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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.
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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.
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.
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.
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