Here Are Easy Ways to Have Tough Talks With Kids About Race

While we may think that we're protecting kids by not talking to them about race, silence actually does more harm than good. Here's what one expert says about how to meaningfully talk to kids about racial justice.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Feb 20, 2012

How do you talk to kids about race? It’s a difficult conversation that’s even tough for most adults to have in a sensible manner. But it’s become increasingly important to equip kids with the tools and the language to talk about race and try to make sense of the world around them.

I talked to Jaime-Jin Lewis, Executive Director of Border Crossers, an education equity non-profit in Manhattan made up of a growing group of elementary school educators who are deeply concerned with the issue of racial justice in our education system. She tells us, "Race is not the only lens teachers should have when they step into a classroom, but if it’s not a lens, then they’re missing something."

Tell me about the work of Border Crossers.

We were founded eleven years ago out of the awareness that, despite the growing diversity that New York City boasts, we house the third most segregated school system. Approximately 90 percent of students of color in New York City attend schools with less than three percent majority, majority being white. 

While it is not always the case, students within underserved socioeconomic backgrounds, usually students of color, are isolated in low-performing schools with fewer opportunities for academic success. A system like this also impedes children’s development of the social skills and competencies necessary to be participatory global citizens.

What is the importance of discussing race with these students early on?

In the US, many people think that by talking about race and racism, we create racialized thinking. But what studies show is that students recognize race and are often not provided with the language or the space to talk about it in their schools or in their homes. 

Racism is perpetuated in schools through policies and pedagogies, and also through the ways we speak and don’t speak about race, class and power. Our work at Border Crossers interrupts patterns of racial injustice in schools by helping teachers develop tools for talking about race and providing curriculum for students to explore their lived experience of race and class borders.

What types of biases do children to children develop early on?

Race is a central part of every human being’s lived experiences, and it starts from birth. Infants notice skin color differences as young as six months. Children develop the ability to recognize racial differences, label those differences and categorize themselves within a racial group as toddlers. Children usually develop racial orientation, which are positive and negative attitudes towards members of a certain race, by first grade. Three year olds, when shown pictures of other children, usually selected same race children as who they’d want as friends. When given cards with pictures of people to sort any way they wanted, 13 percent of six year olds sorted by gender, but 68 percent sorted by race.

While those biases exist, children of color also internalize a white bias. Several studies have shown this. Most famously, the doll study first performed in the 1940’s by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, psychologists who, when they presented children with different dolls, students both black and white, expressed a white bias.

How can lesson plans make room for inspiring conversations and connections for children from traditionally marginalized communities?

A technique that we borrow and adapt for younger kids from the organization Facing History and Ourselves is to use history and current events. Many of these issues are things that we as a society are told to shield children against. Facing History uses the terms "upstanders" and "bystanders." So we can say, "Let’s take a look at this scenario and find the bystander, someone who knows in their heart something is wrong and doesn’t take action, and who’s an upstander, someone who knows something is wrong and  takes action on it…And sometimes bad things happen to upstanders too." 

And teaching that type of lesson can be tough, but there’s no research that shows it damages children. In fact, there’s research that shows that that empowers and engages them in the world around them. We want them to start having connections to people and principles that are upstanding.

Many children now are dealing first-hand with scary immigration issues, others see it on the news. How can educators talk about these issues in the classroom?

Teachers have to inform themselves about issues in the communities they stand in. Acknowledging these tough issues as they come up and not silencing students’ questions or comments is a first and very important step. It’s tough, and sometimes feels counterintuitive to have these conversations with children, because they deal with topics we try to shield young children against.

Ignoring or silencing tough conversations sends the message that this topic is off limits and doesn’t allow the child engage in a deeper understanding of their world. If you don’t have an answer, it’s ok to acknowledge that, look for answers together or do the research and follow up.

How would we advise elementary school teachers to talk about the importance of not using the i-word?

Teachers can’t advocate for something they don’t understand, so we encourage them to first of all inform themselves and model vocabulary that will provide a good foundation for students to continue the conversation. The i-word sounds like it’s borrowed from children’s language, so it makes it more natural to talk about and explain that it’s not a word we use. And it’s not about one conversation, it’s talking about it over time and seizing teachable moments.

Teachers can move the conversation to action by challenging children to become change-makers. Ask, "What can we do about this?" Empower children to realize that they can do something right now to help create change. Watch Drop the I-Word youtube videos, Sam’s video is a good one. And show movies that facilitate the conversation about immigration and immigrants, like "An American Tail."

For more about Border Crossers’ ABC’s of how to talk to children about differences go here.