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How To Talk To Your Kids About Race And Justice

A person walks past a mural of Martin Luther King in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 is Martin Luther King Day. (Matt Rourke/AP)
A person walks past a mural of Martin Luther King in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. Monday, Jan. 21, 2008 is Martin Luther King Day. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of a dream where his children would not be judged by the color of their skin. More than a half-century later, how should parents talk about race and justice with their kids now?


Melissa Giraud, social justice educator, researcher and advocate. Co-founder of EmbraceRace, an organization that provides resources for parents to teach their children about race. ( @mgiraud)

Andrew Grant-Thomas, social justice researcher and advocate. Co-founder of EmbraceRace. Former director of programs at the Proteus Fund, a national foundation committed to advancing justice through democracy, human rights, and peace; and deputy director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. ( @agrantth)

Gita Gulati-Partee, founder and president of OpenSource Leadership Strategies, which consults nonprofits about the racial equity capacity of social change organizations.

Interview Highlights

On the importance of addressing race with your children

Melissa Giraud: “Kids in early elementary school will tell you stream of consciousness what they’re eating, what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, all kinds of stuff. But often [we] have been taught, a lot of us, not to talk about race. And so even as a person of color, and even growing up in the family … because I didn’t have the language, I didn’t have the tools. I really absorbed a lot of … what kids absorb, which is like, ‘Oh, it’s me. It’s about me. There’s something wrong with me. I’m somehow less than, I’m embarrassed to tell my parents.’ That’s something that happens to kids, because as much as we want to not talk about race — or for some people race is like Voldemort, the thing that cannot be named — if we don’t, our kids are learning about it without us. They’re having the conversation in what they’re imbibing without us: on TV, on the playground, passing through different neighborhoods that are quite segregated. So kids are going to use their kid logic and say, ‘Why are things this way?’ and not have the information they need.”

On the failures of the colorblind approach to racial issues

Andrew Grant-Thomas: “The good news is that the urgency of the moment has led more people to want to have the conversations. I think for a long time — especially but not only among white adults, white parents of white children — the hope was that [the] ‘colorblind approach’ — not talking about it — would be the way to go. I think people are understanding that that’s not serving as well.”

On moving beyond difference

Andrew Grant-Thomas: “Kids are noticing difference[s]. Kids are noticing race, and gender and all of these issues. I think the real challenge we have is, what are the meanings of those things? We tend to think casually of race as about physical characteristics: Skin color, texture of hair, shape of eyes, nose, these sorts of things. The real significance of race, though, what makes it salient is, what are those visible differences indicative of? What are the invisible features that the visible features are supposed to be indicators of? That’s the conversation we increasingly need to engage kids in. Let’s understand how they’re thinking, what kind of connections they may be making between the visible and the invisible, and then let’s talk to them about what does it mean or not mean. … Let’s not normalize, let’s not naturalize, let’s actually engage kids in a conversation about why they see what they see.”

On following your child’s lead

Gita Gulati-Partee: “I think parenting in general … is so much more about following than leading, sort of following your kids lead. And I do remember the first time my son acknowledged race — acknowledged skin color — and the opportunity that that sort of gave me in the moment to think to take a deep breath and think, ‘How do I want to engage in this?’ And at the time just really gave him an opportunity to think about who he is. And so I think it’s being as intentional as you can be, and also being present and aware to where your kids are and what they might need in the moment.”

From The Reading List

The New York Times: “ The Impact of Racism on Children’s Health” — “This month the American Academy of Pediatrics put out its first policy statement on how racism affects the health and development of children and adolescents.

“‘Racism is a significant social determinant of health clearly prevalent in our society now,’ said Dr. Maria Trent, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who was one of the co-authors of the statement.

“Racism has an impact on children and families who are targeted, she said, but also on those who witness it. ‘We call it a socially transmitted disease: It’s taught, it’s passed down, but the impacts on children and families are significant from a health perspective,’ said Dr. Trent, who is the chairwoman of the A.A.P. section on adolescent health. Social transmission makes sense here, because race itself is a social construct, she said: ‘Genetically, we’re very much the same.’

“But the impact of bias on children’s health starts even before they’re born, Dr. Trent said. Persistent racial disparities in birth weight and maternal mortality in the United States today may in part reflect the deprivations of poverty, with less availability of good prenatal care, and poorer medical care in general for minority families, sometimes shaped by unacknowledged biases on the part of medical personnel. High rates of heart disease and hypertension also persist among African-Americans.”

Washington Post: “ They were raised to be ‘colorblind’ — but now more white parents are learning to talk about race” — “The family had been talking about Black History Month over dinner on a recent February weeknight, and Kirstin Cassell, a clinical social worker in Greensboro, N.C., had asked her children what their classrooms were doing to celebrate. But it wasn’t until later, after the plates were cleared away and the younger children had wandered off, that Cassell’s 12-year-old son admitted he was bothered by something at school.

“‘I’ve noticed something,’ he began, and then told his mom that there were black boys in his class who were consistently getting in trouble with the teacher for goofing around. This troubled him, he said, ‘because they’re not doing any behaviors that are any different than what I do.’

“In that moment, Cassell says now, several thoughts raced through her mind: that she’d always known her oldest child could be silly in class and that she had wondered whether he might get away with it because he was white. That her 8-year-old son, who is black and adopted from Ethiopia, might find himself in that same classroom in a few years. That she was proud of her seventh-grader for identifying the problem. And that she wasn’t sure how to fix it.”

NPR: “ Why All Parents Should Talk With Their Kids About Social Identity” — “A majority of parents rarely, if ever, discuss race/ethnicity, gender, class or other categories of social identity with their kids, according to a new, nationally representative survey of more than 6,000 parents conducted by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago. The researchers behind Sesame Street say the fact that so many families aren’t talking about these issues is a problem because children are hard-wired to notice differences at a young age — and they’re asking questions.

“‘ “Why is this person darker than me?” “Why is this person wearing that hat on their head?” ‘ These are just some of the social identity questions parents might hear, says Tanya Haider, executive vice president for strategy, research and ventures at Sesame Workshop. ‘We sometimes are scared to talk about these things. If the adults stiffen up and say, “Oh, you shouldn’t say that loudly,” that’s sending [children] a cue that there’s something wrong.’

“And there’s nothing wrong, Haider says, with a child’s natural curiosity. What’s risky is when kids are left alone to make sense of the differences they see, with little more than stereotypes, television and guesswork to guide them.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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