Talking to Kids about Race

About a year ago I read a book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.  It’s a thought-provoking book.  Many of the chapters hit home but none quite as much as the one called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.”  It had a concrete impact on the way I talk and read to my 5-year-old niece Sophie about race.  It made me think about the ways my white parents did or didn’t talk to me about race as a kid.  This blog post is informed by my experiences as a white person and a children’s librarian.

Let me start by recapping what the chapter is all about.  It starts by describing a study done in 2006 by a doctoral student at the University of Texas named Birgitte Vittrup .  She investigated whether children’s videos featuring multicultural characters improve white, kindergartener-aged children’s racial attitudes.  What she found surprised her – families starting dropping out when asked to also talk about skin colour with their children.  Though the families may have said things like, “everybody’s equal,” very few of them felt comfortable talking to kids about race openly and directly. The 6 families that did saw greatly improved racial attitudes.

From there, Bronson and Merryman look at child development. They talk about how young children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.” Kids are visual learners and rely on what they see – hair colour, height, weight, and yes, skin colour. Babies as young as 6 months will stare longer at photographs of faces that are a different race than their parents because they are trying to make sense of them.  Even if no one talks to kids about race, they notice. And when we don’t talk to kids about race they are left to make their own assumptions and judgments.

The authors also coin the phrase Diverse Environment Theory which means, “if you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message.”  So basically, we white people don’t have to talk about race with our kids because they will learn about equality just from seeing all these diverse people!  It’s one of the leading arguments behind school desegregation (which they talk about at length).  But the authors also come to the conclusion that just being in a racially diverse environment is not enough for kids to have better racial attitudes. We still have to talk to them.

Here are some of their key messages for caregivers when talking to kids about race:

  • Treat it the same way you do boy-girl stereotypes. Just like we point out women who are doctors, astronauts, construction workers, we can tell children that people of any skin colour can be those things too.  Enforce this message often.
  • Don’t shush kids when they say embarrassing or racist things. Their brains are prone to categorization.  When we shush them or shut down the conversation, we are telling them that race is a scary topic.  Instead, engage them in a conversation and directly explain their fallacy.
  • Help children of colour develop a sense of ethnic pride.  Studies have found improved self-confidence when this occurs. White children will “naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society…so a pride message would not just be abhorrent – it’d be redundant.”

Since reading this book, I make a point to talk about race with Sophie on a regular basis.  Of course, it is a privilege for me as a white person that I haven’t had to have these conversations with her since she was born, and an even bigger privilege that our conversations can focus on the positive.  We are lucky to live in a racially diverse city like Vancouver so that we can have those conversations about people we know and people in our neighbourhood.  When we read books together, I point out the skin colour of the characters and relate it to something positive. For example, we read Double Trouble for Anna Habiscus! the other day and we talked about how the mommy’s skin is white and the daddy’s skin is brown and how they have a beautiful loving family.  I believe these conversations are crucial to being an anti-racist advocate and to raising an anti-racist child.

So now here I am, wondering if I can take what I’ve learned and practiced into my job as a children’s librarian.  The folks at Reading While White have started this conversation in a variety of ways already.  My questions are storytime specific.  Is storytime a space where we can start to have conversations about race with kids and caregivers?  Are you already using anti-racist practices in storytime?

Let’s talk.

20 thoughts on “Talking to Kids about Race

  1. Love this post, Lindsey! When I plan my story times, I make sure that the books I choose include non-white characters and non-Western traditions. This can take extra time (depending on the topic, it can take A LOT of extra time), but it’s worth it. My awesome colleague Echo has taken the time to make lists of story time books with diverse characters (https://kcls.bibliocommons.com/lists/show/213394885), which helps tremendously.

    There was a time when most of the books I shared in story time were about animals — and I thought that counted as an inclusive story time because animals are race-neutral, right? But now I think I was just doing what was easiest for me. I look forward to a time when it *is* easy to find fun story time books with pictures of kids wearing hijabs.

    1. Thank you, Destinee! Those lists your co-worker Echo made are an amazing resource. They deserve a blog post of their own if you or she would ever be interested in guest posting 🙂 I think choosing picture books with diverse characters is the first step for all of us who do storytime. My follow-up question is – can we go a step further? When reading these books at storytime can we model to caregivers how to talk about race with children in a way that supports the development of positive racial attitudes? Perhaps it’s as easy as mentioning the skin colour of the character and describing what they are doing. Or perhaps framing it within an early literacy tip? I’m not sure yet myself, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about. Thanks again for sharing your experience!

      1. The only times I’ve been able to talk about race during my regular story times have been with books that explicitly address the topic (like Shades of People by Rotner or The Skin You Live In by Tyler).

        But just recently I was visiting a summer camp and I shared Last Stop on Market Street with a group of 6-year-olds. I asked at the end, “So where did Nana and CJ go on the bus?” One of the kids said they had to go to the soup kitchen to eat because they’re really poor. I was like whoa. Let’s talk about this. Why do you think they are poor? Let’s look more closely at the picture that shows them in the soup kitchen. What do you see? We did not specifically talk about race and now I feel like it was a missed opportunity. But I still don’t know what words I would use to bring that to the surface. I tried to just ask open-ended questions Socrates-style. I definitely feel like I could use training about how, as a children’s librarian, I can talk to little kids constructively about race. So much of what I read is specifically about how to talk to your own children.

        Have you seen the resource list “Talking to Kids About Racism and Justice” from Oakland Public Library? There’s a link to it on this page: http://oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/from-main-library/listen-learn-participate-blacklivesmatter-resource-series

        1. Well open-ended questions are a great way to stimulate conversations, especially with school-age kids. I agree – I feel like training would be much appreciated by many of us. I hadn’t seen that list yet – thanks so much for sharing! The other day I saw Oakland also share this 1.5 hour audio stream of a panel they had on talking to kids about race and racism: https://soundcloud.com/oakland-public-library/talking-with-kids-about-race-and-racism-a-community-conversation. Time to get listening 🙂

  2. For the last couple years — since reading the same book! — I’ve been using these points as developmental tips in storytime, just the same as info about the vestibular system and why we sing and all the others. I just toss them in regularly. The first time it was super awkward but just like any other set of tips it got smoother over time. And wow, SO MANY parents have come up to me privately and thanked me for it after, esp parents in mixed race families. In tears sometimes! They had so many stories to share. And I’ve never had the xenophobic or racist pushback I was anxious about fielding.

    1. This is great to hear, Claire! I’m going to email you about possibly sharing some of these tips in a guest post. No pressure, though!

      1. I would also love to hear Claire’s developmental tips! It’s been a while since this post, and I’m wondering if the tips were ever shared/posted elsewhere? Thanks in advance 🙂

        1. Thanks for following up on this, Amy! I didn’t hear back from Claire regarding sharing her developmental tips, but I did just publish a guest post by Jessica Bratt that includes lots of sample phrases and resources you can use to talk about race in storytime. It’s the most comprehensive thing we’ve shared on this topic yet. Take a look here: https://jbrary.com/guest-post-talking-to-kids-about-race-in-storytime-and-the-lets-talk-about-race-tooklkit/

          1. THE NEW POST IS SUPER AWESOME. Thank you for putting it together — I’ve spending the morning putting together ways to drum up the courage to approach race in my storytimes, as a white ally. I found this post linked some way from it, looking for more specific developmental tips.

            Thank you again for putting the new resource together. More and more has been brewing about this in my circles, and I’ve come to feel that a big shift — with the opportunity for a huge positive impact on the kids and families we serve — is coming.

    2. I mostly do toddler storytime, and I’m not sure how I’d engage the kids about race. But sharing tips for parents makes a lot of sense! I’d love to hear some of your tips, Claire.

  3. This is personal experience with kids about race and ethnics in my previous job (preschool) and current job.
    1. Why do you speak funny?
    – Because I speak English as second language, yes, I have really strong accent. Many times children who do not expose to other ethnics they ask me “why do you speak funny?
    2. I hate you because you speak funny and you have dark skin.
    – Children about 4 years olds start to use most meanest words they know to explore their feeling. The child learned what is racism and it is really bad thing. Clear example is key of teaching young children. So…When this child was mad…use those words. I pointed that is really not nice words this 4 years old said, “I know. That is racism and it is bad..”
    5. Why you and your husband look different? (most common questions I got from kids)
    – My husband is Caucasian and I am Asian. Children can definitely notice that and they love to talk about.

    I agree that just experiencing with difference ethnics is most important lesson for children about race.

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’ve definitely known preschoolers who will say the meanest thing they can think of when they are mad or hurt themselves. I’m sorry you’ve had to be on the receiving end of their racist comments. My hope is that the more we talk to kids about race, the less these things will happen.

  4. This is such a great post on such an important topic! I really noticed that we are not doing the best possible job when we started weeding our picture books. We ran a shelf list of books that haven’t checked out in two years or more, and in addition to the expected ratty looking books or titles that were actually missing from the shelf, there were a *lot* of gorgeous, new-looking books with nonwhite people on the covers. I don’t know what this means. Are we not putting these books on display as much as the others? Are we putting them on display, but people are not checking them out? Are we only putting them on display as part of an African-American, Asian, or Hispanic heritage month, and not putting them on display the rest of the year?

    I’m sure that we aren’t using them enough in storytimes. I’ll try to remedy that and work on modeling how to talk about the illustrations, and race in general.

    1. Hi Kit, thank you for your comment. Good on you for noticing a problem and working to fix it. I’ve also found it important to make a concerted effort to make all of our booklists for kids racially diverse as well. That can help draw attention to those new, gorgeous books that otherwise get looked over. If you’d ever like to write a guest post about your experience modeling how to talk about the illustrations and race in general in storytime, please email me at jbrary@gmail.com 🙂

  5. I like the book Violet by Tania Stehlik because it opens up discussion about interracial families without putting a real race on the spot. Roseanne Thong has a series that introduces shapes and colours in the context of various cultures.

    1. I love Roseanne Thong’s books. Perfect for storytime too. I haven’t heard of Violet before – thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing, Janelle! Your post is great and I will definitely be using it in the future.

  6. I absolutely love this post! This is my last semester working on my multidisciplinary BA and I am working on creating a documentary with a discussion on Race in the Classroom and also an Ethnic Studies curriculum. I am focusing on what is communicated in the home and also within classrooms from students, parents, and teachers perspectives. Your post has been really helpful! Thank you for your advocacy against racism! Peace <3

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