Explaining racism to a child is not easy. You may be afraid that you will use the wrong words, or confuse the child. This article will help you to understand how to explain racism to a child.
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- Recognize that children are not color-blind. Unless your child is blind, they can see that other people have different skin tones and may begin making associations if they notice patterns that relate to skin tones. Using words like “Native American” and “white” allows children to have words for what they see, and can de-mystify it.
- Expose your child to media involving characters of all races. Because media tends to focus on white people, it may take a conscious effort to consume inclusive media. This is crucial for white children as well as children of color.
- Buy dolls of various races, not only white dolls.
- Discuss stereotypes as you see them. If your child notices a lot of black athletes, for example, explain that this is a stereotype and that there are many black people in various roles: doctors, nannies, lawyers, biologists, professors, et cetera.
- Be a good role model. Children copy what they see others doing, so be an example of an accepting, humble person. Be aware of the language you use around your child and make sure you don’t make racist comments or jokes in front of them, as this could encourage your child to use racist behavior. If someone calls you out for being accidentally racist, listen to them carefully and apologize.
- If you notice someone being a victim of racist behavior, stand up for the victim, as your child would mimic your behavior if they were ever placed in a similar situation.
- Do this even when your child isn’t looking. It’s part of being a good person, and you’ll be a role model for other people (children and otherwise) who are watching.
- Explain differences in an accepting, casual manner. This shows your child that diversity is nothing to be afraid of. Speak calmly about how being different doesn’t make someone weird or bad, it just means that everyone is unique. Explain how different groups of people are different in some ways (languages, traditions, etc.) and similar in others (loving families, dreams about the future, etc.), and that this is a positive thing.
- For example, “Mommy has dark skin because she is black. I have light skin because I am white. And you are both! People come in all different colors.” Or, “Angel speaks differently because his family speaks Spanish at home. It doesn’t make him weird.”
- When explaining, make sure that you make the message age-appropriate. For example, if your child is between the ages 3-5 use literal examples such as “Eggs come in different colors, but they are the same on the inside.”
- Be truthful about injustice when it happens, and when they learn about it in school. When your child witnesses someone being mean, or something unfair, be honest about the situation instead of trying to cover it up. Give a clear explanation of what was wrong and why. This can teach children that adults aren’t always right, bad things do happen, and it isn’t the victim’s fault.
- For young children, keep it simple. “Yes, it was wrong and hurtful to say that to Daddy” or “Life can be unfair. Sometimes we can change it, and sometimes we can’t” are examples of simple explanations.
- For questions like “Why don’t white people like us?”, explain that there are some mean people in the world, but not everyone feels this way.
- Trying to hide the truth from the child will only make them curious and confused. It’s better to offer an honest explanation, even if it’s highly simplified.
- Remember that one racist remark doesn’t mean your child is 100% racist. Children test boundaries and explore ideas, and your child may say things that they don’t fully mean (to see how others react). Providing loving and clear guidance can help your child learn what is and is not okay.
- Ask questions to encourage critical thinking, like “Why do you think that?” and “How do you know that?” Explore their reasoning together.
- Be honest and open, starting from a young age. This will help them to grow as a person, as if they ever experience racist behaviors as a child they would understand that it is inappropriate; however if they didn’t know what racism is and they witness racist behaviors, they may mimic it and cause offence to others.
- If you try to hide the subject of race, it won’t stop children from noticing. However, it may lead them to think that there is something shameful about the topic.
- Don’t fear questions. Instead, consider them teachable moments. If your child asks about race, says something racist, or asks about something racist they heard, this is an opportunity to teach them.
- It’s okay to say “I’m not sure” or “Let me take some time to think about that.”
- Encourage critical thinking about the media and its stereotypes. Your child will see racial stereotypes on the media. You can help them learn not to believe them by teaching them to think critically and question the messages they hear.
- Is it fair that the villain Jafar looks more stereotypically Arab than the hero Aladdin, and how might people who look “stereotypically Arab” feel about that?
- If Asians are left out of movies, could they be left out on the playground too?
- How could your child be a good helper?
- Use stories to explain racism. Teaching your children about racism through stories about people who fought against it, such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, and more can help your child to understand more about racism and how times have changed because people have stood up for what they believed in.
- This can also help your child to learn how to have empathy, an important skill for children to develop.
- Teach your child that there are different types of racism. Children usually mistake racism for being just about skin color. However that isn’t the case as racism can be about race, hair color, nose shape, hair texture, etc.
- Ensure that your child understands that racism is wrong no matter what, whether it’s about someone’s skin tone or the flatness of their nose.
- Find a video on YouTube about racism. If you are worried about using the wrong words when explaining to your child about racism, or if you are bad at explaining things, watching a video would not only be helpful to you, but it would also help your child to visually experience what racism is.
- Visually experiencing something will help your child to spot when someone is racist, and this will allow your child to evaluate the situation and put a stop to it.
- Teach them to stand against racism. Make sure your child knows that any type of discrimination is hurtful and wrong, even if it was meant as a ‘joke’.
- Teaching your child to stand up for victims of racist comments is helping them to understand what behavior is acceptable and what behavior isn’t.
- Teach white children to use their privilege for good. After hearing the terrible things that have happened in history, children will most likely be upset. These conversations can be painful and messy–which also means that your child will learn and grow a lot. Explain that because of their privilege, people listen to them more. They can use this to defend people of color from racism. Turn the conversation into a positive message about how they can stand up for others.
- Encourage them to listen to people of color if they say that something is racist or hurting them. Listening matters, and it makes the difference between a “white knight” who rushes in to wildly defend others, and a good ally.
- Explain that children of color can speak for themselves, and should have this opportunity. If one of their friends is having trouble doing this, suggest that the child help their friend brainstorm strategies for speaking up and that they have their friend’s back.
- Discuss concrete strategies for how your child can stand up when they see racism. Can they intervene using their words? When should they get help from an adult (and what do they do if the adult ignores the problem)? You can even role-play if they are interested. Discussing clear strategies will help your child know what to do when a situation arises.
- If your child does this, tell them how proud you are.
- Be prepared to explain that “reverse racism” is not considered by most to be real racism. Racism relies on the fact that people of color have been treated badly in the past, and still face this today (lack of opportunities, police brutality, et cetera). While white people can have hurt feelings, and have real problems not related to their race, the idea that they actually experience racism is refuted by most people of color.
- Don’t create fear in their heart. If you do, they may be afraid of the word racism. Just make them aware of it.
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