How to Talk to your Children About Racism and Protesting
This is a long read, but I appreciate your acknowledgement of how important this issue is in our communities across the United States. At Mighty Oaks, we believe we cannot serve one community, without advocating for all communities. While we advocate for all BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities, the following is directly related to our Black brothers and sisters. This blog post is also directed toward non-Black families.
If you have been watching the news, you have seen the images. Police in tactical gear. Screaming protestors. Large crowds. Broken windows…Peaceful protesting. Police and protestors kneeling together. Communities praying. Children and families marching together.
It is fair to say that over the past month; our country has changed drastically in the vocalization of injustice. Protests are happening in major cities across the country. It is worth noting: just because people are more vocal, doesn’t mean injustice wasn’t always there. Having open communication about race, prejudice, and stereotypes is important for adults, but how do you talk to your children about this?
Additionally, many of you are working from home, while your children are away from school and possibly summer camps. Screen time has increased as a way to make it through the day (no judgement at all), and there is the possibility that your children and teens have been exposed to information regarding the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, protests, or other information regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. Even if they haven’t, they have probably heard about similar tragedies, like Trayvon Martin, in school or from friends in the past. So, NOW is the time to talk with them about racism and steps you can take.
First, let me preface this writing by a few of my personal thoughts, related to my white identity. I have known I needed to write this blog for a (far too) long time. As a White Cisgender Female, I struggled with writing “tips”, while never fully understanding the experience of People of Color. I haven’t wanted to be just another white woman speaking on the experiences of my friends. However, over the past month, and the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd (just the tip of the iceberg), I have realized I cannot stay silent, just because I am uncomfortable or worried it may be taken without merit. What I can do, is speak to what I know about children, their development, and how to communicate with them.
Through my training and work with the Anti-Defamation League, I began my deep inner work of my own white identity. In some of my many difficult conversations, I had someone ask me, “How old is your white identity?”, meaning, how long have you understood your true privilege. Sadly, my deep understanding has only been in past five years. This is not to say I wasn’t aware of white privilege before that. It means I only began to REALLY acknowledge it in my every day life a few years ago. I feel guilt sharing it is not as “old” as I would like it to be, but know it needs to be said, to encourage others to answer this same prompt. There are some books at the end of this blog that can help you look into yourself, if you choose to do that.
Podcast recommendation: Brené Brown (one of Dr. Sarah and Mr. Bean’s favorite researchers and humans) interviews professor Ibram X. Kendi, who has written countless books, including ones listed at the end of this blog. They talk about how to be Anti-Racist in her recent podcast. Listen here: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-ibram-x-kendi-on-how-to-be-an-antiracist/
Before you talk to your children
Before even thinking about talking with your children, check in on yourself. This is an emotional time (on top of being in a pandemic), so make sure you process your feelings related to racism, the protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement, before speaking with your children. As they say on the airplane, you must put your oxygen mask on first, meaning you must address your feelings- fear, worry, guilt, anger, frustration- to understand where you are right now. It is important to label your feelings. “I feel sad by the images I am seeing on the news”, “I feel triggered by this anger”, “I feel guilty that I am not doing more”, etc. We must first label our feelings, to then be able to work through them.
Examine your language. With a little insight, we may learn to change some of our statements, even if our original intent feels harmless. It is also important to challenge those around us. Yes, this means holding relatives accountable for things that they say (this models attitudinal shifts for your children). Statements that can be changed include:
· “If they protested/said it peacefully, more people would listen”
· “What I said/did is not racist”
· “Racism does not exist anymore”
· “It was just a joke, calm down”
· “________ people are racist, too”
· “Why is it always about race”
Another important point to address for adults (and children that are exposed to a lot of news and current images) is that we can experience vicarious trauma. What is vicarious trauma? It can be defined as emotional residue that you feel from hearing and seeing traumatic stories. Think of how you felt watching the news during 9/11. For people who have their own experience of prejudice, racism, and injustice, watching these events can trigger some past trauma, or difficult memories. There is nothing wrong with these feelings.
Additionally, watching the news can cause emotional and physical stress. This kind of stress stays in your body, and can cause tension. Make sure you notice how your body is feeling. If you are overly exhausted or jumpy, don’t let go of your anxiety or fear, but acknowledge it and take deep breaths, find movement, or write things down. If you need a little extra support with these feelings, our team is here to help.
How to talk about race and racism with your kids
This list is from the organization On Our Sleeves and is a guide for children of all ages (we will go into developmental ages next). It can help you start conversations.
· Talk about race itself. Let kids know that there is nothing wrong with observing physical characteristics and differences. However, they should be careful not to make negative judgements based on those differences.
· Talk about the positive aspects of being different (different is not weird or bad) and the similarities across all groups of people.
· Teach them about stereotypes. Remind them that not all people in one group are the same.
· Talk about historical and institutional racism (e.g., slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights and the ongoing struggle for social justice). Understanding history can help explain why certain words or statements are hurtful and why current events may be happening. Remember to highlight that racism is not a thing of the past.
· Discuss that people are sometimes treated unfairly because of the color of their skin (most kids understand fairness really well). For older kids, you can have deeper discussions about the systems that help maintain these inequalities.
· Use tools to help engage kids in the conversation. Books are a helpful tool in engaging and explaining concepts to kids.
· Talk about how they can make change. Topics can include being kind to people of all backgrounds, listening to and understanding the experiences or feelings of others who are different, and celebrating things that make us unique, including our heritage. It is also important for children to stand up for those they think are being treated unjustly in ways that are appropriate for their developmental level.
How to talk about race and racism, by developmental age
Below we will discuss how to talk with children of different ages. It is important that children are exposed to strong Black and Brown characters in the movies and TV shows they watch, and the books they read. I will also be adding some additional books by age at the end of this blog. Make sure you read any books first, before giving them to your children. While this list is not exhaustive, it is a snapshot of some good books that are available online or at your local bookstore.
Babies and toddlers
They may not be able to understand what is happening, but they can experience your worry, stress, anger, etc. See the above information about how to process your feelings regarding racism, protests, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Children are naturally egocentric (meaning they think everything is caused by something they did). If you are overly agitated, they may worry they did something wrong. This can be a good time start modeling feeling words. “I feel sad today, but you did nothing wrong”, or “I feel angry about something that happened outside our house today. I am sorry if I was angry with you”. If you do feel like your feelings are coming out around your children, apologize. You are human. Sometimes, it is more important what you do, after what you did. Saying I am sorry is an important thing to teach your children. Make sure you watch the news when your baby and toddler-aged children are asleep or occupied elswhere.
It is important to lay the groundwork for individual differences in preschool. The opposite of hate is compassion and tolerance. Children don’t naturally discriminate, instead they notice differences between themselves and others. They will often ask questions (sometimes in public) about other people. Meet these questions with kindness and compassion. If your child notices someone else has a different color skin, you can reply, “Isn’t it wonderful we are all so different?”. Many times, our insecurities get the best of us. Silence or changing the subject can teach children that their question was wrong. Again, meet their question with kindness, and encourage individual differences.
TV recommendation: “Sesame Street Town Hall”
CNN and “Sesame Street” will hold a Town Hall this Saturday (June 6 at 10am ET). The title is “Coming Together: Standing Up To Racism”. You can follow the link here: https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/02/us/cnn-sesame-street-standing-up-to-racism/index.html
At this age, as you know, kids are very attuned to what is fair and what is unfair. Explain it in terms of experiences that they probably have had. Is there a time that brother got something and you didn’t? Explaining inequality in simple examples can help them understand from a personal perspective. Then, you can say, “there are some people in our country that, many times, feel that things are not fair. Sadly, many times it is because their skin is a different color that ours” (even if you are non-Black Person of Color). What do you think about that?”. Then, let your children guide the conversation. Ask them if they have seen this at school, or other places. Reflect their feelings and ask them what they could do differently next time. Ex. “You feel really sad that you saw someone in your class say mean things, because of the color of Steven’s skin. Is there anything that you could have done to help Steven?”. Even if they don’t step in, they can go up to their friend afterwards, and check in. If they are hearing information about the protests, or racial injustice, ask them what they think. What have they heard? We often think we need a bigger answer that what our children may need.
Don’t overdo it. At early elementary, especially, be as simple, brief, and honest as you can be. If they feel worried about what is happening, avoid empty promises (ex. that would never happen here). Instead talk about possible feelings. “Sometimes, when people feel sad, angry, etc., they want other people to feel sad, angry, etc., too. Not all people that are sad, hurt other people.” What is important to learn is, when we have big feelings, we need to share them with each other. Often times, the backpack analogy is helpful. Imagine our feelings are books. If we load too many in our backpack, we can’t move. However, if we empty them one at a time, like sharing our feelings, it makes it easier to move forward.
Movie recommendation: “Zootopia”
The topics of prejudice, racism, and stereotypes are difficult to address with children, however, many times, it is from our own discomfort with the topics as adults. Watch “Zootopia”, asking the following questions can help with this discussion. 1) Stereotypes (thinking all people that look a certain way ACT a certain way) can hurt everyone. Did we think a certain thing about the "baby" and the Popsicle? What about the mayor and the assistant mayor? Did we have thoughts about them because of how they looked? Do you ever decide something about someone based on how they look? 2) Prejudice is unfair. It happens when we treat people differently, because of a stereotype. Can you think of a time that a character was treated differently? How did this effect Judy Hops? How did this effect Nick Wilde? Can you think of other characters that were treated differently? Have you ever felt that you were treated differently based on something about you? What about being a boy or a girl? The color of your skin? How you dress? 3) Bullying happens. How did it happen to Nick in the movie? How did he feel? How did you feel? Have you ever felt that way? What can you do if you see this happen to someone? 4) How did the characters work together in the end? What happened? Is this something you could do at school? Synagogue? Mosque? Church? In the neighborhood?
As you know, as your children get older, your conversations can be more advanced. It is still important for parents and caregivers to keep an open mind and let children tell you their feelings, instead of trying to shelter them with quick answers. Encourage your children to ask questions. Again, it is okay if you don’t have the questions right away. You can always say, “that is something I would like to think about and get back to you by (give a time). Is that okay with you?”. Middle schoolers are needing to have their own voice. Empower them to share their feelings about racism, prejudice, and stereotypes. More than likely, they are seeing more of this than they did in elementary school. Ask them where they have seen these aggressions happen. Ask them what they could have done or did. This is a great time to teach your children about being an ally.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, an Ally is Someone who speaks out on behalf of or takes actions that are supportive of someone who is targeted by bias or bullying, either themselves or someone else.
Here is a great resource on what to do as an Ally: https://www.adl.org/sites/default/files/documents/assets/pdf/education-outreach/Be-an-Ally-Six-Ways-online-version.pdf
As preteens are forming their identities, they tend to align with similarly thinking (or looking) friends. This would be a good time to encourage your children to make friends, or be involved in groups, that are comprised of BIPOC children. Additionally, at this age, you can begin to watch some media with your children (remember the point about vicarious trauma, though). Allow your children to ask questions and process feelings together. Encourage an open dialogue and come back to this conversation regularly.
Movie recommendations: “Pride” This fact-based drama about an underdog African American swim team in the 1970s deals with racism head-on, showing how the swimmers faced -- and stood up to -- prejudice in their quest to succeed. Conversation starter: Have you ever seen someone in real life being treated unfairly for no reason? What would you do if you felt discriminated against or saw a friend being held back from their goals based on their skin color?
“Sounder” Based on the Newberry-winning novel by William H. Armstrong, one of the key themes of this coming-of-age drama is the power of education reading to help overcome a deeply rooted racist society. Conversation starter: Why are the types of books the main character is given by white and African American teachers so different? What does the boy need to overcome to pursue his dream of learning?
It is important to ask your high schoolers first if they have seen any of the protests (and racism), while knowing that they probably have already had access, because of social media. Listen to their feelings and acknowledge what they know and how it impacts them. It is really important to let your high schooler tell you their opinion. Meet these opinions with kindness and compassion.
This is also a great time to talk about history. You may use books or media to share about the history of race, racism, and protesting in our country, because it is not something new. It is something that has existed and is part of our history. This is also a good time to talk to your children about critical thinking and media literacy. Where are they obtaining the information they receive? Talk about trusted sources. You may say, “That sounds interesting. Where did you hear that?”, and ask them to show you where they found it. You are teaching your children to be free-thinkers, while also encouraging them to do research on the information that is out there. Encourage your high schooler to continue to share ways they would like to help or make change.
Documentary recommendations: “Just Mercy” This effective, intense drama -- which paints a picture of simmering racial injustice -- is based on the true story of Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, who focuses on helping wrongfully convicted Death Row inmates. Conversation starter: How would you describe the relationship between racism and justice/the law? Does that align with what you've seen in movies and on TV?
“The Color Purple” This intense drama based on Alice Walker's award-winning novel deals with serious themes (including incest and abuse), but it will open mature teens' eyes to the difficulties that women -- especially black women -- experienced in the early 20th century. Conversation starter: How have times have changed for women since the era in which the story takes place? Has anything remained the same? Why are the challenges faced by women of color different from those faced by white women?
Maybe your sense of self has changed with our changing community? As we are exposed to new experiences, our current perspectives tend to change. As I mentioned, I have done a lot of work on my own white identity over the past decade. Talk to your adult children about their feelings regarding racism, stereotypes, and prejudice. Have they experienced any of these? Have they witnessed any of these? What are steps you can take individually and together to support Black communities. This is also a great time to talk about voting and voting based on your beliefs (which may mean you are not voting for the same representatives that your children are, and that is okay). Find organizations that you are interested in and see if you can advocate together.
Documentary recommendation: “13th” This documentary is about the racial issues confronting contemporary America isn't for the faint of heart, but mature viewers will find it both educational and a call to action to take a stand against racial injustice. Conversation starter: What surprised/upset you most about our country's treatment of African American citizens over its long history?
“To really get to that better world, that more equitable world, we need to strive to be anti-racist. If we are not even willing to name the names and label of racism for what it is, we will never get there”. – Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, Chair of the AAP section on minority health, equity, and inclusion
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. While I know I have added a lot, there is always more to discover, learn, listen, and change. To make change, we have to work together to co-construct a new society of love and inclusion. If you or your family is struggling, please let us know how we can help.
· "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism" by Robin DiAngelo
· "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi
· "Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do" by Jennifer L. Eberhardt
· "Raising White Kids" by Jennifer Harvey
· Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" by Bryan Stevenson
For babies and toddlers:
· We love Ezra Jack Keat’s books about Peter. They include “The Snowy Day”, “A Letter to Amy”, “Hi, Cat!”, and “Whistle for Willie”.
· “Whose Toes Are Those?” and “Whose Knees are These?” by Jabari Asim
· “Peekaboo Morning”, “Peekaboo Bedtime”, and “Uh-Oh!” by Rachel Isadora
· “I Am So Brave!” and “I Know A Lot!” by Stephen Krensky
· “Leo Loves Baby Time” by Anna McQuinn
· “Saturday” by Oge Moore
· “Hair Love” by Matthew A Cherry
· “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
· “Sulwe” by Lupita Nyong’o
· “Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard
For elementary age:
· “Crown: An Ode to The Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes
· “Princess Hair” by Sharee Miller
· “Hidden Figures Young Reader’s Edition” by Margot Lee Shetterly
· “The Season of Styx Malone” by Kekla Magoon
· “As Brave as You” by Jason Reynolds
· “From The Desk of Zoe Washington” by Janae Marks
· “Blended” by Sharon M. Draper
For middle school:
· “Each Kindness” by Jacqueline Woodson
· “The Youngest Marcher” by Cynthia Levinson
· “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” by Jason Reynolds
· “Hush” by Jacqueline Woodson
· “Ghost Boys” by Jewell Parker Rhodes
For high school:
· “Resist” by Veronica Chambers
· “Not My Idea, A Book about Whiteness” by Anastasia Higgenbotham
· "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
· "Harbor Me" by Jacqueline Woodson
· "This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do The Work" by Tiffany Jewell and Aurelia Durand
· "Brown Girl Dreaming" by Jacqueline Woodson
· "Dear White People" by Justin Simien
For college plus:
· “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
· “Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
This information is collectively adapted and combined with Dr. Sarah’s thoughts. Articles it was adapted from are from CNN, Mother.ly, USA Today, Parents magazine, Common Sense Media, Child Mind Institute, and On Our Sleeves.