Talking to Kids About Racial Bias

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(Image courtesy BlackHealthMatters.com)

By Black Health Matters

Children are always watching and listening, but since protests for racial justice have spread across the globe, they’re witnessing, absorbing and internalizing possibly more than anyone knows.

A recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics says pediatricians are “deeply concerned about the effects of racism on children. Even vicarious racism—secondhand racism witnessed through social media, conversations with friends or family, or media images—harms children’s health.

So, how can you begin talking with children about racial bias and injustice issues? Here are a few suggestions to start the conversation:

  • Silence is a message. Don’t avoid conversations.
  • Reflect on your own biases and uncomfortable feelings.
  • Color is real. Don’t ignore or pretend it’s not there.
  • Start talking about racism early in your child’s life.
  • Read books together about racial equality and anti-racism.
  • Listen to their questions and be honest with your answers.
  • Realize this isn’t one conversation, but rather a series of many.
  • Be a good example.

“For children and adolescents, of all ages, the most powerful communication strategy is role modeling,” said Paul Croarkin, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist in Minnesota. “Parents and caregivers often underestimate how important their own behaviors and communications with others are versus direct communication with a child.”

Pediatric experts suggest families trying to wrestle with the topic of racial bias with the children should follow these suggested tips to start the conversation:

  • Everyone comes with some racial bias. Is the first step in talking with children recognizing one’s own biases?   It is very important to recognize our own racial bias. Racial bias is often an unconscious bias related to our own upbringing and experiences. If we don’t recognize the racial bias we hold ourselves, whether it be implicit or explicit, we may—even unintentionally—pass the same bias onto our children. Thus, it is important to use skills of cultural competency, empathy and understanding when teaching kids about racial bias. As an adult—parent, caregiver or provider—we need to learn, understand and value diversity to be a role model for children.
  • “The children are listening and watching” is a familiar phrase, and they must be sensing the current tension. How do you explain to a child what racial bias is? Children can see and feel the emotions of other family members, especially parents. They can also sense a lot of tension from the news, and information on the internet and the media. It is important to talk with children about their emotions and understanding of racial bias. Children can understand racial differences from a very young age, as early as 2 to 4 years old. It is important to have them understand what is going on in the world, and the history and realities behind racial bias, rather than letting their thoughts and emotions go unaddressed. This helps them deal with their emotions in a better way, as avoiding conversations about race can cause feelings of uncertainty in children. This is also not a one-time conversation, and these topics should be brought up frequently so children can best understand what racial bias is.
  • How is the conversation different for White children versus Black or brown children? We can talk to our children about racial bias in many ways. With younger children, we can tell stories and read books related to the topic, such as stories about diverse children and positive role models of different races. With older children, we can have conversations to discuss their views and thoughts about what is going on in the world. For White children, it is important to educate them about different races and communities. Introducing these ideas from a very young age helps to open their minds to the world and the society we live in. Having friends and role models of different races also helps them understand the value of diversity. It helps them learn to be inclusive of others without hesitation and value differences among individuals and communities. For children of color, helping them with their self-esteem and self-confidence is the key. Talking to them about positive characteristics of themselves as well as the importance of diversity can help them understand there is value in differences. Showing them role models or representation in media or in real life can show them they, and those who look like them, have inherent value. For all children, it is extremely important to teach them equality is a value that should be upheld. In order for children to understand this message, teaching them that treating others differently based on their race is unfair will go a long way.
  • How are these events affecting children’s mental health, especially children of color? Children are affected tremendously by what is going on in the news. They may be internalizing feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety, or externalizing thoughts and feelings of aggression. Not only this, children and adolescents can also be affected by having difficulties in day-to-day functioning and a decline in school performance. It is very important to recognize and validate these feelings by talking to your children about the topic of racial bias. Seeing racial violence can be very traumatic for children, especially for children of color, as they are seeing someone harmed simply for looking like them. This can create a lot of fear and stress for children, which may sometimes lead to nightmares.
  • How can a child respond to friends who say racially biased things? Is it like standing up to school bullies, speaking up if someone is being picked on? Teaching children and adolescents about equality helps them understand that racially biased statements should not be tolerated and that it is important to stand up for themselves and for others. If children are bullied related to their race, they need to report it to adults at home and at school. If children see others being targeted by racial bias, they should not remain silent, and they should speak out against this. It is everyone’s responsibility to work together to dismantle racial bias.