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Sunday, February 25, 2018

How to talk to kids about race and racism

Photo by Rosemarie Gearhart.

“When we are silent around the topic of race, children naturally fill in the blanks on their own.” Photo by Rosemarie Gearhart.

Standing in line at the store, 5-year-old Annie points at the cashier and says, “Mama, her skin is dark.” Mom blushes, hushes Annie and apologizes.

For many white parents, an incident like this can cause embarrassment and discomfort. But it also can serve as a wonderful opportunity to talk with your child about race.

Research indicates that parents of color discuss race with their children, but white parents tend to adopt a colorblind, misleading attitude: “If I don’t talk about race—and I treat everyone fairly—my children will grow up to be non-racist.”

In the face of silence, children may come to stereotypical conclusions on their own. Without fully understanding that racism results in racial disparities, children might make incorrect assumptions: for example, they may make the association that skin color is what makes people poor.

“Young children’s minds naturally work to make sense of this world,” says Eva Marie Shivers, JD, PhD, director of the Indigo Cultural Center, a nonprofit in Phoenix that promotes social justice and racial equality. “When we are silent around the topic of race, children naturally fill in the blanks on their own. It is problematic [that] implicit biases are as pervasive as they are in our society.”

If children can’t name and recognize race, how can they recognize and challenge racism?

Tips for talking to your children about race and racism

Be explicit. Say the words “race” and “racism.” Give concrete examples of how stereotypes are inaccurate. Point out examples of successful Latino men in your community and in the media and explain that stereotypes of black men as “threatening” are harmful and untrue.

Discuss similarities and differences. Try telling your child, “We may have different ways of expressing ourselves, but we all want to be heard and respected” or “Our hair might be styled differently, but we all want to be accepted by our friends.”

Help kids learn how to recognize hidden biases. Touch on the concept of institutional racism, where society as a whole gives negative treatment to people based on race—and how we can recognize hidden biases or discomfort when discussing race and racism.

Talking is not enough. Expose children to environments with children of diverse races. This might involve traveling to a library outside of your neighborhood for story time or seeking out diverse playgroups. Community celebrations and events are opportunities to broaden your child’s view of the world.

Find resources on race conversations at

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Flora Farago, MS and Mary Anne Duggan, PhD

Flora Farago, MS, is a doctoral candidate in Family & Human Development in the Sanford School at ASU in Tempe and a researcher at the Indigo Cultural Center in Phoenix. Mary Anne Duggan, PhD, is an assistant research professor at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at ASU. Reach them at [email protected].

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