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Anti-Racism For Kids 101: Starting To Talk About Race
[Image description: Illustration from All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold & Suzanne Kaufman. Children of various races and faiths pointing to locations on a world map.]
If you’re nervous about talking about race with your kids, these books about racial diversity will give you an easy place to start destigmatizing difference & celebrating racial diversity.
Bold and *marked books are written or illustrated by #OwnVoices makers of color.
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Starting To Talk About Race With Kids
Anti-Racism For Beginners: Part 1
Acknowledging & Celebrating Racial Diversity
“How do I teach my kids to be anti-racist when I’m still learning myself?”
– Anonymous, Books For Littles Facebook Group (archived)
It’s normal to get flustered when when our children talk about race. But if we let nervousness keep us silent and still, our fear becomes a weapon.
Growing up, I was told that discrimination would magically disappear if we stop acknowledging racial difference. All people are the same. Skin color doesn’t matter. Only bad people are racist. If we are all nice and well-behaved, racism will go away.
This is the fallacy of colorblind ideology. It’s a tool to keep us complicit in white supremacy. Don’t be a tool.
We must talk about race with young kids. Racism thrives in silence.
When we refuse to talk about race at an early age, children absorb our silence as shame. We’re taught that if we have nothing nice to say – say nothing at all. Well – white folks are aggressively silent when it comes to race! Does that mean that being Brown or Black is something to be ashamed of?
Kids pick up when we refuse to acknowledge racial difference – and how we treat people of color. Why are we surprised then, to see nice, well-behaved children reflect unconscious bias against people of color, then grow into adults who blame people of color for violence and harm against them?
Your child needs at least one adult to speak truth to BS about racial assumptions.
(It’s your job to be that adult.)
My White mother who openly talked about race from birth – and how society would perceive and treat me because of my multiracial heritage. She raised me to understand that discrimination against me was not my fault. Violence would happen to me because of my race, my gender, my class but it wasn’t caused by me – it was caused by white supremacy.
The Mominator refused to let me internalize the idea that I deserved racism. To do that, she first needed to acknowledge my race and the fact that I would have obstacles in life that white kids didn’t.
We can help our children understand racism – and empower them to work toward racial equality.
Raise kids of color to feel proud of their culture and their right to self-advocate.
Raise white kids to recognize their duty to stand up against injustice.
But first, you’ve gotta acknowledge that racial differences – even though they are an imaginary, human-imagined construct, exist as a real thing in our society, with real-life impact on real-life people.
Start by telling our kids that yes – we do see skin color and racial identities.
For folks who were never given space to talk about racism and discrimination as kids (or even racial diversity), it’s scary to start. We don’t want to say the wrong thing and mess it up.
No worries, we are going to start very gently with non-controversial, easygoing books that just show kids that racial diversity exists. In future collections, we’ll get into more emotionally loaded topics – like racial discrimination, racial privilege, colorism, and the subtle tools that uphold white supremacy, such as white fragility and respectability politics.
And this diversity is glorious.
You might also like: Waaay Before We Talk About Sex: Kids Books For Squeamish Parents
Acknowledge & Celebrating Racial Diversity
From two anonymous BFL members:
“My daughter came home saying she didn’t like her brown skin and wanted white skin and ‘bright’ hair instead. I’m looking for books that reinforce pride in who she is.”
“My white daughter said to me the other day, ‘I don’t like dark skin.’ I ran to the internet to research books like these.”
Use these comments as learning opportunities. Read these books to discuss biases they’ve absorbed during a quiet time home together (story time!) Encourage kids to speak bias aloud so they can hear how ridiculous it sounds, think about where it comes from, and realize how it develops.
When children point out that they like particular skin tones, body shapes, or hair textures more than others – don’t shout at them or insist they are wrong. Kids this age can’t untangle feelings from fact. Shaming them for a gut reaction is just going to get them to clam up.
Instead, help them untangle bias from fact on their own. Ask why they feel this way. Use in an open, non-judgemental tone. Keep asking questions to unpack these assumptions. We’re not here to tell them what to think, we’re here to model critical thinking about racial bias moving forward.
Discuss how all bodies are good bodies – how we differ, and what we have in common.
All Are Welcome, *Lovely, We’re Different, We’re The Same
You might also like: Inclusive Body-Positive Kids Books
Acknowledge & Celebrate Cultural Diversity
When we over-simplify racism, we tell kids that racism is simply bias against people based on skin color – it’s not.
(That’s colorism, another problem we can tackle later.)
Racism expands beyond skin color – it’s assumptions and discrimination against individuals and groups of people, based on racial identity. This includes not just skin color, but also cultural norms and behavior, language, and other markers of racial and ethnic identity.
White supremacy is assuming that racism would be over if people of color just assimilated and acted more like white people, that assimilation is even a goal for people of color, and that non-white culture is deviant or inferior to whiteness.
How do we counter the entrenched dominant narrative’s focus on whiteness?
Read stories that show how people of color are not monolithic – we’re complex individuals who can’t be reduced to the caricatures of mainstream media. Our ethnic heritage is something valuable worth exploring, and our ancestors traditions, achievements, and challenges have an impact on who we are today.
But our race and ethnicity is not the only thing that defines us. Show kids how we all have a right to pride in our heritage – just not at the expense of punching down another culture.
*On The Day You Begin, *Where Are You From?, *Alma And How She Got Her Name
Not pictured: *Islandborn is another lovely book, which I recommend with reservations. In 2018, several survivors came forth about Junot Díaz’s problematic behavior toward women. One of these reports has been shown to have been overblown – but I’m not comfortable with the way we’re dismissing all survivors of his actions because of this. The book itself is great – so I’ll let you decide how to move forward with all that on your own.
You might also like: Diverse Family Constellations In Kids Books
Explain How Diversity Makes Us Stronger
Having a broad range of experiences to draw from, mindsets to brainstorm, and abilities to solve the problems facing humanity is a very good thing. Human diversity is good for all of humanity and evolution and stuff. I am pretty sure this is SCIENCE.
The idea that winnowing humanity into one make-believe-super-race, or segregating us all into silos based on our racial identity sounds ABSURD. Right? RIGHT?!
Obviously some families are not absorbing the fact that genetic diversity is good for society and the fate of humanity, so we have to make this clear. That whole ‘melting pot’ assimilation thing our teachers celebrated 20 years ago turned out to be a bad idea.
What we need is more of a chunky stew, with folks proudly retaining and celebrating our individual racial and cultural identities while cognizant of the challenges and discrimination many groups face. These books help kids see how diversity makes us stronger.
*We Are America, *Three Balls Of Wool, *Spork
You might also like: Immigrants Belong Here: Books To Help Kids Advocate For Human Rights
Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Talk About Race
Don’t stop here. Now that your kids understand that human skin, hair, and all of that stuff comes in a broad change of colors, shapes, and textures – help them see how all people deserve basic human rights, respect, and kindness.
Click here for part 2 of raising Anti-Racist Kids – Children’s Books That Teach Kids About Social Power & Paternalism
I also read these every year to my student, The Color of Us, and We are All Different, We Are All the Same (not the Sesame Street version, but 1 written by kids)
Another LEFT WING buncha idiots.. You promote the racial divide then wanna profit off of it.. Prove me wrong.. Betcha can’t..b
Acknowledging that gravity exists is not a promotion of gravity.
Breaking this down for folks in the back:
– Refusing to talk about race and racism silences people who are affected by it. Which is ALL people, not just people of color. So this is shooting ourselves in the foot when we pretend this tension doesn’t exist.
– Labeling folks “left wing” “idiots” is a method of division. Us, versus them. Me, versus you. Labeling folks who want to talk about race, who are negatively impacted by racism, that’s…promoting a racial divide.
– Re: Profit. Check out the accountability statement & financial disclosure guidelines, bud.
– “Prove me wrong” is derailing – a device used by people who seek to silence you and distract the speaker and onlookers from the point. When you speak up, folks get BIG FEELINGS. If they don’t know how to deal with those feelings in a prosocial, ethical way, they’ll derail, like a toddler throwing a tantrum because they’re ashamed when they screw up.
– By making a wild, unprovable assertion and then following that up with ‘prove me wrong’ this puts the burden on the person being challenged. Of course, here it was easy to prove this person wrong because I happen to have a full accountability and financial statement that proves I’m not profiting. However there is no way to ‘prove’ my intentions by creating a racial divide. Unless of course, you read the full body of my work and are familiar with the mission to dismantle oppression and educate a generation of kids who understand the hard work of inclusion and equity.
Keep these coming, buddy. They’re a great learning experience on how to see through the thin veil of trolling.
Thank you, Ashia. You have given me great examples on how to handle these sorts of comments. ??
Beautifully put! You definitely speak the truth with grace.
ASHIA – YES
Mic. Drop. ?
Also, as a white preschool teacher in Brooklyn, NY married to a Nigerian immigrant, I am so thankful for your article and list of books. I look forward to raising my future children to be proud of their culture and background and to help guide our future generations to acknowledge and celebrate each other.
Awesome response! I wish we were all as informed and eloquent as you are.
Great response – though that was probably a bot. :p Thank you for this wonderful resource, I am sharing it far and wide!
Love your response and thank you for your post.
Thank you Ashia!
You are completely missing the point! Now more than ever we need to kids to learn to accept differences: all skin colors, all genders, all human traits (disable, down syndrome children, etc.) These books are a tool to help us parents to start a conversation that sometimes can be difficult. My children are in an immersion Spanish school and they are mixed with children from different socio-economic backgrounds and skin color. We have had lots on conversation about equality, skin color, diversity, etc over the years. Not everyone have the opportunity to say this.It has been a blessing. These books are a tool and part of the solution – not the problem.
When I was in kindergarten, there was one girl in my class I didn’t like. The next year we learned about racism in school, and I was horrified to understand why. She was black. And I, at 6 years old, was racist. No one ever taught me to be- everyone in my community seemed friendly and tolerant. But society somehow taught me to be. Once I learned better, little first grade me fought my biases with everything I had. But I couldn’t do that until an adult helped me figure out what was happening.
So I can confirm firsthand that kids learn this stuff young and teaching them to be aware of it has a big impact.
Thank you for posting this. We need it now more than ever. With love, a white ally.
Thank you Ashia
Do you have any recommendations for kids books like these that are written in Spanish? Thank you!
I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t ethically screen those (so many translations are done poorly & problematic). Check out Des Colores, they do #OwnVoices reviews and they’re spectacular.
This is a great list. Thanks so much for gathering it! Any chance you could link to the bookshop.org postings for these books instead of amazon right now and support local bookstores?
Moving forward yup – Started using Bookshop as soon as they started for new collections & when I update older posts. Retroactively changing links when possible, but it takes a while to do this maually on my own.
I’d love to find a copy of Lovely by Jessica Hong to read to my 3 year old daughter. It seems it’s out of print because I can’t find a copy anywhere. I was wondering if anyone had a way to help me find a copy. Thanks!
A member recently reached out to the publisher about this – they’re planning a second printing soon.
Have you seen the new childrens’ book by Meena Harris?
To your illustration of 6 children pointing to different parts of the world. The features of the Mexican pointing to Mexico, African to Africa, Muslim to Indonesia, Chinese to China. White face dark curly hair to South America Spanish and Australia a blond with a tan. to me that it just goes to show the unconscious bias of those who proport to be culturally aware.
I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this and I just…can’t understand it.
By that logic – we should be pretending that colonization never happened and white folks *aren’t* the primary occupants of colonized land. Pretending white folks don’t live here doesn’t help fight racism any more than pretending the ice caps aren’t melting doesn’t help us fight climate change.
I perceive that illustration as ‘this is where I am local to’ – the bioregions which have formed our family and cultural identity. What weird nonsense says we’re only allowed to point to places on a map where we have 100% blood quantum for 10+ generations?
By that logic, descendants of refugees and immigrants aren’t allowed to point to the places where they were born? Multiracial folks like me just…aren’t allowed to talk about the country my grandparents, father, or even myself were born, raised, or currently live.
This kind of over-simplified erasure of the complexity of race is exactly why we NEED to talk about race (many, many times, forever) with our kids.
Beautiful response. Thank you!
Do you have any recommendations for babies and toddlers (I have a ten month old and one on the way)? I have tried to poke around for myself, but most lists I have seen have been for 3+, and you are the expert!
I am excited to hear that Lovely will be reprinted soon, and I don’t mind introducing kids to books above their age group, but my son is more attentive to things he can interact with, and I know the sooner I can help introduce ideas of antiracism, the better little ally I can raise to put those ideas into practice. Thank you for the work you have already done, and for any recommendations or help you may be able to give in tracking down resources for the tiniest of allies!
In our Unpolished Book lists (which are usually locked for patrons but I’ve opened currently open during the pandemic), I’ve started to list books by age group, with a focus on the board books my kiddos have grown out of. The focus at those ages is to show kids who matters, real photographs of friendly faces – who do we count as ‘one of us’ – less on stories, which they can’t follow anyway. So you’ll want to just flip through books with a diverse range of characters with body types, skin colors, genders, disabilities, etc. – and repetition is better than too many books.
You can follow along with those booklists by age as I update them here:
This was an amazing article and I’m happy to work on it with my children.
Where it says that we should celebrate your families heritage. Something I adore because it’s an amazing rite of passage.
I’m white, and due to my state’s history it’s a long line. Is it still okay to tell my children their family history and be proud of it?
This is so heartbreaking, the idea that ANYONE should be ashamed of their racial identity. I am so sorry that was unclear in the post – YOUR KIDS have every right (duty!) to know about and be proud of who they are.
To clarify (not like you need my permission as random internet person) but your kids have every right to be grateful for the ancestors who loved them and worked hard to keep them safe.
With a strong, urgent call to do some personal reflections on how we see people. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, but just complex humans who make choices that have consequences. My White grandmother made my life possible. She gifted me with 25% of the DNA that makes me who I am. She’s also filled her life with terrible, selfish, cowardly, horrible acts – including stealing from homeless shelters and trying to burn down a house with her sleeping children inside of it. I can be proud of how she survived as an Irish woman in a world that hated the Irish, hates women, hates the poor. But I don’t have to be proud of her actions or the way she wielded what power she DID have to do awful things. And her being awful doesn’t separate my pride about being Irish American – she doesn’t get to take that from me because our culture is bigger than her.
This is why we need more white people to talk about Whiteness, and how it was created and defined in the early colonization of the US. Kids can be white (or be a BIPOC who is perceived as white by outsiders) and NOT ascribe to whiteness. ‘Whiteness,’ was an idea formed in the construct of race (which in itself is a VERY new concept for humanity). ‘Whiteness’ was created by people in power who wanted to create an us/them dynamic, a good and bad. It forced non-white people into a ‘bad’ category and told everyone to deny the humanity of anyone who couldn’t ascribe to whiteness – whether that’s through a physical, genetic, or behavioral checklist. (I’ve seen many of my fellow Asian Americans claim ‘whiteness’ in all of it’s racist glory – barf.)
There was no ‘White’ until a group of colonizers and slavers needed justification for claiming another group was ‘Black.’
I highly recommend reading ‘Not My Idea’ – there’s a full post on how to use it with kids who have racial privilege on how to move out of the white-guilt framework into action and building positive identity within the movement toward racial justice.Whiteness is the idea that white people are set apart and above from ‘others.’ ‘White pride’ means celebrating an oppressive power dynamic. So don’t celebrate ‘white pride.’
So to that point – YES. Celebrate your heritage (ex: Southern Irish storytelling practices, Norwegian dancing, etc.) All the great stuff that got buried by that terrible decision to lump all Europeans as ‘white,’ because white supremacy mainly targets and kills and hurts BIPOC, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t also tangentially harm people who were pulled into the white identity without their consent. Celebrate your ancestors hard work – just don’t celebrate WHITENESS.
Celebrate your ethnic heritage and the good values your ancestors handed down – while also acknowledging how they (and our generation, as recipients) were active, complicit beneficiaries, or looked away when whiteness pulled down BIPOC for the benefit of white people. You can celebrate how hard your great-grandmother worked to start a business so you could have an education and make a good life. AND you can also say “And her business model took advantage of white supremacy in the following ways…. How did that harm people of color at that time? How do the benefits grandma gave us also continue to effect our friends of color today? how can we even the playing field going forward?
This is a joke article right?
Ashia, would it be possible to link to this article for a class? I’d love to use it to spark discussion, but I see a disclaimer at the bottom asking not to link to article.
I don’t see where it says no linking? The copyright info at the bottom says no re-posting. Linking is encouraged. Copying it and re-posting it is not (we get a lot of folks copy and paste my work and insert their own affiliate links & ads.) Referencing is good – it’s the intellectual theft that’s discouraged.
Great! Thanks so much!
Hi Ashia. I’ve come across your page whilst looking for resources to aid parents in having useful discussions with their children about challenging racism and discrimination. I work as a Family Engagement Worker in a prison setting in the UK, and directing fathers who are imprisoned to your website isn’t an option. Please can you grant permission for me to share you page with them in printed format? I think they would value a lot from your words and insight. The recommended books look invaluable and your explanations to each topic are so clear. I would of course want to send you a copy of anything I’m sending to them, and also credit you.
Hi Sarah – thanks for asking, giving them a printed version sounds like a great idea
You are doing such important work. Thank you so much.
extremely confused as to why the hell there is a CHILD wearing a hijab in the cover photo??? wtf
“Applying this to the topic at hand, the reason behind the hijab is to please God, whereas the wisdom behind it could well be modesty. As such, the hijab is primarily an act of obedience to God, and so its use, if presented in this fashion, does not principally sexualise those who wear it. I would concede that the widespread discourse around hijab is pivoted around modesty, so the source of this contention is understandable.”
“In any case, to regard the hijab as something that sexualises children is hypocritical, when contemporary society is filled with other references to sexuality. Not too long ago, there were denunciations of telling boys not to wear tiaras. Telling boys not to wear tiaras was seen as undermining the notion of gender fluidity. Moreover, children are exposed to concepts of LGBT from a variety of sources in society. Some of these sources are a part of formal education which has the noble goal of reducing bullying. Despite this, children are exposed to talk of sex and sexuality at a young age, with the freedom solicited by social media being a major contributory factor to this. Whether for better or for worse, society is a sexualised space, and children have been affected by this. In the midst of such a setting, to narrow out hijab as a form of sexualisation is hypocritical.”