previous generations, which helps your child understand the pride and confidence that accompanies one’s physical appearance  Extend this conversation into what you love about people who are different than you. For example, “I love her dark, curly hair.”

Engage in a back and forth dialogue with your child and be open to sharing your own questions and wonderings about people who do not act, think and look like you.

In a world continuously changing, we must own our knowledge, awareness, and philosophies and be aware of its steady change and growth. Acknowledge that it’s completely okay to be uncomfortable with not having all of the answers.  Getting to know ourselves and getting to know others is a journey with no end. As your child works to process all they learn about the identities of others, be mindful they are doing this as a way to confirm and find value in their own identities.  This work is beneficial for everyone, so don’t be afraid to join your child(ren) in the journey.

Cape Henry Collegiate prides itself on offering students not only a high-quality education but a diverse student body. Located on a 30-acre campus in a residential area within five miles of the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Henry Collegiate serves approximately 950 students representing the entire Hampton Roads community. If you are interested in being a part of our rich culture and want to learn more information visit us or apply today or call us at Phone: (757) 481-2446.

Works Cited:
Identity standards from the Social Justice Standards: Four Anchor Standards and Domains provide a framework for Equity in Education
Five Minds of the Future by Howard Gardner
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