How to help children understand racism


15 Jun
15Jun


Heart to Heart serves families of a variety of races and ethnicities. One of our goals when working with families is to promote the healing of all trauma. Racial discrimination perpetuates trauma that is rooted in minorities’ core identities. Racism is prevalent beyond just person to person. It is systemic – ingrained in the foundation of our society; for some hidden, for others in plain sight. In order to remove the stronghold that racism has in our community, we need to have education, discussions, and action.  This includes having conversations with our children about many facets of racial discrimination.

I will start by saying I am not an expert in the area of racial discrimination. I am White; which by default gives me a specific lens that I see the world through and my experiences reflect that.  I am currently learning how to navigate the racial disparities that have been magnified in the wake of George Floyd’s death in MN.

While I was researching and reading articles pertaining to how to best discuss racial discrimination in conversations with children, it was clear that Whites and Blacks currently often have very different types of conversations.  Multiple articles emphasized that many good intentioned White parents that did not want to raise their children to be racist, avoided talking about racism unless the child brought the topic up.  Whites also often emphasized trying to be colorblind and to see everyone as the same.  White children were typically taught police are safe and go to them for help.  In school, White children learned primarily White history and that racism ended for the majority with Martin Luther King Jr.  Contrastingly, Blacks had regular and frequent conversations with their children about racism because they were actively living it.  Blacks had to talk about the privileges Whites had and the racial profiling that happens for non-Whites for safety reasons. Black children were typically taught police will target you based on your skin color so take specific steps to reduce your encounters with them.  Black children knew from their own experiences that racism was not over. 

Depending on the experiences and race(s) of your family, your conversations about racial discrimination will look different. The important thing is to talk to your kids. Some conversations will include details about the realities of the injustice people of minorities have and will experience. Discussions may also include examining the privileges Whites have and the importance of using influence to promote equality.  There is a Chinese proverb that states “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”  Here are a few steps that you can take to propel your family towards helping to reduce and remove racial discrimination.  


Step One: Prepare yourself. 

- Examine your own knowledge about race.  Identify how your race and past experiences have thus shaped your life and the life of your child. 

- Practice self-care to help increase and maintain your emotional stability.

- Lead by example.  Your children will inevitably reflect what they see you do and hear you say.  Children learn how to respond to the world and to others by first observing.  As a parent, your child is greatly influenced by how you engage with others in regard to race and discrimination.   

- Think about the kinds of conversations you would like to have with your children about racial discrimination in general as well as pertaining to specific recent events.  Some people avoid conversations because they are “too hard”, “emotional”, or “inconvenient.”  Mentally preparing ahead of time can be helpful for many parents.


Step Two:  Start conversations with your children about race.

- Discuss with your children racial differences.  Children feel, see, hear, and experience the world in raw yet malleable ways.  Even if your child does not know the word racism, studies have shown that children as young as three months old can recognize differences in skin color and show skin preferences.  This does not mean the child is racist.  Rather it demonstrates that even if we were to never talk about racial differences, children can recognize differences.  As children grow, they continue to draw conclusions about the world based on what they experience.   They see and hear what happens to other people.  Children naturally draw conclusions of identifying people as similar or different to themselves.  They determine who and what is safe or not safe based on the information they gather themselves as well as the information that adults actively present to them.   

- Invite your child to ask you questions and to discuss what they have personally experienced.  Demonstrate the importance of actively listening to others’ experiences as you learn how your children may be feeling about current events and race. 


Step Three:  Actively keep the conversations going. 

- Continue to educate yourself and your family.  Right now, there is a flood of content being released on the internet that includes resources for learning more about systemic racism and Black (and other minorities) experiences through reading, watching movies, and talking with others.  (Here is a link to a child friendly video example of systemic racism: https://youtu.be/YrHIQIO_bdQ)

- Actively promote racial healing.  Explore actions your family can take to help others. 

- Consider the everyday racial messages your family receives.  For example, do the picture books your children look at and read reflect diversity in the pictures and characters?  Are the movies and television shows your family watches depicting racial prejudices or promoting positive multicultural identities?

- Encourage healthy discussions about race. 

- Emphasize the importance of speaking out against racism. 


Step Four:  Seek help when needed.

- You are not meant to have all the answers.  If your child asks a question you don’t have an answer to, it is ok to ask someone more knowledgeable on the topic.  Additionally, explore opportunities to expand your family’s knowledge about race. 

- Consider reaching out to a counselor to assist in healing your own racial trauma and/or the trauma of those you care about.  As I mentioned previously, trauma is at the root of racial discrimination.  As a result, you, your child, a friend, or family member may have trauma connected to racism.  It is possible that conversations with your children will reveal or magnify trauma in your own family.  Additionally, events witnessed in person or in the news can have lasting traumatic impacts on people.

The Heart to Heart family is here to walk with you and support you on your healing journey.  Please continue to let us know how we can promote healing in your family.    


~Tasha Lehner MA


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