Week 12, Day 33: How to Talk to Kids About Race

Tip #33:

Strategies for talking to kids about race and racial tensions.

As a kid of the late 70s and 80s, the version of anti-racism that I was taught was that of color blindness. As Celeste Ng, author of Little Fires Everywhere, recently described it in a podcast with Brené Brown, "To be racially aware at that time was to say 'I don't see color. We're all the same.'" The unfortunate outcome of that philosophy, however, was to erase the very real differences that exist for people living in white, black, and brown skins, and worse, to pretend they aren't affecting people of color every day in all aspects of their lives.

The version of anti-racism I'm teaching my kids in 2020 is different. I've noted the ages at which both my kids started noticing the differences in skin color between themselves and their peers. It happened right around 6y/o. We've talked about these differences in terms of pigmentation more often than in terms of race. They both understand that slavery is a real and painful part of our country's history. They know the names of key figures in the civil rights movement and their schools enforce values of diversity and acceptance. These are great steps forward in the arena of socio-emotional learning but are they enough to combat the systemic racism of our society?

My second grader's class had a unit this fall about diversity that included active learning on how differences define us but can also separate us from one another. He participated in a small group project to make a video lesson of how to use differences divisively (ie in the lunchroom: "Why are you eating that? That's so weird.") or inclusively (at the same lunch table: "I've never seen that food before. What is it?") This embodied lesson about teasing or shaming differed critically from platitudes such as "Be inclusive and kind" because it named culture and appearance as ways in which people separate and define themselves.

But, as my daughter pointed out earlier this week, saying you support diversity but not engaging in difficult conversations about race (or gender or sexual orientation) is denial of the problem. Her middle school social studies classes have had strict rules about NOT engaging in political conversations, presumably because of fear of offense and retaliation. While we can talk about the issues at home, the value of knowing different points and the ability to articulate one's values in contrast to those of others is what will eventually make both of our children good allies and, honestly, good humans.

Ultimately, it's not solely the school's job to teach our kids about being socially conscious, empathic, and empowered beings. And clearly, we all need to be doing more to ensure we're pushing the needle.

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