Culture & Race, Families, Children & Marriage

Speaking with children about race and some tips on how to start

Being biracial in a predominately white environment, my children began noticing race as soon as they could form thoughts more complicated than, “I want my sippy cup” and “I watch a movie?”  Having worked with plenty of biracial college students who were just beginning to discover their dual identity, we’ve intentionally spoken openly with our kids about their biracial identity from the beginning.  Like their bicultural identity, we wanted it to be something that had always been a part of who they are, not something that they suddenly discovered one day.

In an effort to help them embrace all sides of themselves, we’ve had some great chats with our kids about their identity over the years.  A Latina girl in my daughter’s first pre-school class named Rachel did cause some confusion for a bit when our daughter began telling people that she was “bi-rachel.”  We also faced quite the drama attempting to explain to her that Jesus wasn’t actually white.  Yet even in the midst of confusion and drama, we’ve found it essential to talk with our kids about this aspect of themselves and their world regularly.  

Growing up white in a mostly white community, I never talked about race, so it was a steep learning curve for me.  Because I hadn’t spoken or thought about race as a child, I was initially skeptical about the value of the conversation itself. “Aren’t we brainwashing them?” I’d asked my husband. “Why don’t we just let them notice what they notice without bringing it up?”

He’d assure me that it was quite a normal – even healthy – reality to talk about race as a family and I’d acquiesce, acknowledging that my culture’s silence on the matter hadn’t helped race relations much.  We also couldn’t really skirt the conversation easily since even our extended family is made up of a variety of races.  The kids were going to see it, and we needed to give them words to help frame their understanding.

Because of the reality of living in a racialized society (make sure to watch the video above to understand the full impact of this on children), it’s imperative for all families to speak openly about raceespecially white families. As a teacher, I learned that it was helpful to have a few ‘speeches’ prepared for a wide variety of situations, and parenting doesn’t feel that different.  Knowing how to talk about hushed-up topics with our kids like sex and race and disappointment and doubt is important. In that vane, here are a few suggestions for speaking about race to stick in a back-pocket for the day that conversation does arise.

Engage, don’t shush.

Psychological studies show that children notice racial differences as young as 3.  Sometimes, they might say embarrassing things that make parents nervous like “Why is that guy’s skin dirty?” or “You don’t match your mom.”  Psychologist Beverly Tatum suggests that if white parents are uncomfortable talking about race and respond by silencing them that the children learn race is not to be talked about at all, even if they do notice it.  The better way is to engage children on the topic and help them understand.

Speak factually.

Teach your kids the word melanin and explain how it works in human bodies.  It’s a great science lesson!  Just like sex, if we don’t explain the basic facts about how race works, young children are likely to develop their own theories like thinking others turn brown from things like eating too much chocolate or simply being ‘dirty’.

Speak figuratively.

To help our kids understand their biracial identity as young children, we would pour a glass of milk into a clear glass and then add chocolate syrup.  “Mama’s the milk.  Thaatha’s the chocolate,” we’d explain.  Then we’d stir it together.  “And you’re what happens when we mix it all together!”

Beverly Tatum (1997) would explain race to kids by cracking white and brown eggs, talking about how they’re different colors on the outside, but the exact same on the inside.

When our kids were younger, we also talked openly about the inaccuracies of racial classifications.  “Mama’s not really white, I’m more peach, right?”  Then we’d brainstorm what colors we could use for their skin: caramel, butterscotch, tan.  We’d adjust song lyrics and sing together:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Brown and caramel and peach,
Chocolate and  coffee,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Define race without deficiency

When we speak about differences between people, it’s important to be careful to speak without making someone else seem less than.  Statements like “her skin has too much melanin” suggest that something is wrong rather than just different.  Instead, it’s far more affirming to everyone to say things like, “We all have different colors of skin.  Isn’t it pretty like a rainbow?”

Pay attention to the surroundings you create

In simple things like choosing library books or decorations, be aware of creating a space in the home that represents a wide variety of people.  If children don’t see diversity in their immediate communities, they can at least see it in books they read and movies they watch.  This is especially important for families who live in areas that don’t have a lot of diversity where children are more naturally exposed to people of other races.  See this post for more ideas on how to incorporate diversity more deeply into family life.

Discuss discrepancies

When people of color are portrayed stereotypically or negatively in the media, bring it up. When a nativity scene or Bible shows all white people, talk with children about how this isn’t actually accurate.   We don’t always prevent our kids from seeing such inaccuracies because they’re great conversation starters when we do see them.  We also then make attempts to find other resources that balance out the inaccurate stereotype they’ve been exposed to.  For example, our kids love old sitcoms like I love Lucy and the Brady Bunch.  Many of these shows carry subliminal messages or microagressions about race that were common to their time.  We’ve made sure to also introduce shows (like the Cosby Show) that portray people of color with positive and empowering messages and talk about the how each show portrays the people in it.

When it comes to race, we must remember that our children learn from both what we say and what we don’t say.  Silence doesn’t always mean approval or acceptance.  Sometimes it creates a whole-lot-of-ignorance and breeds significant misunderstanding.  If we ourselves don’t know how to talk about race in productive, healthy, non-stereotyping and respectful ways, we won’t be able to teach them how to talk about it either.

Related Posts

Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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