“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.”