Teaching Kids About Racism
How to help your children embrace cultural diversity and become open-minded
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.”