The importance of talking to children about racism



Once viewed as controversial and perhaps even a topic to be avoided, today the topic of racism is widespread. Racism is discussed on the presidential campaign trail, it’s questioned in relation to police brutality, it’s displayed through surveillance video recording taken by your average citizen, and it’s even an argument behind the choices for this year’s Oscar’s nominees.

One of the hidden benefits of technology is that it makes it more difficult to evade the discussion of racism. Given its presence in our world, racism has to be embraced as a discussion point for all families today, not just minority families. It’s not uncommon for children to ask their parents “Are we racist?” without truly knowing what that means. Children may act in ways that are interpreted as racist without even knowing they are doing so. Some examples are of a young teen or tween who thoughtlessly posts or texts an image of a swat sticker or a dark skinned modicum to a friend as a “joke,” or a younger child who repeats racists expressions without understanding the meaning of the words.

Racism occurs when members of a given race feel superior to other races and, as a result, they insult and demean other races and stereotype people of those races.

As humans we’ve made significant advances in science, technology and medicine, and comparatively little progress in the area of racism, prejudice and discrimination. So while we may be able to land on the moon and connect with people all over the world, we have yet to overcome the tendency to stereotype people based on their skin color.

Research on American teen values indicates that the most emphasized value imparted by parents to teens today is achievement and not compassion. The over focus on achievement may contribute to racism because of its de-emphasis on empathy and tolerance of others, characteristics necessary for understanding racial inequalities.

Children that are raised with the awareness of racism and prejudice will be more accepting and tolerant of others and more realistic about their place in relation to the rest of the world. This early shaping of their belief system will empower them to develop into individuals who choose to transcend race when making their way in our multi-cultural world. Many parents are committed to raising non-racist children; practicing this value, however, requires a conscious effort on the part of parents. Here are five ways to address racism with your children:

1. Role Model. Like most aspects of parenting, role modeling the behavior that you want your children to exhibit is essential. Ideally parents would demonstrate acceptance of all others through close relationships with people of multi-cultural backgrounds. Short of maintaining diverse and inclusive friendships with others, speaking about accepting people of different cultures and races will allow children to “feel” your acceptance of others, while promoting the value of tolerance of all others.

2. Speak about it. Parents sometimes worry that if they raise the issue of race, it will make them appear racist. Children notice racial differences and are naturally drawn to others who look like them because of comfort in familiarity. Proactively addressing racial differences helps children to more fully understand the differences in people. It’s important to explain that while it’s true that all people are different, in reality people are more alike than different and that the differences that people react to are on the surface and not the inside. A concrete way for younger children to understand this is by taking a brown egg and white egg and showing the children that inside the eggs are the same, even though the shells are different colors.

3. Teach the concept of stereotyping. Once your children are old enough to understand slavery, ask them to explain the reasons why slavery is evil. Explain how some white people, stereotypically viewed as racist slave owners, risked their lives to help free slaves in the Underground Railroad. Highlight how viewing all people only one way is prejudice and inaccurate, regardless of their race.


4. Use real world examples. Research has proven that diversity makes people smarter because people from different backgrounds offer unique perspectives that, when combined, can result in more creative solutions. For children, using the example of diversity on winning sports teams may be the most obvious example. But there are countless others as well. In contrast, racism separates people and hinders creativity by limiting viewpoints to like-minded people.

5. Discuss personal discrimination. Find examples in your own life when you have felt you were treated differently because of how you appeared . Ask your children to do the same. Discuss how it made them feel inside.


Dr. Kate Roberts is a psychologist on the North Shore. Questions can be directed to, or