If a child hears or says something that is racist, how do parents explain what’s going on?
Sometimes it’s unintentional, but parents tend to use colorblind language even when something comes up that’s racialized. So if there’s unfairness going on—if a friend is being excluded or if a child says something that a parent perceives as bias—parents often turn to language like “That’s not nice” or “We don’t want to hurt her feelings” or “She might feel sad if you say that,” without getting at the racialized question or unfairness behind the issue. Parents often use colorblind language because they want to teach their kids that race doesn’t matter. This doesn’t help kids be less racially biased; it teaches them that their parent is uncomfortable talking about this. It could be a benign question, for example, a child who’s grown up around only people of their same race and they see someone of a different race and ask, “Why do they look like that?” Parents will often shush the child or reply with a colorblind answer. If the child is silent about the topic after this, it doesn’t mean that the question has gone away. It means the child is learning that we don’t talk about this directly.
Another thing that parents often do if they do address racism is put it in terms of a sick person or a bad apple. They’ll say that only sick people want to hurt other people based on their race or on how they look. Again, this is an understandable message, but what we’ve seen is that it can make the situation seem like something that is isolated, or for White children, the takeaway message can be: “We are not part of the problem because we are not sick or bad people, and therefore we don’t need to worry about this.”
There’s a quote from a 2001 book by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin, The First R, that’s about preschoolers and race. They say, “Talk about the fact that the social world we live in is often unfair to people of color simply because they are people of color and that persisting racial-ethnic inequalities are unjust and morally wrong. Make it clear that racial-ethnic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform and not just something that individuals do.”
It is important that parents couple this discussion of unfairness with a discussion of resistance and empowerment. Otherwise, it can be frightening and crushing for children—especially children of color—to learn about this unfairness. Therefore, it’s important to talk with children about people in your community (and beyond) who are working to fight against this unfairness. Introduce them to these people and model for them the importance of this fight against racial inequity.
“What choices are you making about your environments and theirs? What environments are they in every day? Who is present and in what roles? Whose experiences and perspectives are being centered and valued? What are they observing when they witness you reacting to racialized situations? What you do matters.”
One example that comes to mind came from a White mother who spoke to me about her young White son asking something along the lines of “Why don’t Black people get grocery stores?” based on patterns he saw while riding through their city. Here, it was important for her to help her child understand that this was the result of unfairness toward Black people as a group and that it was not right. But it was also important for this parent to make sure to bring in the empowerment element, talking to her child about people in the community who also recognize this same unfair pattern and are working to make change through advocacy, community gardening, and more. Remember that young children learn through concrete experiences, so it is important to introduce them to anti-racist role models and activists in person and get involved to show them that we all must be a part of the change.
Parents also should not wait for kids to ask questions because research shows that children are getting the message early that they aren’t supposed to talk about race. Parents should raise these issues and work to normalize these discussions about race. What research has shown is that parents bring up fairness around gender with very young kids, but they do not and are not comfortable bringing up race. Black and Latinx parents are more likely to bring up cultural identity and pride with young children, but parents of all races are unlikely to talk with young children about racial inequity or unfair racialized patterns that kids might see. Bring it up and don’t wait for kids to ask questions. If they do ask questions, answer them directly if you can. If you can’t, I encourage asking the follow-up question, “What makes you say that?” If a child asks a question that sounds biased, sometimes parents want to shut them down and say, “That’s not nice. We don’t say that.” But asking, “What makes you say that?” can help explain their thinking and help you understand the best way to respond.