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Talking Race

February is Black History Month, which many schools celebrate with a “heroes and holidays” approach. Although this approach guarantees that white children will have heard of Kwanzaa and Martin Luther King Jr., it doesn’t send much of a message about racial equality and integration. If we limit our children’s racial education to a particular month, then we teach them that the black experience is not integral to their white experience. As a mom, I want to raise my daughter to understand and appreciate the value of everyone. As a white mom, I need to be sure “everyone” includes people with different skin color from my white daughter.

Learning to deal with others who are different from us is not just nice, it’s necessary. To prepare our children for successful futures in school and the workplace, we need to teach them to get along with others. That means teaching kids to also get along with others who are not just like us.

So how do we raise racially aware and tolerant children? Here are a few ideas.

1. Start early. Research suggests that children begin to notice racial and ethnic differences between the ages of 3 and 5, when kids grow aware and curious. Negative or positive attachments to race are learned from parents, teachers, family, friends and the media.

2. Get comfortable.
In several studies, parents talk freely about other issues of difference such as gender, but they get quiet when it comes to race. Perhaps white parents assume that kids are naturally colorblind and talking about race will only exacerbate differences. The research, however, suggests otherwise. Kids group themselves constantly starting in preschool and are always constructing definitions for those groups. Parents should participate in their children’s efforts to define themselves and others.

3. Respect curiosity. Kids who are members of a minority come into contact with the racial majority all the time. However, white kids who do not know many kids of color may ask questions in public like “Why is her skin brown?” If you act embarrassed or shush the question, your child may begin to think there is something wrong with different skin color. Instead, remember that this is simply a natural curiosity. Answer honestly. Treat it as you would any other scientific curiosity. There’s no more judgment attached to this question than there is to asking about why the sky is blue or why grass is green. It’s simply a natural part of life.

4. Make difference normal.
Expose children to a variety of differences through books or life. Notice different family arrangements, nationalities, religions and races. You may even begin to notice more subtle differences in people’s personalities. The message might be that we’re all different and we’re all interesting.

5. Be clear. We may fill our child’s library with multicultural literature, DVDs, and dolls or action figures with varied skin tones—but if we don’t talk about it, our kids may not get the message. Research suggests that racial attitudes don’t shift much when kids are simply exposed to difference. But attitudes shift significantly when we talk about it. Say “White, black and Mexican children often enjoy the same things,” or “White and black children can be great friends.” Even invite discussion: “If a child with a different skin color moves in next door, what are some things you might play together?” Just remember to use language your child will understand. Words like “equal” and “fair” may need more explanation.

6. Repeat often. I cannot keep track of how often I send my 3-year-old daughter the message that she can grow up to have any job she wants. Girls can be scientists, artists, mathematicians, writers and politicians. I vary the way I say it, but the message remains the same. However, I don’t reinforce the message that kids with brown skin can grow up to be anything they want, too. Why not? My daughter has two pediatricians: one male and one female. But both are white. What reality is she constructing on her own?

As white parents, we need to grow as comfortable discussing race as we are gender. Here’s a recent conversation between my mother-in-law and daughter:

Mother-in-law: “That bump on your arm looks better.”

Daughter: “It is. I went to the dermatologist.”

Mother-in-law: “What did he say?”

Daughter: “What makes you think it was a boy?”

I was thrilled when my mother-in-law relayed this story. We laughed and congratulated ourselves. “Yes! She gets it! Girls can be doctors, too!” But as I researched this article I realized that I’ve never said doctors can be any skin color. Now I know I need to sprinkle our talk with lessons that include race as well.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.



The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
Octopus Hug, by Laurence Pringle
Tar Beach, by Faith Ringgold

Web site
Teaching Tolerance (A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center): www.tolerance.org

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