There are people who believe the world would be a much fairer, happier place if people didn’t keep bringing up race. They think talking about racism creates more division.
“Leave it alone,” they insist. “You’re stirring up things that don’t need stirring.”
However, a pot still stews, even if you don’t stir it. And one of the biggest contributors to the stew of racial hatred is ignorance. When ideas and attitudes remain unspoken, untested, and unchallenged, they can turn dangerous. In a world becoming more and more polarized, talking to our children about race might be our saving grace.
So when is the right time to bring up such a sensitive topic? Sooner than you think. By the time your child asks you that embarrassing question, it is already late. Never too late, however. Now is a good time to begin. You can even start with a baby bump or a newborn. Some experts recommend talking with your baby before they can talk back. Sounds a bit cuckoo, but it’s pretty smart because you can talk without fear of judgment. You can practice saying things out loud that you might feel awkward saying in adult company. Sachi Feris runs the excellent resource Raising Race Conscious Children. She blogs about reading the board book Baby Faces with her newborn when he was five days old and pointing out each baby’s ethnic differences. During Raising Race Conscious Children’s workshops, she asks participants to pretend they’re talking to a baby.
If you’ve been babbling away with a baby, you’ll be more prepared for those toddler and preschooler interrogations. At this stage, kids might be super curious about visual differences between themselves and their friends. They might also have picked up on disparities in who lives where, who works in what job, and who is in your social circle. Be ready to answer as openly as you can.
Entrepreneur and mother of three Shanthi Annan is of mixed Ghanaian, Nigerian, British and Indian heritage. She is married to a Nigerian-Ghanaian and they are raising their kids in London. She put it like this:
I’m very open and factual about race. My son asked me why there aren’t many Black people at school, and I told him we are in Europe, which means geographically, there are more White people here. I also reminded him that when he is in Ghana, there are mostly Black people there, and he got it. A friend told me about a conversation her son had with mine when they were four. Her son asked my son why he is brown, and my son answered, “Because people are different colors,” and they happily went about their day. I was very pleased to know he had an empowering first experience on this subject.
If you get stuck, you can meet a question with another question. “I’m curious, why did you ask me that?” Or you can turn the answer into a treasure hunt. “Hmm, I’m not sure about that. Shall we find out together?” There’s no shame in admitting you don’t have all the answers. Kids appreciate that you are on a learning journey too.
Books make excellent teachers and conversation starters. Stuck on what to tell a child about why hair is frizzy or straight, why noses are pointed or curvy, why skin is pale or freckled or earthy or patchwork? Somebody else has said it before you, probably with illustrations to match. You can find books for every age and stage to help your child learn about diversity, kindness, self-appreciation, and cultural respect.
Beyond books, my best tip for handling the race chat comes back to the birds and bees. According to sex-education experts (and common sense), you can’t rely on one big awkward talk with your kids. You need to have several as they grow older. The same approach works for conversations about race. The trick is to start young and take it at your child’s pace, using age-appropriate language. Drip feed rather than drench them with information. You want to educate and empower them, not freak them out!
Uju Asika is a multi-award-nominated blogger, screenwriter, and creative consultant. She is the author of “Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World,” a book she wrote for people of all ethnicities who care about creating a safer, kinder, more inclusive society for every human.
The book explores how to talk to children of all ages about race and racism, covering issues such as racial bullying, colorism, hair discrimination, name prejudice, and microaggressions. Her goal is to spark more open and transformative conversations about race in our homes, schools, and communities. Born in Nigeria, Uju grew up in Britain and has lived and worked in New York and Lagos. She lives in London with her husband and two sons.