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Teaching Kids About Racism

Jon Whittle

It's a multicultural world, after all—and kids with an open mind and heart have the best chance of finding success and happiness.

There you are, unassumingly pushing your cart down aisle 9 in search of your fam's fave cereal du jour, when your observant little shopping mate suddenly points his index finger at someone and blurts something like “Mommy, that lady is brown” or “That little girl has squinty eyes.” Most parents have had at least one of these “grocery store moments” with their child. It's an innocent enough observation: He is simply noticing that every person in the world doesn't share his skin color, facial features, taste in attire, or even body shape. Still, it makes you squirm.

As your child gets older, your concern may expand from how your own kid handles racial or cultural differences to how the rest of the world will treat him. Alison Risso's daughter, Eliza, asked at dinner one night if her skin would be brown when she grew up. When the Silver Spring, MD, mom told the preschooler that no, she'd continue to have pale skin, she burst into tears. Eliza, the only white student in her class, said a friend had told her during a game, “Only brown girls can play.”

The four kids of Judy M. Miller—who happen to be Caucasian, Asian, and Hispanic—get stares and intrusive personal questions all the time. Miller, an international-adoption educator and support specialist in Indianapolis, has coached the kids that being singled out or made the butt of jokes because of their skin color, physical features, or race isn't kind and they should always tell the person “That makes me uncomfortable” or, more bluntly, “That's a racist thing to say.” Their family has learned to take many of the comments and ogling in stride. But when a classmate typed to her Asian daughter during an online chat, “Everyone knows Asians stick together like rice,” Miller brought it to the attention of the school principal.

The reality is that our children are growing up in a racially diverse society unlike any we've seen before. This isn't surprising, considering that America continues to be the proverbial cultural melting pot. The U.S. Census's latest American Community Survey shows that almost 40 million people, or about one eighth of the current U.S. population, have moved here from another country, including Mexico, India, China, the Philippines, and El Salvador.

“The passage of the Civil Rights Act put explicit and legalized racism behind us, but we still haven't achieved the level of racial parity in America that many of us would like,” says Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance project in Montgomery, AL. It's still not uncommon to hear of racial slurs scribbled on houses of worship, for instance, or of radio or television personalities being fired for bigoted remarks.

Concerned parents can help change that. “There's a lot we can do to help our children not just be tolerant of people who are different from them, but to develop sincere friendships across cultures,” says Melanie Killen, Ph.D., a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies race, culture, and bias in children. “That's how real change happens.”

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Changing Attitudes

“Black versus white” may not be the front-and-center American issue it once was; other ethnic groups are now targeted, too. Costello says anti-Latino sentiment has deepened as the economy has slumped and Americans have become resentful of Hispanic immigrants who may or may not be legal taking jobs and utilizing social services. And after 9/11, many Americans began to consider anyone of Middle Eastern descent a possible terror threat. Plus, it's not just the racial majority doing the challenging. “People of color, and their kids, can also develop negative feelings about other ethnicities,” notes Costello.

When Miller and her husband traveled with their adopted Guatemalan son in his home country, locals often told them their son was lucky to be fairer-skinned, like the Spaniards, rather than dark-skinned, like the Maya. “They said he would ‘blend in better.’ It reminded us that racial attitudes persist everywhere,” notes Miller.

Our kids are growing up in a racially diverse world unlike any we've seen.

Kids will base friendships more on values and interests if taught to treat all people with respect.

Children see differences, of course. Research shows that even babies clearly looked significantly longer—the best way to know that infants are processing information—at other faces if they were different from their own skin color.

However, babies don't “judge” those different faces. “They simply notice and categorize them into groups: These people have one skin color, those people have another—which is a natural thing we do as humans to make sense of our world,” Killen says. In other words, noticing—and, yes, sometimes also calling out awkwardly in the grocery store—different physical characteristics among people is a normal developmental stage for preschoolers.

At around school age, Killen says children tend to gravitate first toward kids who look like themselves. Asian children may initially strike up friendships with other Asians, while African-American kids may walk over to others with the same skin color first. Over time, however, kids will base friendships more on values and interests they share as long as they are taught to treat all people with equal respect.

Regardless of your own cultural background, you're smart to teach your child empathy and respect for others. Why? For one thing, a good portion of bullying is “bias oriented”: It happens when kids have trouble accepting another child's differences, whether they be clothing choices, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, racial background, or anything else that sets them apart from their peers. “Teaching kids appreciation for obvious differences like skin color should help them accept all sort of differences in people. It helps remove stereotypes and labels,” Costello says.

Perhaps even more important: Your child is growing up in a distinctly global society. She will attend college and eventually work with people from a variety of nations and cultures. And in our increasingly digital world, your child's future colleagues may not even live in the same country or speak the same language as she does. Clearly, the ability to interact well with people from all walks of life will be a key life skill.

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Speaking of Diversity

“Be open about differences in people that your child can see. Don't sweep them under the carpet,” notes Costello. “The goal shouldn't be to be completely color blind, but be aware and respectful of people's individuality,” she says. (For help, download the booklet “Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent's Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice” at tolerance.org.)

When your child points out that another child's skin is black, white, or any shade in between, acknowledge the statement very matter-of-factly. “You might say ‘You're right! Did you know that there are people of all different colors? Isn't that so cool? What color are we?’” suggests Rebecca Bernard, a Costa Rican-born mom who now blogs about cultural enrichment for families at theculturedseed.com. You might also remind your child that some people even speak different languages: “Remember when you heard Tina's grandma talking to her in Spanish? She's so lucky to know another language.”

If your child asks a question you can't answer, like “Why is that lady wearing a head scarf?” (a Muslim hijab), it's perfectly OK to admit you don't know the answer and suggest that you learn more about the custom together.

No matter how often you tell your child “everyone is equal but different,” the lesson won't sink in unless you, as a parent, also behave that way, says Killen. “And this goes for people of every background—not just Caucasians,” she says. “We all need to challenge our assumptions about people if we're going to teach our children to be culturally sensitive.”

No matter how often you tell your child “everyone is equal,” it won't sink in unless you act that way.

So get honest with yourself. Do you make cracks about bad Asian drivers in front of your kids? Instinctively pull your child closer to you when walking by a mixed-race group of teens? Assume that a fellow Latino parent may be a landscaper or that an Indian dad must be a computer geek? If so, it's time to work on letting go of your stereotypes.

Also, remind your kids that even positive ethnic stereotypes aren't helpful, suggests Miller, who has two Asian daughters. “Please don't assume every Asian child is great at math and a genius on the violin,” she says with a laugh. Similarly, not all African-American kids are destined to play basketball. You get the idea.

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Getting Together

It's easier for kids to accept children of all backgrounds when they're with them every day, so if you have a choice, consider enrolling your child in a more ethnically diverse school. That's exactly what Risso (the mom whose daughter heard “Only brown girls can play”) did. Her two children attend a Spanish-immersion public school in a nearby neighborhood. “This was definitely about choosing diversity for my kids, but if the school hadn't been a strong one, I wouldn't have done it,” Risso adds. If switching schools isn't practical, register your child for a soccer team, art class, or Scout troop in a neighborhood that draws kids from a wider variety of backgrounds.

“Of all the things you can do to increase your child's cultural sensitivity, encouraging cross-cultural friendships is by far the most important,” says Killen. Think about it: If your child hears someone say “Muslim people don't like us Americans,” but he actually has a Muslim pal, he'll challenge the comment. He'll think and maybe even say, “My friend is Muslim and he likes me. What that person is saying is wrong.”

Crissi Estep and her family live in Hartsville, SC, where “there is a very real racial divide,” as she puts it. So Estep was especially pleased when her Caucasian daughter, Raegen Grooms, ended up BFFs with an African-American classmate. Initially, their friendship caused a little stir—mostly among the other African-American students, says Estep. Her daughter is one of very few white children at her school. Over time, though, the tensions within the class eased. “And Raegen says she has learned there is no one definition for any race—that just because someone looks a certain way doesn't mean she'll act a certain way,” Estep says.

Encouraging cross-cultural friendships is the single most important thing you can do.

Keep in mind, however, that making overtures to friends of different ethnicities may take extra time—depending on how open each family is to it. To set up get-togethers for her son Henry, Sarah Sandberg, who currently lives with her husband and kids in Warsaw, Poland, occasionally sends notes home in his friends' backpacks, asking the parents to call her. She has also gone to school at dismissal time so she could introduce herself to the kids' parents before inviting them over.

It's been 60 years since Rosa Parks and her peers were relegated to the back of the bus, and that sort of legalized injustice is no longer an issue. But there is still work to be done here in the U.S. and many parts of the world. Palestinians and Jews continue to harbor bitter resentment toward each other. The anti-government protests currently taking place in Syria are complicated by ethnic divisions. Italian newspapers report on racist infused violence between native Italians and African migrant workers. However, if prejudice is learned, so is acceptance and kindness. For today’s parents, teaching our kids those values doesn’t require an advanced degree in race relations, just an open heart and a willingness to work for change. If we raise just one more child without these negative attitudes, we’ve taken a huge step toward making the world a better place.

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