Talking to Your Kids About Racism

Randi Bryant is a Bay Area diversity expert who has spoken extensively about how to have honest conversations about race, gender, sexuality, religion, and cultural and diversity issues with both children and adults. She is the vice president and chief diversity officer at Freshworks, a software company headquartered in San Mateo. She has also authored two books: Neversays: 25 Phrases You Should Never Ever Say to Keep Your Job and Friends and Truthing: A Collection of Essays. The Marin resident has raised two sons, ages 18 and 21, with whom she has had many conversations about racism.
Bryant recently spoke with Bay Area Parent about how to talk to even very young children about race, along with offering tips for teaching kids to be anti-racist
Is there a certain age when parents should start discussing racism with their kids?
The foundation is to talk about differences in people. Kids see difference immediately. They see the different skin tones in people, and they react differently based on skin tones. I believe we tend to want to avoid certain subjects because they make us feel uncomfortable and we feel that it is being racist to point out the differences. But kids should be comfortable with people’s differences. You can actually shape a child’s brain just by making sure they are around people who look different. That way it’s not so shocking to their brain. … It could just be that you are living a life that includes people who look different, and that becomes something normal.
How do you talk to each age group?
Young kids may say, “Look Mommy, she’s brown.” You can say, “Yes I know. Isn’t it wonderful how we’re all different colors and shades and sizes?” and it becomes no big deal. A lot of times people become embarrassed when their children point out differences in people. But it’s not offensive to anyone to point out differences. The best thing you can do is explain that this is how our world is. Our world is made up of people of different shades and races. I don’t think it’s just about race because race is a social construct and not a true biological one. You can say to your kids that people are different and people have different customs. You’re going to see that people have different beliefs, and different foods, and that’s what makes life so exciting. You may say to your children, “We have our way as a family and we love it, but everyone is different.” You should make difference something that is exciting and not scary. I believe racism comes from a place of fear, a lack of exposure.
People say racism is taught or hate is taught. I believe that as parents we have to be intentional about teaching kids about anti-racism. Even at age 5, when children go into kindergarten, they have conversations about things being fair. That’s when we can say how sometimes people aren’t fair to certain people because of the color of their skin, and what do you think about that? “How would you feel if someone didn’t want to share their crayons with you because you have green eyes? Wouldn’t that be hurtful?” It’s a very simple concept of being kind to people despite them being different from you, and not pretending that race doesn’t exist because children notice that we’re different.
Don’t say to your kids: We’re all the same. People have different experiences in this country. Teaching empathy is important. Teaching kids that people’s experiences shape how they see the world. Creating empathy in your children is much more powerful than having a sit-down conversation about race.
How do you talk to kids about incidents in the country related to race and civil unrest?
When incidents do happen like last summer, when children are seeing the protests, talk to them and say, “Let’s think about why these people may be upset.” It’s okay to say that people feel they are not being treated fairly. Talk to your children about treating people fairly and being nice. Then maybe say, “Tell me about an incident when you weren’t being treated fairly and how did it make you feel and what did you want to do?”
I think people avoid conversations about race and racism because it has negative connotations. We don’t want to bring that into our children’s lives. But it’s really not directly talking so much about racism as it is talking about fairness and goodness, people’s feelings. It’s really overall principals we’re teaching our kids.
Children will guide the conversation because children will ask questions. If you avoid answering the questions, they will get the answers somewhere else. Racism and hatred don’t necessarily need to be taught because the absence of teaching the opposite will teach your kids skills and ideas that you don’t want your children to have. So, you have to be intentional about having these conversations. If you’re talking about the history of racism in America, you can say, “Let’s have a race.” And then you say, “I’m going to start ahead of you.” They may say, “But hat’s not fair.” Then you can say, “Well that’s what it has been like for African Americans because when they came to this country, they had to work for free while your ancestors were working and buying houses.”
What if your child feels they have been a victim of racism?
Talk about it. Ask them, “What makes you think someone was unfair to you because of your race? How did it make you feel? Do you feel it was solely because of your race or do you think there could have been another reason? What would make you feel better? Can we have a conversation with this person?”
Sometimes a child comes to you to have a discussion and they may not want a solution. They may not want you to fix it.
I’m raising two sons, ages 18 and 21. I talked to them about race at a young age. I knew that as black boys in America they would be seen as threatening to some people. When I would sing lullabies to them, I would talk about their brown skin. When we would go on vacation to different places, I would point out different skin tones. We traveled to places where people have brown skin, whether it was Mexico or Jamaica. As they grew up and things happened, we talked about it. I would say, “How did that make you feel and what can we do to make sure you don’t feel that way again?” I’ve just tried to make sure they are proud of who they are.
We have to recognize that this world is becoming ever more diverse and if you want your children to be able to participate, understanding difference is a key part of that. I do not believe anyone can be successful in this world if they are not able to interact respectfully with people who are different than they are. Giving your kids the vocabulary, talking about it and looking at different circumstances can start at age 2. Ask them, “What if you saw someone who is very different from you? What would you say to the person if you were curious about something?” Practice those skills with your children.
What if your child is accused of being racist?
I would ask, “How do you feel? Let’s talk about what happened. What did you mean when you said that?” Ask them, “How do you think that person felt when you said that? Can you see why they took it this way? What can you do to fix it?” And then ask, “What did you learn?”
We should always be in the process of learning how to communicate with people. And then if the person (accused of being racist) says, “I don’t think that was racist,” you can say, “If I kicked you and you tell me it hurt and I say no, it did not hurt, is it fair for me to say that? You have to try to understand why it hurt the other person. You don’t get to judge whether something you did was offensive. You don’t get to be your own judge and jury. What you can do is see it as an opportunity to learn and tell your friend that you are sorry. You did not mean to hurt their feelings. Now you understand and, in the future, you will try to do better.”
People can say wrong things but that doesn’t mean they should be labeled as racist. You can forgive people who are willing to change.
Should parents talk to kids about words or phrases that should not be said?
Yes. There are words that hurt and there are words that hurt some people that don’t hurt other people. There are some words that some people can use that other people can’t. Some people have the comfort and right to say things that others can’t because they’re in a group. We all have different language codes based on our relationship with people.
Should parents of children of color have conversations with their kids about how to handle themselves around police officers or other authority figures?
I do not know a black person who has not had that conversation with their kids. I believe we want to prepare our children for the world they live in and unfortunately, our world is different depending on your race. Until the world changes, we have to prepare our children. I talk to my kids everyday about how the world sees them versus how they are and what they can do to mitigate certain circumstances. It has broken my heart. We want our kids to think the world is perfect. We want our kids to think that everyone is going to see them like we see them. It is heartbreaking to have conversations with your kids that present the ugly truths. I do tell them that I think most people are good, but you always want to protect yourself and put yourself in a situation where you won’t get harmed.
When they were young, they did know about Trayvon Martin. They do know that when their father, who is an attorney, goes jogging in the morning, he wears a Georgetown Law sweatshirt or something to show he is not to be feared.
We talk about what is happening in the news. We talk about how to handle police. Even teachers. My son and I just had a conversation. He graduated from high school and some of the seniors were skipping classes. My son said, “Everybody does it.” I said, “Unfortunately, you can’t do what everybody does all the time. They may unintentionally judge you more harshly than they would someone else because of biases. We all have biases. That’s why we all have to be aware of them.”
I don’t think the responsibility of educating children about race should be on persons of color. I think that up until now the conversation was always about the conversation black people are having with their children or Latino people are having with their children. The responsibility to create an anti-racist society is on all parents.
If I can talk to my kids at age 3 or 2 about race, which I did, I think non-black parents should be doing the same. As the world is changing, it’s not the responsibility of children of color and parents of color to change this world. It’s all of our responsibility.


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