Raising and Teaching Children to Be Anti-Racist
Fri, December 3, 2021

Raising and Teaching Children to Be Anti-Racist


Many protests across the world have been taking place, fueled by the killing of an African-American man by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Millions of people staged protests to call out police brutality against black Americans and demand racial justice. Now, many parents want to know how they can encourage the next generation to do better. For some, this is a great opportunity to start conversations about race, racial differences, and racism with their kids. 

“This moment in time provides people with an opportunity. Adults might want to turn off the TV or be silent. But kids are getting their information and understanding from other places. It makes it that much more important to have these conversations so they aren’t getting outside messages different from what [parents] want them to have,” Candra Flanagan, director of teaching and learning for the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), said.

Caryn Park, a professor at Antioch University in Seattle, whose research focuses on children’s understanding of race and ethnicity, said that parents shouldn’t underestimate children’s ability to comprehend issues around race and injustice. Children can understand more than what we expect them to. According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, children as young as three years old are not only aware of race and skin color but also understand the power in talking about race and racism.

Many teens have gone viral for their racist slurs and actions over the past few years. Some have posed with Nazi salutes, painted on blackface, and mocked Native American protesters. While these seemed like jokes for them, it resulted in a huge backlash from thousands on social media. Many came to their defense saying that teens will always do some stupid things. However, experts in youth and teenage behavior say that this behavior isn’t inevitable.

According to The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, there are several ways parents and teachers can help ensure a child has the maturity and understanding to think about sensitive issues such as race before they behave inappropriately. “We could raise a future of anti-racist youth if we wanted to. That’s the work we have to be doing in a very proactive, every single day kind of way to reduce the incidents that are happening in the first place,” Jennifer Harvey, author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America” and professor of philosophy and religion at Drake University, said.



Start Talking About Differences

Many parents think that race is a subject that can be difficult to discuss, thus, they shy away from the topic. However, experts say that it’s an incredibly important conversation and shouldn’t be avoided. Erin Pahlke, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, said that children notice race from a very young age. It’s simply not true that children do not “see color.” 

“If parents don't talk to kids about race from a young age, they're behind. That's because, by age 3-4, most white children have developed racial biases,” Pahlke said.

Thus, it’s important that parents talk about those differences with their children. Avoiding this kind of conversation will only teach them to come up with a lot of harmful, problematic, and factually inaccurate conclusions. According to Parent Toolkit, a one-stop-shop resource that was produced and developed with parents in mind, it’s the parents’ responsibility to talk about racial differences and explain how people are sometimes treated unfairly on the basis of race. This helps their children understand the society they are living in.



Talk About Racism

May Ling Halim, associate professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach, and Sarah Gaither, assistant professor psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said that the first step in raising kids to be anti-racist is to understand where racism comes from. This includes the underlying psychological and cognitive functions that lead us to see and categorize people by color.

Experts say that books and movies greatly help in learning about race. Parents can use this to start a conversation, share views, and clear up any misconceptions. Talking about what’s happening in the world is crucial, too. “Kids will hear about what's going on in the world either from friends or from a radio/TV. So, parents really do need to talk to their kids about examples of racism in our world today,” Pahlke said.

Halim and Gaither added that parents should not be endorsing a colorblind ideology in any way, shape, or form. Instead, they should acknowledge what race and ethnicity are in our country and the historical lineages that come with being members of different ethnic and racial backgrounds. In this way, it will become easier for parents to talk about race with their kids.

Help Kids Recognize the Harm of a Racist Idea

It’s enough for parents to talk about race with their kids. They should also help them understand how having racist ideas can be harmful. Sometimes, they don’t realize that their comments or expressions are prejudicial. Experts suggest to engage them in an age-appropriate conversation about it, which should center around why the words are hurtful and how they might make someone feel. Park encourages parents to help children examine both the statement’s intent and its unintended impact. 

“Ask the child if something happened to make them feel that way, and talk about what they were feeling when they made that comment. Who benefits and who loses from such a comment? Listen supportively for hurt feelings of rejection or exclusion, and think about a plan to reconcile those feelings,” Park said.



Be an Advocate

Ultimately, parents need to believe that racism harms not only people of color but all of us. They should walk the talk and encourage their children to do the same. Experts encourage parents to engage in constant learning to “better reflect the values on anti-racism, allyship, tolerance, and diversity that you want to reflect your children.”

Kenneth J. Varner, a doctor of education and critical race theory and associate professor of literacy at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, said that the anti-racism work must also be ongoing. “Like any practice, this has to be a commitment. These are not conversations to be had when there is an event, a tragedy, or a crisis. This has to be ongoing work and has to be developed like any other muscle we develop,” he said.