Why Kids of All Races Need to Know How to Talk About Race and Racism

July 7, 2020

Dr. Sandra Chapman, educator and founder of Chap Equity, on teaching kids how to talk about race and racism, feel the pain and anger they cause and take action.

"Something bad happened in our town. The news was on the TV, the radio and the Internet. The grownups didn't think the kids knew about it, but the kids in Miss Garcia's class heard some older kids talking about it and they had questions."

This is the beginning of the storybook, Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story about Racial Injustice. Authors Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard wrote the book to encourage parent-child conversations about race. But it could just as well be the musings of any Black child or child of color growing up amidst and witnessing racialized violence.

According to Dr. Sandra “Chap” Chapman, educator and founder of Chap Equity, these events are anchored in our nation's history of racism. And their impact on children can be all-encompassing.

UNICEF champions the rights of every child around the world to live up to their fullest potential. But centuries of racism Chapman calls “unhealed and unaddressed” threaten those very rights for Black children and children of color here in the U.S. “We have seen a change in many communities,” says Chapman. “But we are not done with the system of oppression that is personal, interpersonal, institutional and systemic.”

Here, Chapman talks about how children are coping with the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. She also offers advice on how parents of color can empower their children, teach them to identify and resist racism and help make friendships and build communities that support them and their identities.

We have seen a change in many communities. But we are not done with the system of oppression that is personal, interpersonal, institutional and systemic.

What do we know about racism’s impact on Black people and people of color?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: Researchers, activists, educators and psychologists have been writing for a long time about the toll of racism. Dr. Derald Wing Sue has done a tremendous amount of work on the cumulative effect of microaggressions on mental health. Dr. Claude Steele talks about how hypervigilant children of color can be anticipating stereotype threats in school and especially testing situations. The Perception Institute has researched and reported on what racial anxiety does to people’s mindsets — they can experience heart palpitations, their eyes glaze over, they start to sweat. For centuries race has taken a toll on the well-being of people of color, on our health, academic success, our ability to acquire land and our job opportunities.

Parents must be mindful that through social media, stories shared in peer groups or conversations overheard at home, children and youth can relive violence and the trauma of that violence without adult supervision.

As a diversity practitioner, mother and active member of your community, how do you think Black children and children of color are coping with the individual and mass traumas created by COVID-19 and the emotional reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: Parents must be mindful that through social media, stories shared in peer groups or adults' conversations overheard at home, children and youth can relive the violence and the trauma of that violence without adult supervision. Seeing the killing of another human being on TV or parents’ social media feeds retraumatizes children and doesn’t allow them to heal from the things that they are already scared about. So it’s essential to be mindful of what children are taking in and give them extra hugs, attention and reassurance. 

What are children’s most significant concerns?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: COVID-19 and all the racial trauma and tension have them concerned about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Those whose parents have been essential workers through the pandemic are preoccupied with where the adults in their lives are. Very young children may wonder, Why are they leaving the house? Will they come back? Because of the protests and heightened police presence in some communities, especially communities of color, children may now be more sensitive to the sounds in their neighborhoods — sirens, helicopters, fireworks and protest chants.

Parents want to be mindful of the visceral experiences children are having and make sure that they don’t have to worry about such things as Who will take care of me? Who will keep me safe? Let them know it’s our job as parents and the adults who love them to keep them as safe as we can.

How are the Black children and Latinx kids you know and work with handling things?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: Specific to Black children, there is an added concern about their safety in relation to their race. Within my circles, I’ve observed that Latinx youth and parents are having more conversations about anti-Blackness within the Latinx community. That is very reassuring because there is often a tendency to think about the Latinx community's experiences as separate from what’s happening in the Black community. If we as Latinx, as Asians, we who are nonblack but are also people of color do not connect our successes, challenges and roadblocks to what’s happening in the Black community, we will continue to have very siloed conversations. We won’t be able to build the larger, stronger coalitions we need to combat the racism that’s happening to Black people and all people of color. That united front is crucial.

As I raise my three brown, multiracial children, I am talking a lot about... the accomplishments of our collective people [and] about how racism and colorism are embedded in our country, so that if they face it themselves or witness it impacting others, they are prepared.

Do you think the children and youth today have a better shot at forming this united front than their parents have had? 

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: It depends on the racial socialization happening in the home. We know from research that children of color are racially socialized at a much younger age than their white peers. That racial socialization is a combination of two things: racial or cultural pride and an awareness of racism.

As I raise my three brown, multiracial children, I am talking a lot about our African and our Latino ancestors. For my son who is part-white, part-Latino, we talk about his white European ancestors. But in addition to talking about the accomplishments of our collective people, we also talk about how racism and colorism are embedded in our country, so that if they face it themselves or witness it impacting others, they are prepared.

Children — be they Latinx or Asian — who are growing up in homes where that awareness and celebration of diversity is piqued, can learn to speak up on behalf of the Black community because they see the relationship between race and racism in their own lives with what is happening to others. White parents have a role to play, too, by helping their children see the connections between becoming anti-racist and speaking up against racism. White children who are not raised with racial awareness and racial literacy, do not have the background knowledge to understand racism or to engage in the same conversation their Black, Indigenous peers of color are having.

Racial socialization is what makes coalition-building against injustice possible. Like the uprising we saw when Latino immigrants were being separated from their children. The Black, Asian, Multiracial, Indigenous and white communities — people of all races — spoke up.

We need to couple [contextualizing racism] as part of our country’s history with stories of resilience, cultural pride and change-makers so that we don’t fall into the deficit model of thinking of Black people as only people who experience racial violence. 

Parents have a lot on their plates, and during these months of lockdown, it has been impossible at times to hide their feelings. Sometime it can be hard to be reassuring.

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: We must share with our children that we, too, are worried. We are concerned about what’s happening in the world, and we have questions about the things we see. Adults need to connect with other adults to process all that is on our plates. But our job is also to be there for our children.  

What kinds of conversations can parents, teachers and loving adults have with children right now?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: I think there are two important things: One is to make sure we are contextualizing current racial experiences and racism as part of our country’s history with racial violence and trauma. But we also need to couple that with stories of resilience, cultural pride, and change-makers so that we don’t fall into the deficit model of thinking of Black people as only people who experience racial violence. Children need to see themselves as resilient and strong and part of a broader history that is not just about trauma and violence.

How early should parents begin talking about race and racism?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: A lot of the work done around the development of difference can be translated into age-appropriate teachable moments and building blocks.

For example, we know that infants can take in the sights, sounds and smells of their culture. So building strong relationships with diverse adults helps them become more resilient around cultural differences and able to put their trust in adults of all backgrounds. This takes time as infants feel the safest with their familiar adults.

Louise Derman-Sparks, the author of several books about anti-bias teaching in preschool, talks about young children as being in a pre-prejudicial stage. They are taking in a lot of information about the world and what we say. About who has advantages and who doesn’t. About who is important and who isn’t. They haven’t formulated their opinions yet, so the preschool years are an excellent time for us as educators, parents and adults who love children to engage in anti-bias practices to help them develop positive evaluations around their observations of people’s differences. 

The preschool years are an excellent time for us as educators, parents and adults who love children to engage in anti-bias practices to help them develop positive evaluations around their observations of people’s differences. 

Toddlers want to name and question everything as they try to make meaning of their life and how the world operates. So give them actual concrete language for the way that the world works. Intentionally build and strengthen their racial, gender and emotional literacy. Read books with racial literacy as a foundation. Use words like dark brown skin, red-haired person and person in a wheelchair so they can accurately describe people’s differences and break down the cultural silence that makes it taboo to talk about and name what they see.

Three-to-five-year-olds want to know more about their complex and growing understanding of identities. In addition to developing their identity, they are also developing a sense of group identity. So telling stories about ancestors and change-makers in their families and their racial-ethnic-cultural groups helps them develop collective pride.

So, if parents haven't started talking about race before kids enter primary school, is it too late to start?  

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: By the time children reach the ages of 6 to 9, they have a grounding sense of gender, race, skin color and other social identities. Kids this age can tease each other as they try to figure out who their friends are, who they identify with and who they are. They have a growing awareness of discrimination and stereotypes towards their own group and how other people are treated based on their skin color, race, ability, language, religion, gender and class.

Between ages 6 and 9, children exhibit a deepening moral development and a sense of fairness. So, now is a great time to help them learn more about social movements as they are ready to take action when they see or experience injustice.

The more specific we are in our descriptions of people, the easier it is for children to relate to a group of people based on how they want to be identified. 

How have you talked about race in your household?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: When our children were growing up, we didn’t want to impose upon them the gender they were assigned at birth. So in our conversations about gender differences, we refer to people as boys, girls, neither or both to give our children the ability to talk about people’s fluid gender identities. The same is true with race talks. The more specific we are in our descriptions of people, the easier it is for children to relate to a group of people based on how they want to be identified. When we use more precise language, we also help children learn how to ask questions instead of assuming and ascribing identity — and to flex their identity literacy skills and engage in more complex discussions.

How do you see current events affecting kids’ interracial friendships?

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: One of the conversations happening in the predominantly white school where I used to work, and in so many schools and families across the country, is about whether and how white peers will respond to this current iteration of racism and racial violence. Will this create the change that people of color and anti-racist white people have been needing and wanting for a long time? If this current movement does not motivate white families raising white children to think deeply about what is embedded and missing in their parenting practices, we will not see the kind of authentic relationships across racial differences that kids are striving for and deserve.

Teaching race awareness and building empathy and emotional literacy will equip children to see race and racism, feel the pain, anger and anguish it's causing them and others and then learn to take age-appropriate action.

There's a lot of talk about how important it is to back up your words with action. What are some concrete steps parents can take to help their children? 

DR. SANDRA CHAPMAN: Teaching race awareness and building empathy and emotional literacy will equip children to see race and racism, feel the pain, anger and anguish it's causing them and others and then learn to take age-appropriate action.

We can help build a child’s empathy for another person’s experience through the everyday conversations all families with children have. For example, when children have disagreements, saying something to your child like, ‘You were rough with your sibling’s toy and it broke, can you see how frustrated they are? Let’s check in with your sibling, see what they need or offer to fix the toy,’ is an opportunity to practice empathy.

Talking to children openly about racial disparities in all walks of life is also essential. Engaging children in discussions that help them understand what’s happening today is as important for a 5-year-old as it is for a 15-year-old. If you have not had cumulative conversations about race and racism and identity differences, what’s happening today could be really shocking and scary to a child. But if you have had those conversations in age-appropriate ways, then they can put all this in context, tying together what they know about race, what they understand about racial differences and how this makes them feel.

Engaging children in discussions that help them understand what’s happening today is as important for a 5-year-old as it is for a 15-year-old. If you have not had cumulative conversations about race and racism and identity differences, what’s happening today could be really shocking and scary to a child. 

My 6-year-old stepdaughter saw her mom crying after her mom watched a video on social media about the racial violence Black people have experienced, and she asked, ‘Are you okay?' My wife said, ‘No, I’m not okay, but I will be. How about I hug you and you hug me?’ Later, when she was not as upset, my wife sat our daughter down and said, ‘I saw something that made me sad. Black people are not being treated well and that has made me and lots of people around the world really angry.’

We have intentionally helped our 6-year-old, who proudly self-identifies as Black, Filipina and Latinx, build racial literacy over the past four years. More recently, she has heard about police brutality and racism and is comfortable talking about racial issues. So she was able to say, ‘That’s not fair. That’s just not okay,’ and she gave her mom another hug. 

Chap Equity offers an extensive collection of resources for parents and families — including Louise Derman-Sparks’ writings on anti-bias education for children and ourselves. Also available: information on social justice and inclusion, Latinx resources, works written by anti-racist white people about whiteness, a compilation of articles on racial microaggressions and much more.

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Sandra (Chap) Chapman, Ed. D. is a cisgender, afrolatina native New Yorker, who was born and raised in El Barrio, or Spanish Harlem, in New York City. Dr. Chap is the founder of Chap Equity, an organization rooted in the belief that, through teamwork, we can learn more about ourselves and others; discuss and discover the foundational research needed to address the needs in a community; create conversations that support individuals where they are and confront barrier issues; and create actionable steps towards building stronger educational communities. Chap and her wife, Imani, are proudly raising three children ages 20, 15, and 6, with their two cats, Milo and Samuel. 

Top photo: Photographer Keith Mayhew (SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) took this photo in Bedford, U.K., where hundreds of adults and kids demonstrated to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement as part of the worldwide wave of protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.