Why We Need to Teach Young Children About Race

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This issue is fresh on my mind as our school recently hosted a facilitated workshop on race and diversity aptly named "Courageous Conversations." I helped put it together and spread the word, and we had 100 parents, faculty and staff at the event.

The turnout was great and the conversation at times was amazing, powerful and...awkward. In the middle of the discussion, our facilitator showed a five-minute video called "Silent Beats," in which an African-American teenager enters a convenience store to purchase a few items. There is also an Asian clerk and a middle-aged Caucasian woman. There are no words, only music. The film was meant to draw out people's biases, and it certainly did that as well as garner an explosive reaction from certain parts of the room.

By the end of the night there were some wounded feelings. But from my and our head of school's perspective, it opened the door to a very important conversation -- one that I felt inclined to hold with my seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter the following day. I told them about the meeting and gauged their views on race.  

According to this article, which was circulated at the meeting, children are always taking in racism and racial stereotypes, which is why it is important for us to talk to them.

Children may witness acts of exclusion or rejection based on race, or will themselves be targets of discrimination. It is precisely for these instances that parents must provide their children with a framework for understanding difference.

Think for a moment about how you might best react if your child saw or even experienced bullying. I doubt many parents would cope with the problem by not talking about it. Rather, a likely response might be to shower our child with love, remind them that we are always going to be in their corner, encourage them to avoid that bully, and make sure that they don’t go hit somebody else. A lot of these strategies apply to racism—but they can’t be pursued if we don’t broach the topic directly, albeit in a developmentally appropriate way.

It is important to understand a couple of reasons why avoiding conversations about race simply doesn’t work with kids. The first reason is that while many parents don’t talk about race, peers certainly do. So it’s critical that we give our kids the tools they need to navigate these early conversations successfully.

But the second, and more important, reason is that the words we say (or don’t say) are only one way children learn about their world. When children see their parents or other adults tense up around members of other groups, or notice that adults’ social networks are not very diverse, or pick up on racial segregation in their environment, there is a clear message being communicated: Skin color does matter—just in a secret way that nobody is going let you in on.

As a result, not talking about race can make the subject even more confusing. And when children are young, the only way for them to resolve this confusion may be by concluding that people of other races are “bad,” thus setting the stage for exactly what many parents seek to avoid: prejudice.


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