It’s time to talk with our kids about race.
It’s strange; so many people strongly believe that this is an important topic to talk about with children, yet hesitate to do so themselves. And they have interesting ideas about what age is right for bringing it up. In a survey of over 600 parents and caregivers, many believed that age five is the right time to start talking about race. But previous research shows that babies as young as three months show preference for faces from specific racial groups, nine-month-olds use skin color to categorize faces, and three-year-old children associate some racial groups with negative traits. By four, children associate certain races with wealth and higher status; for instance, whiteness in the United States and South Africa.
Sometimes, totally well-meaning parents tell children that race doesn’t matter, in an effort to show them that it shouldn’t matter. Maybe you’ve heard people say things like, “I don’t see color,” or “I consider myself color-blind.” Adults can say seemingly innocuous statements like, “We’re all the same on the inside,” or shy away from discussing it at all: “It’s not polite to talk about someone’s skin color.”
On the surface, these phrases may not seem harmful. When you look at what they’re really saying, though, they negate the experience of every person who’s ever been treated differently because of the color of their skin. Should that be the case? Of course not! But denying the difficulties that BIPOC people have endured throughout history -- and continue to endure -- doesn’t make them any less real and necessary to discuss.
So then, where to begin? It can be hard to initiate these kinds of conversations if you’re not used to it, but sticking to easily understandable information and simple facts can help make it easier. Books and a few basic materials are a great place to start; here are just a (very, very) few of our favorites.
First, it’s necessary to distinguish between books that are specifically about race, and books that show characters of many colors. Both should be part of your library. The former is for learning about historical and scientific perspectives about skin color, current events, and countries of origin; the latter is for seeing stories that are about characters of color in everyday life. Here’s one example that may help to clarify the difference: if we only read books about Ruby Bridges and other black children during the civil rights movement, we may give the impression that racism is in the past (sadly untrue) or that the entire life stories of black people centers around pain and strife. By also reading stories like Ada Twist, Scientist or Last Stop on Market Street, we show a much broader point of view.
For starting the conversation specifically about skin color, All The Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger is a classic for all ages. Told in both English and Spanish, it provides scientifically accurate, kid-friendly information about where skin color comes from. It has great teaching ideas and questions as well, to help you kick off your chat.
If you’re feeling hands-on, let the books lead you and your child to an activity. Crayola and Lakeshore (and several other companies) make skin-color crayons and markers in an array of tones that can be layered and combined to make almost any shade. Use many different kinds of words to describe the colors you create - golden honey, cinnamon chocolate, lemony peach, and so on. Here’s a description of a similar activity, using another book we love - The Colors of Us by Karen Katz, and one that extends it into painting or drawing self-portraits. Race Conscious also has a webinar for parents and guardians with great resources and an active community that you can choose to get involved with.
Can’t get enough? You can find more well-curated lists of picture books and board books featuring characters of color here and here. If you want more books to help specifically guide conversations about race and skin color, check out Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race and Jelani Memory’s A Kids Book About Racism; and if you’re looking for a way to broach difficult topics in the news, Something Happened In Our Town can help you find some of the words to start. Hot tip: if you have trouble tracking down any of the books at the library, there are read-alouds of most of them available for free on YouTube!How have you been talking to your littles about race? What kinds of activities, books, videos, or language does your family use to engage in raising race-conscious children? Please comment and share your thoughts!
Written by: Melissa Holman-Kursky