Talking to Kids About Race and Social Justice
Author Innosanto Nagara at a protest with his son.
With protests over police brutality and racial injustice happening throughout the Bay Area and nation, curfews being enacted in many cities and pictures of throngs of peaceful protestors interspersed with more troubling images of looting, fires and police in riot gear, many parents are grappling with how to discuss the current events and their greater context with their children.
“The earlier you start the conversation, the better,” says Innosanto Nagara, an Oakland father who writes and illustrates children’s books on social justice. “Especially when you talk about race, kids start to understand these concepts early on. … Answering their questions and prompting them to have these conversations early on is essential. If you’re not doing it, someone else is.” “People who feel that they have the privilege not to have the conversation are doing a disservice to everyone,” he adds.
Joe Truss, the principal of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley Middle School and founder of Culturally Responsive Leadership, says black families like his and those of his students know they have no choice but to start such discussions young. “People of color don’t have an option about how young and soon they talk to their children about racism and navigating and surviving racism,” says Truss, who has two young children. But “there needs to be much more direct conversation for white folks. … There needs to be much more honesty about what’s going on and honesty about what’s happening in a historical context,” adds Truss, whose organization promotes racial equity in schools and offers training on Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Schools.
Several organizations have stepped in to offer parents guidance in discussing the issues raised by the protests, which were sparked by the filmed death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer on Memorial Day, following several high-profile killings of African Americans in recent years. Among them is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture’s Talking About Race, which offers ideas for conversations on race and racial identity, bias, being antiracist and other topics, with prompts to think, talk and act. “There’s no quick or foolproof way to talk about the complexities of race with your child(ren). But, it’s a conversation all families need to have, no matter your race, background, education or experience,” its site says.
Others are providing resources targeted to kids.
• On Sat., June 6, at 7 a.m. Pacific time, Sesame Street and CNN hosted a town hall on the subject. Called “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism, A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families,” the special aired on CNN and CNN.com. Check cnn.com/sesamestreet for more details.
• A family-friendly Oakland Kids March is planned for Sun., June 7, at 2 p.m. It will begin at the Big Shoe at Children's Fairyland and proceed around Lake Merritt, Fairyland announced Friday on Twitter.
• On Tue., June 9, at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time, PBS KIDS hosted a virtual event, "Talking to Children Authentically about Race and Racism." The event, on YouTube, will bring together parents, educators and child development and trauma experts discussing how to talk with young children about racial injustice and violence against black people.
• On Thu., June 4, the Brown Bookshelf, which promotes African American children’s authors, held a Kidlit Rally for Black Lives with authors including Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson and Jason Reynolds. The event – starting with a discussion for children in kindergarten through 12th grade, followed by one for parents, educators and librarians – was recorded and can be watched on Facebook Live.
A growing number of books also address racial equity and social justice for babies through teens. Truss recommends the forthcoming board book Antiracist Baby from Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist.
Nagara’s books, from the board books A is for Activist and Counting on Community to his upcoming middle-grade novel M is for Movement, all center on social justice and activism. His 2017 picture book The Wedding Portrait – which depicts true stories of civil disobedience, including his arrest with his partner at an anti-nuclear protest in Livermore in their wedding attire – is especially timely.
“I want to say something about breaking the rules,” it says. “We usually follow the rules. But sometimes, when you see something wrong , more wrong than breaking the rules, and by breaking the rules you could stop it – you may decide that you should break the rules.” “The main thread through all my books is this idea of agency. Bad things happen. I’m not going to sugarcoat and pretend everything is going to be good for everybody. The question is: What are you going to do about it? What agency do we have as people to engage?” says Nagara, a native of Indonesia who regularly takes his 9-year-old son to protests. “Talk to your kids. They do have questions. They may not be able to articulate the questions and it may seem like they aren’t paying attention, but you can assume they are. If they aren’t paying attention to you, they’re paying attention to someone else,” he adds. And “there’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I don’t know.’ A lot of parents feel like they don‘t have the answers. Learning together would be a very empowering experience.”
While child development experts caution against exposing children to violent imagery in the media, Truss says that’s not an excuse to avoid tough conversations. In plenty of neighborhoods, young children deal with the violent deaths of family members and neighbors and discussing it is unavoidable.
“If you never experience those things and you live in a bubble, you never have to talk about it. White folks and privileged folks are decades behind because they’ve never had to talk about it,” he says. “It’s about not seeing it as a block: They’re too young, so don’t do it.” The question, he says, should instead be: “They’re young, so how do we do it? We have to do it.”
• Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice, a free online book from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center
• The Brown Bookshelf, a group of authors and illustrators promoting African American voices writing for young readers.
• Child Mind Institute video: “Racism and Violence: How to Help Kids Handle the News”