The shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling last month only further ripped a wound in my heart that’s been there for some time. For me, it all started back in 2012, with the death of Trayvon Martin. Then Tamir Rice. And then, what happened to my own toddler son: The day he was called a “cute little thug” by an acquaintance, just a few months after our neighboring town of Ferguson was rocked by Michael Brown’s death.
As a white mom of black children, I can certainly understand why it’s hard to talk to kids about race. It’s uncomfortable, it’s intimidating, and it’s heartbreaking if you’re a person who possesses a fair amount of empathy. Many parents simply don’t have the vocabulary or the historical knowledge to even know where to begin. And so, instead of attempting to talk about things, some parents choose — even if subconsciously — to not address it.
I can still remember a day many years ago, when I went to pick up my eldest daughter from preschool. As I waited outside the school doors alongside the other parents, the students begin spilling out, one by one. It was then that I watched as a little boy ran straight into the arms of his mother and exclaim excitedly, “Mom! Mom! There are three brown kids in my class!” His mother shushed him, her eyes darting about to see if anyone noticed her son’s outburst, and then quickly ushered him to the parking lot.
I stood there, as the mother of one of those brown kids, and thought to myself, Why did the mother shush her son?
I’m here to tell you that despite your first instincts, silencing your child isn’t helpful. And not only that, but it’s harmful. Children have questions they need answered. Even if your children don’t watch, read, or hear the news because you’ve chosen to shield them for a little while longer, the issue of race is always around them. It’s buzzing on the playground and the school bus; it can be found in the name-calling and the teasing. It’s even right there in our children’s favorite television shows and bedtime books, which often place kids of color in supporting roles as the villain or the street-smart side-kick to the white protagonist.
What I’m trying to say is, your children are learning about race without you speaking a single word.
It’s simply not enough to tell your kids warm-fuzzy messages like “be kind” and “don’t judge a book by its cover.” These words are well-intentioned, but they are empty and fleeting.
Here are six ways you can teach your kids about the importance of diversity from an early age:
1. Have a diverse group of friends.
I’m not talking about your “one black friend” (aka the person you’ve never had over for dinner and haven’t texted in ages). If you want your children to embrace others who aren’t like them, you need to have a diverse group of friends yourself. This isn’t limited to racial diversity. It’s important for your child to see you befriend those who don’t share your religion, your sexual orientation, your socioeconomic status, or your age. The more diverse your group of friends, the more your children will likely make their own.
2. Purchase books and toys that support diversity.
Buy your child action figures and dolls that are Asian, Hispanic, and black. Purchase and read books about diversity, or where the protagonist is racially different from your child. Also, read books that talk about historical figures of color, because trust me that schools overwhelmingly focus on European-American history, only touching briefly on slavery and civil rights. Use your child’s interest to teach him or her about the individuals not covered in their school history books. If your daughter is interested in politics, teach her about Shirley Chisholm as well as Hillary Clinton. If your son enjoys things like construction and roadways, introduce him to Garrett Morgan; not just Thomas Edison.
3. Expose your child to diverse music, art, films, and TV shows.
Again, using your child’s interests as a springboard, create a playlist featuring historical and contemporary artists of color in a variety of music genres. Put up beautiful art in your home like painting reproductions or photography created by people of color. Turn on children’s films and television shows like Doc McStuffins that send a message to kids that a person of color can be in a leading role. One of my kids’ all-time favorite movies is the 1997 made for TV version of Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, in which Cinderella, the queen, one stepsister, and the fairy godmother are all played by black women, the prince is an Asian man, and another stepsister, the stepmother, and the king are played by white men.
4. Talk about current events.
Checking in with your kids about what’s going on in the world is always a good thing. Ask if they’ve heard anything at school about recent events, good or bad, and be open to discussing what they share. Right now, they very well might bring up politics, protesting, and policing, even if their knowledge about them is minimal. And while each one of those topics can be tricky to navigate, remember that you don’t have to have the perfect answers, the most educated or politically correct vocabulary, or even detailed explanations. Simply ask how they’re feeling about it, correct them if they present facts that you know are inaccurate, and be open to asking them questions. The point is to make race a comfortable and ongoing topic in your home, no matter what.
5. Go the extra mile (literally) to surround yourself with diverse groups.
Not every person works, lives, and plays in a racially diverse area. If this is the case for you, consider driving a few extra miles and minutes so that your child can attend a class or play on a sports team where there’s more diversity. Make a point to bring them to places like library story times or cultural festivals where there’s opportunities to learn right alongside people of diverse backgrounds. Not only will your child have opportunities to make new friends, but you will as well.
6. Don’t laugh at racist jokes or engage in banter that perpetuates stereotypes.
When your neighbor makes a joke about Asian kids being the smartest, Hispanics being illegal immigrants, or black people being criminals, be prepared to say something. You can keep it simple, but be direct. “Wow! That’s not a very nice thing to say!” or “Stereotyping people isn’t something I’m comfortable with.” Remember: Your children are listening and learning. It may feel strange and take courage for you to stand up to racism, but by doing so, you’re teaching your kids that every person has value and that stereotypes are harmful and inappropriate.
As a mom of children of color, I believe race and racial differences should be acknowledged and celebrated, never ignored or poked fun of. And I can say with certainty that “colorblindness” — something I hear many white parents proudly boast of believing in — doesn’t exist. Even babies literally see color. By talking to your children and teaching them by your own actions, you will demonstrate that being uncomfortable isn’t a reason to avoid a conversation.
As Dr. King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”