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    Here's How To Raise Race-Conscious Children

    Teaching kids not to "see" race actually isn't the best approach for raising anti-racist children.

    Adults often think they should avoid talking with young children about race or racism because doing so would cause them to notice race or make them racist. In fact, the opposite is true.

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    When adults are silent about race or use “colorblind” rhetoric, they actually reinforce racial prejudice in children1. Starting at a very young age, children see patterns — who seems to live where; what kinds of homes they see as they ride or walk through different neighborhoods; who is the most desirable character in the movies they watch; who seems to have particular jobs or roles at the doctor’s office, at school, at the grocery store; and so on — and try to assign “rules” to explain what they see. Adults’ silence about these patterns and the structural racism that causes them, combined with the false but ubiquitous “American Dream” narrative that everyone can achieve anything they want through hard work, results in children concluding that the patterns they see “must have been caused by meaningful inherent differences between groups” 2. In other words, young children infer that the racial inequities they see are natural and justified.

    Zachary Gibson / BuzzFeed

    What’s more, adult behavior — for example, saying “That’s not nice” or “We don’t talk about people,” when a child asks a question about someone’s skin color — often teaches children that they are never supposed to talk about race, leaving them to draw conclusions on their own. So despite good intentions, when we fail to talk openly with our children about racial inequity in our society, we are in fact contributing to the development of their racial biases, which studies show are in place by ages 3-53.

    So, what should you do? How do we talk with children about complex things like systemic racism and societal inequity? The particulars will vary by your child’s age, racial identity, and social context (and I’ve included links to resources that speak to specific situations at the end of this article), but there are several things all adults can do.

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    1. First, get comfortable talking and learning about race, racism, and racial inequity, period.

    Zachary Gibson / BuzzFeed

    If you cannot explain to another adult why these patterns of racialized inequity exist and persist, it is going to be impossible to explain to a four-year-old in an age-appropriate manner. There are indeed age-appropriate ways to explain structural racism and implicit bias to young children, but first adults have to fully understand these concepts themselves. If you were not taught these things, it’s certainly not your fault, but it is your responsibility to do the work to learn more now. If you are not used to thinking and talking about these things in your everyday life, make a concerted effort to do so.

    2. Ask questions.

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    If a child makes a statement that strikes you as racially biased, try to understand their thought process instead of shutting them down. “Hmmm, what makes you think that?” will go a long way in helping you understand the origin of their ideas. For example, if a young Latino child says, “I want to be white,” you may presume the child is rejecting their own racial or cultural heritage. However, through asking, “What makes you say that?” you may learn that the child wants to be a physician, has only seen white doctors, and therefore presumes one must be white to be a physician. Once you understand the thought process behind the child’s statement, you can work to change their perception by finding Latinx physicians in your own community for the child to meet, or finding representations of Latinx doctors in media. If it’s difficult to find those images, you can employ the next method — using the concept of fairness — to talk with your child about why these images are difficult to find.

    3. Use the concept of fairness.

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    If you spend time with young children on a regular basis, then you know that they are very into what is fair and what is not fair! You can harness this keen sense of justice to help explain that the patterns that they see are absolutely unfair, as well as to engage your children in seeking to correct these wrongs. Children are already noticing patterns in the world around them and this is your opportunity to help them think critically about what they’re seeing, rather than accepting those things as “rules.” Point out the everyday things that make you upset because they are unfair — for example, that you don’t see enough black and brown children in the books on the library shelf — and talk to children about why you think these things are unfair. But it wouldn’t be responsible for us to talk with children about unfairness without also providing hope and a path forward, which leads us to...

    4. Empower!

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    Actively seek out anti-racist role models in your community and in the broader society, and expose young children to these role models. Show children that, while we do face troubling problems as a society, there are (and have always been) people and organizations working to make positive change every day. Show children that they can help, too. Continuing the example from above — that characters of color are woefully underrepresented or misrepresented in children’s literature4 — you and your children could work with other families in your community to gather a list of books you would like to ask your local library to purchase and feature, and perhaps work with the library to make this a part of broader programming and collection efforts. If embarking on something like this yourself sounds daunting, look for organizations in your community that are already doing anti-racist social justice work. (For example, where I live, the coalition Rid Racism Milwaukee has a long list of “organizations who support anti-racism initiatives/services,” many of whom welcome children’s participation — look for similar lists in your area.)

    5. Connect the past with the present and future.

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    Adults often teach children that things used to be really bad, but Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes worked hard to fix things, and that we are lucky the world isn’t like it used to be. Although unintended, the takeaway message for young children can be that any remaining racialized inequities they see must be the result of individuals’ own actions, since King, Parks, and others “fixed” racism. How can we help children understand how racialized inequities can still remain even after laws have been changed and progress has been made?

    One way to help young children understand this complex issue of systemic racism is to use a “spider web” activity. Give children balls of string and ask them to move around the room unraveling their balls of string to make a very tangled web. Once they are finished, ask them to untangle it. They will soon find that it is much more difficult to untangle the web than it was to create it in the first place. Then explain that working to make society fair is a lot like untangling this web. The unfairness in our country has been getting tangled up for a very long time — before their parents were born, before their grandparents were born, before their grandparents’ grandparents were born — and even though social justice champions have done so much untangling, we still have more untangling to do. And it will take all of us to make it happen! Then, every time you and your children engage in social justice work or anti-racism in your daily lives, you can invite them to untangle a little more of the spider web. Of course, you will need to explain to them that the unfairness in our country will take longer to untangle than the spider web they made, but that, just like with their spider web, it’s the everyday acts of social justice that will help untangle it over time. (If you don’t want a big spider web in your home, or of you are doing this work with just one child, something like a friendship bracelet or a weaving loom could also work.)

    6. Model behaviors for children.

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    As you probably already know, children rarely buy the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach. If you say something is important, but your children don’t see you behaving in a way that matches your assertion, they know it’s not actually very important to you. For example, if you say it’s important to have a diverse group of friends but your children don’t see a diverse group of people coming over to your home, they know you are not making it a priority in your life, so why should they?This also holds true for things like choosing to consume media that counters racial stereotypes or speaking out against racial inequities. We can tell children that these things are important, but we must also model that behavior for them. One way to do that is acknowledging issues of race and racism in forthright, thoughtful, and respectful ways. You can also show them that it’s OK to not have all of the answers all of the time; if they bring a question to you about race, racism or racialized inequities that you are not sure how to answer, tell them you think it is an excellent question and is something you wish you understood better, too. Then, depending upon their age, you may wish to research the question and come back with your findings later, or you can even research together. Either way, you are modeling an open, thoughtful, and respectful engagement of difficult issues, rather than shutting down the conversation.

    7. Encourage complex, critical thinking.

    Zachary Gibson / BuzzFeed

    Very young children are prone to something developmental psychologists call “transductive reasoning,” which leads them to think that if people are alike in one way (e.g. skin color), then they must be alike in other ways (e.g. abilities)5. This can lead to thinking such as, “I have brown skin and I am good at coloring, so being brown-skinned makes people good at coloring.” It’s easy to see how this pattern of thinking could lead to racial bias, so it’s important to disrupt this process by teaching young children to think in more complex ways. In fact, when children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once, research shows that their levels of bias are reduced6. So, help your young child think about people in multiple dimensions. Do they have a relative or friend with whom they share the same skin tone or racial identity, but who likes different things than they like? Do they have a relative or friend who has a different skin tone or racial identity than they do, but who likes the same things they like? Encouraging your child to think about people as multidimensional can help curtail bias.


    While I hope these tips have been helpful, we have really only scratched the surface here! There is a great deal more to say on this topic. Here are some additional resources that might be helpful:

    Supporting Kids of Color amid Racialized Violence


    How to Talk to Kids about Race: Books and Resources That Can Help

    Teaching Tolerance: How white parents should talk to their young kids about race

    Raising Race Conscious Children

    Teaching Tolerance

    Teaching Young Children about Race: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

    Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race

    Erin N. Winkler is associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she has also served on the advisory boards of Childhood and Adolescent Studies; Ethnic Studies; and Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latin@ Studies; and is affiliated faculty in Women's Studies.