Honest answers to give your children when they ask about race

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By Ann Hazzard

It would be great if negative judgments about different ethnicities magically disappeared. But the world would be quite boring if there weren’t diverse cultures.

Parents of children from ethnic minority groups typically talk to their children about race in order to protect them. However, many well-meaning white parents have adopted a color-blind approach because it’s hard to know what to say about race. If you want to raise children with egalitarian values, they need to hear you say directly that racism is a problem in America and that you think it’s unfair.

Here are some possible answers to questions or comments that your child might make:

For parents raising white children

Why is Sasha’s family a different color than our family?

“Black people or African-Americans often have skin that is a darker brown than that of white Americans, whose skin is tan-colored. Most black people have ancestors that came from Africa. But there is a lot of variety in skin color, even when people belong to the same race.”

What is racism?

“Treating people unfairly based on their race is called racism or racial injustice. Racism starts with a belief that certain races of people are better than others. Racial injustice occurs when people of one race are given more privileges than people who are not of that race.”

I don’t like that black kid Jayden in my class…

You might be tempted to say “That’s not a nice thing to say,” but the drawback is that you’ve shut down what could be a very useful conversation. There are several different directions you could go with this one. A helpful place to start would be “What makes you say that?” Your approach might vary depending on the answer.

He was bragging that he was better than everyone in math.

“So you don’t like his bragging. If he does it a lot, I can see why it’s annoying. Does that have anything to do with him being black or is that just how Jayden behaves? How might you handle it when Jayden brags and you feel annoyed?”

Note: Negative comments about someone of another race may not be about race; help children recognize if they are frustrated by someone’s behavior.

He got in trouble twice today. All the black boys act out.

“Twice isn’t the same as always. Are there some white boys that don’t follow rules sometimes?  It’s not fair to think that all black boys behave badly just because Jayden made several bad choices.”

Note: Help children think more logically and realize that all of us make some good and some bad choices.

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“Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice”

Jack said that white kids should only be friends with other white kids.

“I don’t think it’s fair to choose friends based on skin color. It’s better to choose friends based on what you like or don’t like about how they act. Can you think of some ways you and Jayden are alike?”

Note: Children tend to categorize people as all good or all bad. Help them see people as multidimensional individuals.

For parents raising children from an ethnic minority group, such as African-Americans

Why do white people hate us?

“Only some white people dislike black people and treat them badly based on their race.  This may stem from slavery when white people were allowed to own black people, and laws allowed black people to be mistreated. But some white people like many things about our culture, such as the music, our dance, our art, and our family life. They admire our strength and determination to be a part of this country even when it’s hard because some people treat you unfairly.”

Note: A similar but culturally tailored answer is appropriate if this question is asked by a child from another ethnic minority group.

Ann Hazzard, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and co-author of “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice.” The book is designed to engage young children in a compelling story as well as spark important family discussions about racial injustice.

One thought

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