Every year I have at least one parent ask me for tips on how they can talk to their child about race and racism. On the flip side I know that there are parents who are offended when a teacher teaches their child about racism and will often object to it by making statements such as, “my child is too young” or “I don’t want them to know about it just yet.” While some parents seem to think that the cure is to teach their child to look at society through a colored blind lens. Unfortunately, taking both of these routes leaves your child’s knowledge about race and society up to their friends, media and scattered truths available to them in the classroom curriculum. The truth of the matter is that children receive countless amounts of information about who and what society values and leaving it up to your eight year old to judge all of this information is unfair and downright wrong. If you don’t participate in this process your child will most likely take the information that they receive and make broad stroke generalization about race, culture and society.
Case in point, last year during one of my units of study my first graders were learning about the importance of Carnival in Trinidad. As we were learning about the different costumes, many of which were created around the oppression they faced while in slavery, an question about race emerged.
The class erupted into dialogue about race and inequality of Black people, all of this was done in first grade language of course. As I worked out many of my students mis-understandings, one of my students interrupted the discussion and confidently said “I thought Martin Luther King, Jr. took care of that.” His statement took me by surprise because I have never had a student actually say something like that to me. I realized that he thought that Dr. King had abolished racism and inequality. I’m sure that this was based on the fact that he had heard numerous times that Martin Luther King Jr, had a Dream, his conclusion of course was that racism was non-existent.
He was so confused, this was partly due to the half-truths that he like many students learn about race and history in American classrooms.
By now you’re probably asking what can you do to talk to your child about race? First it’s important for you to know that as a parent you provide a safe place for your child to learn this information and process it. Why? Because, your child can come back to you over and over again to get clarification about as the information crystalizes in their mind over time. Secondly, its important to understand that racism, prejudice and discrimination are all different concepts that inadvertently effect one another.
What’s the difference?
1. Racism has to do with power + privilege and the systematic use of that power. This has to do with laws that are made against a people and the people within that system who use that law to work in their favor. (Think-Voting Rights Act)
2. Discrimination is the mistreatment of a person due to their race, sex, religion, heritage etc.
3. Prejudice is when you pre-judge a person based on stereotypes or misguided reasons and or opinions.
Clarifying this information is the first step in making sure your child understand what racism is and what it is not.
How to Talk to Your Child About Racism!
1. Speak candidly with your child about a culture and its history. Yes, of course its important for you to convey it in a developmentally appropriate way, but I strongly advocate speaking truthfully about mistreatment of any group of people that has led to death, torture and other harsh realities as it pertains to racism. In my opinion many kids think that fighting, guns and mistreatment of women is fun and make believe for this reason, I strongly advocate for children knowing about the full effect of these ideas and not fall prey to virtual fantasy about these realities and ideas.
2. Educate your self about culture and heritage and make sure that you’re not conveying your own personal prejudices and discriminations about a culture to your child. Let history tell the story!
3. It’s important to present information about the culture and its greatness prior to teaching about colonization, oppression of this particular group. This way children can have a view of the culture and appreciate it as opposed to learning about a people from a place of displacement and inferiority.
4. Racism has nothing to do with liking someone or disliking someone. It’s about creating laws and systems that purposely oppress a group of people and make it virtually impossible for them to be free or pursue their dreams. Think of an iron and what it does when you are pressing out the wrinkles on your clothes, thats what racism is.
Three books I recommend:
Let me in on some of the discussions that you are having with your child.