1. Allow them to take the lead. Young children are already noticing difference in skin color. Listen for opportunities to talk about what they observe. One way this happens in our family is when we’ve seen someone in a career that is not historically typical for women. I am always quick to say, “women can be astronauts/engineers/President.” But I also started to add, “people of all color skins can be astronauts/engineers/President. People with cinnamon color-skin or chocolate chip skin or olive color skin.”
2. Don’t censure. Children don’t comprehend the social boundary around discussions of race. They may want to talk about skin color in ways that make adults uncomfortable. It is important in these situations to stay calm and to answer questions factually. Getting angry or upset, or silencing a child will lead them to believe race is something that is a bad subject, or that can’t be discussed with you. April Harris-Britt of the University of North Carolina says that if a certain question makes you uncomfortable to tell your children that their question is fine to ask but that you’d like to discuss it later. But be sure to return to the subject with your child in a private place.
3. Know the facts and be open to change. It is important for parents to know the history of racism in America and to know the ways race has, as a form of power, been used to benefit some while harming others. Be open to having your own opinions and biases challenged. A great way to inform yourself is by watching the PBS Series “Race: The Power of an Illusion.”
4. Expose your child to people of all shades. Ziba Kashef writes, ” Before your preschooler even utters the words “black” or “white” in reference to skin color, be sure he sees plenty of people of different ethnicities. If you don’t live in a racially diverse area, surround him with children’s books and artwork featuring people of various races. All of this will help your child understand that a normal environment includes people of different races, says Marguerite Wright, author of I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children.”
5. Respond with concise facts and don’t expect too much. Every time my two-year old sees a black man he tells me that “there’s a basketball player.” It makes sense. We live in a historically African-American neighborhood where young black men play almost all the pickup games at the YMCA. Like all preschoolers he is too young to think about the complexity of issues of power and privilege related to race. By simply noting his comments, being open to discussion about what he sees around him, and making corrections we are laying the foundation for important and more serious conversations in the future. When my son sees “a basketball player” I tell him, “I don’t see him carrying a basketball. Maybe he likes dancing or soccer” or “Yes, he’s holding a basketball and likes to play just like you. People with peach color skin and coffee color skin play basketball.” I’m also careful to point out when we see people of different races and genders playing sports.
6. Be aware of media portrayals of race. Children get information about race from many places, including music, television, and movies. Help set the most open environment for your children by filtering out media that portrays race in a stereotypical way. Look for programs that provide positive multi-cultural messages. Be aware that certain older films (Lady and the Tramp, Peter Pan, Jungle Book) contain ethnic stereotypes.
7. Remember that children are eager to talk about race. Po Bronson, co-author of the book NurtureShock shares his experience talking to his three-year old about race:
“I started with her baby dolls, as Bigler recommended. That night, as Thia played with her babies, I remarked that it was good she liked baby dolls with all kinds of skin color. I couldn’t get myself to say “brown skin,” but Thia practically leapt at the overture. She grabbed her brown-skinned baby doll and started talking about its brown skin, and how her doll’s brown skin was like her friends’ at school. Bigler was absolutely right. My daughter did want to talk about it. I felt something akin to relief in her ─ that her father had finally let her openly talk about skin color.”
8. Make sure you share age-appropriately. It’s not best to read a preschooler a story that highlights the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But don’t avoid the racism that led to the Civil Rights struggle. One way to address this age appropriately is to focus on change- and peace-makers. Talk about a very important theme for preschoolers – that our world was not fair and that this lack of equity was based on color difference.
Talking to preschoolers about race can be awkward and strange for white people. Be of good courage! You are laying the groundwork for future conversations by showing your openness to talk. Remember these words of Willie Jennings: “Race was made, and it can be unmade.”