How to Talk to Your Kids About Race
“You are so unlucky because your skin looks like poop.”
“Brown people can’t be American.”
“Go back to your own hood, [racial slur].”
“Go back to slavery.”
These comments are disturbing and heartbreaking — but they’re not surprising. At least not to Tumaini R. Coker, M.D., M.B.A., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine and director of research at Seattle Children’s Center for Diversity and Health Equity. To Coker, who is black, they’re just another reminder that racial bias is still alive.
After all, those insults were directed at Coker’s children. And the people who made those comments, well, they were their elementary and middle school classmates.
Coker uses these examples to highlight why it’s so important for parents to have a frank conversation with their kids about race, diversity and inclusion.
“If you don’t, your kid is the one telling my daughter her brown skin looks like poop or that she can’t be an American,” Coker says.
Why talking about race is so important
We all want our children to grow up and be decent, successful people. But there’s so much emphasis put on achieving good grades or excelling at after-school activities that things like being kind and accepting others can get glossed over.
You might expect your kids to learn how to be a good person just by watching what you do. If you’re kind and don’t bad-talk other people, your kids will follow your lead, right? Not so, Coker says, especially when it comes to racial bias.
“I think a lot of people are afraid to talk about race,” she notes. “They want to give their children the impression that race is not important and that we should be colorblind.”
While your intentions might be in the right place, that approach simply doesn’t work.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children as young as 6 months can notice race-based differences, and they can internalize racial bias by the age of 2.
“If you don’t talk to your kids about race, they’re going to come up with their own conclusions from what they observe in the world,” Coker explains. “There are so many negative messages that are just part of our society, so even if you plan on teaching your children to be colorblind, then all of their racial knowledge will come from society at large, which we know is negative toward non-white races and ethnic groups. It’s our job as parents to shape that idea for them.”
Psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark demonstrated that society’s ingrained racial bias can influence how black children view themselves. In the Clarks’ landmark study from the 1940s, they presented black children between the ages of 3 and 7 with a white doll and a black doll. When asked, 59% of the children identified the black doll as the one that “looks bad.”
“It’s devastating to watch black kids say the black doll is bad and naughty and that they want to play with the white doll,” Coker says. “It’s devastating because that’s what they reflect on themselves.”
How to talk about race with young children
With such a significant (and challenging) topic as race, it can be tough to know how to frame the conversation for your family, especially if you have young kids. Just remember that it’s an ongoing discussion that you should be able to bring up whenever the time feels right.
For parents of young children, try to keep the conversation simple and, most importantly, honest.
“I explain to a young child that sometimes black people and other people are treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, and we want to make sure everyone knows their life is important, no matter the color of their skin,” Coker says.
Other times, the discussion can be prompted by a question or observation your kids make.
For example, if you’re a white parent at, say, a grocery store and your child mentions that another person’s skin looks dark, you can choose to engage in a conversation rather than brush that comment off. Respond with something like, “Yes, isn’t that beautiful? That’s really nice. Look how different everyone is.”
Another way of approaching this with toddlers and school-age children is to give them opportunities to experience a variety of races and cultures in a positive way. Introduce them to books, TV shows and movies that portray diverse characters, and then chat about your favorite parts and what you each liked about them.
How to talk about race with tweens and teens
As your children get older, the conversation about race will naturally broaden to more grown-up topics like oppression, privilege and racial profiling. As much as you might want to, don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
“Being really clear from the beginning that structural racism exists in the world and that it’s our job to fight against it will help kids understand the consequences of racism in our society, and how critical it is that we recognize and work to counter our own biases,” Coker explains.
Try to avoid lecturing — because when does that ever work? — and instead focus on listening and asking questions that can prompt further discussion. You can chat about current events or activist movements that are making headlines or talk about moments when you’ve both witnessed or experienced racial discrimination and how that made you feel.
“Just exposing them to all these things is good, and then you can broaden that to how they can use their voice in society,” Coker says. “What does it look like to participate in a protest? How can you write a letter to a congressperson? They will at least have a concept of what methods we have in a civil society to join the discussion about race.”
How the race conversation diverges for different races
Another added layer to your family’s conversation about race? Your race.
For white families, Coker says, this may mean talking about working on your ally skills or acknowledging that privilege exists.
“It’s hard for some people to grasp,” she admits. “You’re not raised with the idea that you have privilege — you’re just taught to work hard. But certain people are privileged, and they can’t separate themselves from it. You still need to do your best, but you have to know that privilege still exists.”
Once your kids can acknowledge that the color of their skin may give them an advantage, they’ll be better equipped to identify when their privilege is working in their favor and how to speak up for others.
For other families, your conversation about race may include how to identify and handle racism.
“The parents of black, particularly male, children have a whole different level of education that they need to give their kids because of the police and the violence we have seen against black males,” says Coker, who has two teenage boys. “You have to cover how to talk to a police officer without having that police officer feel threatened or scared since we know there can be negative consequences.”
She acknowledges that this is a harsh reality check for kids and their parents — one that’s completely unfair yet still completely necessary.
“I want my boys to understand that when they see their white friends talk back to a police officer, that they are not allowed to do that,” Coker says. “I don’t think it’s fair that I have to tell them that, but I also don’t want them to be killed.”
When racial bias affects your children
As much as you want your children’s lives to be unblemished by racism, the fact is that they’re probably going to experience or observe it at some point. As a parent, you have to focus on turning those moments into learning opportunities, Coker says.
If anyone says something racist to your kids, make sure they understand that they didn’t do anything wrong to prompt it.
“For parents of black and brown children, that messaging is really to give your kids a reason to love themselves,” Coker says. “Push against this feeling that what makes them different is negative.”
And if you find out your child is actually the one who made the racist comment, treat it the same way you would if you found out your child cheated on a test, was bullying someone else or called another kid a bad name.
“For younger kids, they sometimes don’t know what they’re saying and just repeat terms they’ve heard,” Coker explains. “Focus on making it a learning opportunity for the kid rather than merely a punishment. For older kids, help them understand the flipside and learn to have empathy for the other person.”
Start by making sure your child understands that racist behavior and ways of thinking aren’t acceptable. And instead of just telling them why, show them. Learn about the history of racial bias together so your child can better understand oppression in our society. And help them experience other cultures in a positive way so they can gain a wider perspective on the world.
By having an open conversation about race, you can only make things better.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 17, 2019. It has been updated with additional information on June 20, 2019.