As a parent, you are responsible for teaching your kids so much. From getting dressed and brushing their teeth, to doing their own laundry and learning to drive. You are the model they look to for how to treat people with respect, compassion, and kindness. But on top of all of this, there are really hard things to teach too. Things that might seem way over your head. For example, how are you supposed to teach your kids about racism?
How to teach your kids about racism
I’m going to start out by acknowledging that it’s been a really hard week. We’re still in this crazy COVID-19 limbo. And as this global pandemic rages on, we’ve continued watching unemployment numbers rise, death counts increase, and mistrust amplified. So actually, it’s been more than hard this week. It’s been devastating.
Frustration, anger, mistrust, and fear are hanging heavy in the air.
And while we’re struggling with the unknowns of this virus, we’re also continuing to battle racism. Just this week, we lost George Lloyd to a gruesome, criminal, and preventable murder. His death at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin has sparked a national outcry across the United States.
This past February, Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down and killed by two white men while he was out jogging around his neighborhood. In broad daylight. It took a few MONTHS of civil rights activism, a New York Times article, and video of the incident going viral before the two murderers were finally arrested in May. In MAY!
Discrimination towards immigrants, racism directed towards Asian Americans, the mistreatment of Native Americans, Black Lives Matter…
And we haven’t even touched upon sexism, homophobia, discrimination against people with developmental disabilities…
I am a white, middle-class, American woman. I am married to a Japanese-American man, we have two biracial children, and we have been homeschooling for a decade. My husband and I have always prioritized teaching our children to be empathetic, respectful, and compassionate. We want to raise children who have a heart for social justice, who look out for the underdog, and who are willing to speak out against racism.
This all sounds great, but the reality of teaching my children about racism hasn’t been easy.
And as a white, middle-class American woman, I am acutely aware of the many privileges I’ve been able to enjoy and take advantage of during my lifetime. Privileges not granted to so many of my friends and loved ones of color.
Our shared history contains some really ugly truths and deep scars. I’ve often found myself feeling overwhelmed with how to teach my children about social justice and racism. I’ve felt scared of making mistakes and saying something wrong. There have been countless moments of doubt and fear.
Where do I begin? What resources are developmentally appropriate? Will learning about racism scare my children and cause them to feel helpless? How much information is “too much”? What can we do as a family to fight for racial justice?
These are all valid questions and concerns.
While there will always be plenty of questions and we’ll no doubt make some mistakes along the way, glossing over the history of racism and ignoring the severity of current racial injustice is not a viable option.
If we desire a more kind and just world for our children, we need to teach them about racism.
Note: In order to keep this blog post to a reasonable length and not completely overwhelm you with information, I am limiting the content here to focus on racism within the United States. This is in NO WAY meant to ignore racial injustice in all other areas of the world! I am certainly not implying that racism worldwide shouldn’t be addressed too. There are many forms of bigotry which is a global problem and we need to speak out about injustice everywhere.
I will be chipping away at posts addressing these other social and racial justice issues in the coming months. I’ll be writing blog posts on specific topics, adding to recommended resources lists, and making updates along the way.
Like all of education, this will be a work in progress!
How to teach your kids about racism
Let’s face it: educating ourselves and our children about racism can feel daunting. It’s easy to let our fear and overwhelm keep us stuck. Instead of rolling up our sleeves and confronting difficult truths, we find ourselves relying on cliched and oversimplified statements like “Our family welcomes everyone, we don’t see color!” and “We celebrate diversity!” without confronting the institutionalized racism that exists to this day in our country. Perhaps we oversimplify the history of the United States because dissecting our past is difficult. It’s uncomfortable, exhausting, daunting, and painful. It requires humility and empathy.
Confronting the history of racism in the United States is absolutely necessary.
If we have any hope of moving towards a more just, kind, inclusive United States, then it’s imperative that we reckon with our past, admit atrocities committed, and continue to educate ourselves.
Here is where I am coming from:
I grew up in Southern California, in an area that was, and continues to be diverse. It truly felt like a “melting pot”. My home was open and welcoming to all different races and backgrounds.
I remember, ocassionally, hearing racist jokes from other parents. There were times when I heard negative comments made about other races. These occasions upset me, but I didn’t know how to respond appropriately. So mostly, I stayed quiet.
I remember Rodney King’s death and watching the LA Riots. I remember the people in my life expressing their disgust with the rioting and looting. And their disgust made sense to me. But I don’t remember these same people expressing anger and disgust over police brutality. And their lack of anger and disgust made absolutely no sense to me.
I grew up keenly aware of the mass incarceration of black men, but didn’t think to ask “why?” It didn’t cross my mind that I’d be able to trace mass incarceration back to Jim Crow, and from Jim Crow back to slavery.
The bulk of our history textbooks were written by white men, about white men. Chapters about Native Americans, African Americans, and Immigrants were (and often still are), glossed over. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was bad… the Trail of Tears wasn’t our finest moment… we haven’t always been welcoming to immigrants…
Let’s quickly acknowledge these “mishaps”, and keep moving forward. A quick recap, a halfhearted apology, and the order to “forgive and forget”.
But forgetting isn’t possible, is it?
And how can forgiveness be granted when the crimes of racism are still being committed?
How to teach your kids about racism:
This may be uncomfortable to come to terms with, but we need to start with ourselves. We need to take a good look at racist ideas and beliefs that we might not even be aware of. Ideas and beliefs that are so ingrained in our culture that it’s nearly impossible not to absorb the toxicity. We need to identify specific qualities that keep us from confronting racism head-on. These are roadblocks that often feel too uncomfortable and overwhelming to confront
Note: These are challenges I have experienced personally. I’ve noticed that many of my white friends and family members have had similar feelings too. Perhaps you’ve experienced some of these roadblocks as well?
1. Feeling Defensive
I will admit that I’ve spent many conversations over the years feeling defensive about my whiteness. I remember thinking that even though I am a white female, I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, I was on the receiving end of sexism on regular basis, and I’d experienced plenty of personally hard, “unfair” challenges. Whenever I felt blamed for being white, I would jump into defensive mode, constantly feeling the need to show that I hadn’t experienced a life free from struggle and pain.
But I didn’t (and don’t!) need to be defensive. Recognizing racism done to someone else does not invalidate my own painful experiences. In fact, if I allow for it, this can actually open the door for more empathy and understanding.
Feeling defensive is a common roadblock.
2. Staying Silent
When we’re at a gathering and someone tells a racist joke, it can feel daunting to speak up and express disgust. When a family member makes a derogatory comment about another race, we fear being confrontational and disrupting the peace.
So we stay silent.
And when I think of countless people keeping quiet while their consciences implore them to stand up to injustice, I’m reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words.
“…I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘orde’” than to justice…”
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”
All it takes for evil to prevail is our silence.
Often times, it’s our ignorance that keeps us silent. It’s easier to sit in a comfortable spot of ignorance and denial than to expose ourselves to the discomfort of educating ourselves.
But educating ourselves on the history of racism, as well as it’s current forms, is critical in making forward progress.
Ignorance breeds apathy which ignites hatred and fuels racism.
4. Feeling ill-equipped to help
I have often felt way too ill-equipped to help in meaningful ways. I loathe confrontation, don’t feel like my debate skills are super strong, and hate when people are hostile towards me. This means I’m not exactly the ideal candidate to lead marches or debate hostile opposition!
But that’s OK. I don’t have to do these things.
We all have an important role to play, taking into account our unique personalities.
For me, this looks like engaging in meaningful conversations about race, exposing myself to diverse voices and experiences, spending quality time learning from my friends and loved ones of color, engaging in activism work with organizations I trust, and not tolerating racist comments in my presence.
Even the most quiet, humble actions are critical tools to help combat racism.
5. Not wanting to “get political”
How does the saying go again? Something along the lines of it being best to avoid talking about religion and politics, right?
I know so many people who “don’t want to get political”. And believe me, I’ve used this excuse myself in the past.
But here’s the problem:
Racism IS political.
A country that had slavery written into its constitution cannot argue that racism is not political. When anti-immigration laws are created, racism cannot be denied. From housing, access to education, food costs, and healthcare, it is obvious that racism IS in fact, quite political.
We can’t simply claim to “not be a racist” while approving of a political system that has been built upon racism. Instead, we need to actively identify the existing issues and then address how to make positive change.
We must become “anti-racists”.
how to teach your kids about racism – Action Steps:
- Start with educating yourself (see below for recommendations on books, documentaries, podcasts, and museums)
- Practice humility as you learn new information about racism
- Listen to those who experience racism on a regular basis
- Accept being uncomfortable while listening and learning
- Educate your children (again, see below for resources)
- Speak up when you hear racist comments or see racist actions.
- Use your personality and unique skill sets to help
- Engage in tough conversations with friends and loved ones
- Model empathy and respect for people when you’re with your children
- Use your imagination (and have your children use theirs!) to brainstorm a more just future
PLEASE don’t feel like you need to dive into ALL of the following resources!
Skim over the recommendations and choose something that looks interesting to you. There’s no need to get overwhelmed – baby steps and slow forward movement is the name of the game!
how to teach your kids about racism – Book Recommendations for Parents & Teens:
Note: In order to keep this blog post to a reasonable length, I am not including summaries or descriptions of the resources below. I will be offering more detailed descriptions in future posts which I will then link to here.
In addition to non-fiction titles, I have included fiction as well because I believe deeply in the power of connecting with stories to nurture empathy and create understanding. Works of fiction often have the power to connect readers in meaningful ways. And remember to use your local public library! Between online resources, in-person services, and the knowledge of trained librarians, it’s an invaluable FREE resource!
1. the Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson – (non-fiction)
by Yaa Gyasi – (fiction)
3. looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in Japanese American Internment Camps
by Mary Matsuda Gruenewald – (non-fiction)
4. When the emperor was divine
by Julie Otsuka – (fiction)
5. Threading My Prayer Rug
by Sabeeha Rehman – (non-fiction)
6. The Girl in the Tangarine Scarf
by Mohja Kahf – (fiction)
7. Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto
by Vine Deloria Jr. – (non-fiction)
8. Pushing the Bear
by Diana Glancy – (fiction)
9. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent
by Eduardo Galeano – (non-fiction)
by Sandra Cisneros – (fiction)
how to teach your kids about racism – Book Recommendations for Kids:
Note: These age recommendations are what I find appropriate given the content and reading level. Please review and see what feels appropriate for your children.
For an additional list of picture book recommendations, be sure to check out the following:
1. Something Happened in Our Town
by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, Ann Hazzard, and Jennifer Zivoin
Recommended age – 5+
2. That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice
by Carmen Tafolla, Sharyll Tenayuca, and Terry Ybanez
Recommended age – 5+
3. Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American children to the librarian they left behind
by Cynthia Grady and Amiko Hirao
Recommended age – 5+
4. Ruth and the Green Book
by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Floyd Cooper
Recommended age – 7+
5. I Am Not a Number
by Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer, and Gillian Newland
Recommended age – 7+
6. Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library
by Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez
Recommended age – 8+
7. Brown Girl Dreaming
by Jacqueline Woodson
Recommended age – 10+
8. Sylvia & Aki
by Winifred Conkling
Recommended age 10+
9. Inside Out and Back Again
by Thanhha Lai
Recommended age – 10+
10. Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings: A poetic memoir
by Margarita Engle
Recommended age – 10+
how to teach your kids about racism – Documentary Recommendations:
Note: I recommend these documentaries for adults and teens. As always, review before having your children watch. I encourage you to see if your public library has any of the following. If they don’t, consider making a purchase suggestion (which libraries often honor).
- The Green Book: Guide to Freedom
- Dark Girls
- Teach Us All
- Asian Americans
- Brothers & Others
- Hidden Colors: The Untold History of People of Aboriginal, Moor, and African Descent
- Latino Americans
- We Shall Remain: America Through Native Eyes
- Reel Injun
- The Uncomfortable Truth
how to teach your kids about racism – Podcast Recommendations:
Note: These podcasts are recommended for adults. You may find some of them appropriate for your teens (and some tweens) too.
- Still Processing
- Code Switch
- All My Relations
- Identity Politics
- Maeve In America: Immigration IRL
- Self Evident: Asian America’s Stories
- See Something, Say Something
- Democracy in Color
- The Breakdown
how to teach your kids about racism – Museums & Online Resources:
- National Civil Rights Museum (Memphis, Tennessee)
- Museum of Tolerance (Los Angeles, California)
- National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, D.C.)
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (Cincinnati, Ohio)
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American (A migratory museum)
- National Hispanic Cultural Center (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
- Smithsonian Latino Center (Washington, D.C. – opening the Molina Family Latino Gallery, in spring 2022 at the National Museum of American History )
- National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, D.C.)
- Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
- Japanese American National Museum (Los Angeles, California)
I hope that these resources provide you with knowledge, understanding, and motivation as you navigate how to teach your kids about racism. Remember, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, just choose one resource on the list and start with that. I will continue to add resources and updates in the coming months.
Let me know if you’ve discovered any resources that you’ve found informative and helpful!
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