Strategies for healthy conversations around race

Discussing race with children can feel hard. In many ways, it’s the elephant in the room. Everyone sees it, everyone talks around it, but diving deeper feels difficult. If race plays such a huge role in society, affording some groups with privileges and others with limitations due to the social constructs that reinforce the idea of race, why does it feel so hard to engage children in conversations regarding the topic?

One reason it can feel hard is due to the age of the child. Everyone has different beliefs for when children are ready to have hard conversations, and some even prefer to wait until children are in Middle or Upper School. The problem with this is that children are forming ideas around race and other aspects of their identity at a very early age. It is believed that by age six months, babies can discern racial features. Children begin to mimic racial messaging or biases they’re receiving from adults around age seven. By Grade 5, children begin to internalize stereotypes about groups. If all of this can take place during a child’s development throughout Lower School, let’s discuss how we can promote healthy conversations and curiosity around race from Pre-K through Twelfth Grade. 

  • Affirm questions and comments: Conversations around race can feel challenging because sometimes we don’t feel prepared. You can start by saying, “Thank you for your comment.” You can also say, “I’m glad you’re thinking about these issues.” Afterward, if you’re not sure what to say or do, you can research the topic more, and come back to it later.
  • Be proactive: Books, media, advertisements, and dramatic play are wonderful places for us to observe our children and their responses to things, and to pose questions that will challenge their thinking. 
  • Build Counternarratives: One way to build a counternarrative is to model and express when something in the world, a book, or media makes you feel uncomfortable. It could be as simple as saying, “I don’t like this.” The other would be to seek out forms of media that portray groups of people in a positive light and a variety of scenarios. Alison and I discussed the importance of mirrors, windows, and prisms in a previous blog.
  • Consider feelings: Injustice towards self or others can bring about a lot of emotions. It’s important to process these feelings. It’s important to bring awareness to the impact of the words we use with others.
  • History of resiliency: We can use hard history such as the Holocaust, Japanese internment camps, or slavery to share stories of resilience.
  • Take action: As you learn more about inequities in the world, you can look for ways to help nationally or locally. You can start small, but it’s important to start.
  • Speak Up: Teaching Tolerance offers four ways we can speak up when we see racism. We can interrupt, question, educate, or echo.

This moment in history provides us with an opportunity to grow as we notice and question long-standing inequities, and pivot to help dismantle the systems that enable them. I invite you to learn alongside me with any of the following books.

  • How to be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi
  • Yellow by Dr. Frank H. Wu
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Waking Up White by Debby Irving
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez
  • Parachutes by Kelly Yang

If you missed Sarah Wright’s SPEAK Lecture entitled Pandemics & Race: Why Now is a Teachable Moment for Children, you may watch it here.