What Do Kids Need To Know About Race?

The goal of raising the next generation as race conscious and accepting human beings is one that I think needs to be placed firmly on our parental agendas. Sometimes we might get caught up with focusing on our kids’ happiness and success – and assume that issues of racism, antisemitism, chauvinism or conversely tolerance and equality – will just “come naturally” or just sort themselves out. The thing is that the most conscious ways of being in the world don’t come naturally. Or at least not in our heavily constructed culture and not to most of us. We usually need to activelypassionately and deliberately cultivate an alternative approach – or the old mantras and ideas will continue to play out, generation by generation.

“Cultural competence is an ongoing and dynamic process that asks us not only to acknowledge the cultures of those different from us but to celebrate them”.  – Nicole A Cooke

As Mrs. Cooke teaches: It’s not enough to teach tolerance. Tolerance is the capacity to endure pain or hardship – as though coming together with members of other races than our own was some kind of difficult thing. A step above tolerance is awareness – being able to tolerate and even being aware of cultural differences. But as conscious parents, I believe our goal needs to go beyond that – to culture competence and consciousness.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” – Audre Lorde, in her book, Sister Outsider

So how do we raise race conscious kids? I don’t have “The Answer”. But I have some ideas, and I’d love to hear yours in the comments below (pssst, this is NOT a forum for heated or hateful speech so if that’s your thing, please don’t waste your time here).

1. Teach them world history, not only our own history – One of the things that widens our perspective like no other is being exposed to other people’s stories. And the more diverse, wide ranging and wordy they are the more our eyes are opened to other people’s narratives. What can easily feed seeds of hate – is fear – and what creates fear is a lack of familiarity with the “other”. A little tip I learned from the Charlotte Mason educational pedagogy is to focus on first-person “real live” books – i.e. historical fictions that tell realistic stories in the first person – these make identifying with the feelings, challenges and agendas of the story teller so much closer to home and accessible.

2. Expose them (actively) to others – When our social circles, churches, schools and neighbors all look uniform and homegenues – we get the underlying message that this is the “right” or even the “only” way to look, behave and feel. When we’re not coming into contact with people who look different than we do – they feel “alien” and even threatening to us. As parents we can counterbalance this by even our small day to day actions – taking longer to chat with the lady on the bus, being kind and friendly to a stranger in the supermarket. Or even take steps to actively find more inclusive, diverse groups.

3. Bring up equality and racism in conversation – When there’s something that we’re nervous to discuss, such as death, money, sex and race – it’s probably a key indicator that this topic should be brought up. We’re all petrified of our child making some embarrassing remark to someone they know: whether it’s the feat that your little girl asks your favorite Aunt why her behind is “sooo large?” (true story: I did this to my aunt when I was 4) or the fear that your white child will ask his black friend why their hair is “so springy”. The fact is that children are mostly uninhibited when it comes to questions about bodies… or anything personal…

4. Arm them with ways of protecting others – Whatever race you and your children are – it’s always important to arm children with active tools of nonviolent communication to step in and defend anyone they witness being mistreated. Children need to know that is what is expected of them and that should be taught and upheld by adults from the youngest of ages. We need real tools for this, discussing hypothetical scenarios and practicing what one can do (tend to the victim of bullying, stand up to the bully, call an adult for help etc).

5. Model “uncomfortable” conversations – Do not avoid asking people about their story. Many of us do because we’re afraid of stepping on toes or being perceived as insensitive or not minding our business. And I’m not suggesting getting nosy. But when we’re uncomfortable and we completely sidestep entire sides of a person – such as not asking where they are from – because we’re worried about the answers we might get – we can inadvertently create inhibition in them. As though they have something to hide. Our children need to see us taking interest in others, wanting to know more, being open to hearing other perspectives – curious, interested… and that leads me to…

6. Teach them open ended questions – One of the best “peace” tools I think exists, for couples, friends and even countries is open ended questions and active listening. It’s something most of us were never taught and never even experienced. When you feel you have never been truly heard you learn to shout louder, or to shut up completely. We can offer our children this experience by asking: “what’s that like for you?” “Can you tell me more?” “Can you tell me about that?” “how does that feel?” – open ended questions is all about listening to and absorbing someone else’s experience. When we feel listened to we’re more likely to have space to listen to and hold space for others.

7. Buy dolls and books that expose them to other narratives – Our market place is often a true reflection of white privilege acting itself out through the toys, books and TV shows on offer. Toys are overwhelmingly white – and this is painful for children of color to not be represented. It’s also damaging to all children because it portrays a skewed version of the world and reinforces the idea that one race – namely whites – are superior to others. We can put out money in toys and books that create a more diverse play room in our homes.  As my friend, Maria, pointed out to me – we can take this even a notch further. Not only choosing toys themselves that represent diverse peoples, but also choosing to support toy companies of marginalized communities. For some ideas on where to start, check out the links below.

8. Protect Childhood  Issues of racism or antisemitism can ignite within us a wild fire of terror and fear. Whilst I don’t think we should protect our children from these topics I think we should protect them from the intensity and violence that these topics sometimes come with. This means not going into too graphic a detail, not seeing scary videos or the news. As someone who myself experienced severe PTSD after over-exposure to terror attacks (and the news coverage that went with them) – I can safely recommend that this does not serve anyone. Further, our own anxiety and rage needs to be kept in check, as parents. We need to insulate ourselves to the degree necessary to compose ourselves from a place of love and tolerance, not of hatred and fear.

I think part of teaching kids consciousness around race, anti semitism or any other form of violent intolerance – is teaching them what the opposite looks like. Embracing those members in society who need it. Understanding history, having tough conversations, using open ended questions, being open to learn and to teach, taking active steps to expose ourselves and our children to other narratives and to other people – these are some of the ideas that come to mind for me when I think about raising race conscious children. The root of racism is a deep misunderstanding of the “other”, it’s a feeling of fear and distance from anyone who isn’t like us. My guess is that those fears and violent feelings are rooted in childhood and in a family and community who felt superior and violent as well. That is why we fight fear with love.

This is not an easy topic to address – and I’m sure I’ve stepped on someone’s toes, or worse. But in the spirit of opening the conversation with curiosity and nonviolent communication, please extend me the benefit of the doubt. I’d love to hear your thoughts below.


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