Building Your Anti-Racist Family
Talking to our kids about race takes intention and practice, and can feel uncomfortable, especially when we don't know where to start. For white parents especially, it can be easy to miss how much of the media we share with our children perpetuates whiteness as the dominant culture in our society. These two educators have a lot of experience talking about race with kids in classrooms. Now, as parents, they are practicing this at home. We found this conversation incredibly powerful, and we are proud to share it with you.
Tracy: Hi! My name is Tracy Pimentel. I'm a kindergarten teacher in Boston and mama to two beautiful boys.
Johnny: Hi! I’m Johnny Blazes. I’m a white, non-binary parent of a white 14-month-old child, living in Somerville, MA. I’m also an educator who works with elementary school kids on social and emotional learning.
I recently started a conversation on Facebook with fellow parents of babies and toddlers to crowdsource ideas on how to start the work of creating anti-racist families even before our children can talk. When Magic Beans asked me to turn the post into a blog post, I turned to my colleague Tracy, from whom I learned a lot of what I know about talking to young children about race! Together we put together this list of resources and ideas.
Tracy: Because our family is multi-racial, (Dominican, Ecuadorian, and Chinese), conversations around skin color and racism occur regularly, even from a young age. Through the years, I’ve learned a lot from my oldest son (he’s almost 5), and from my students (ages 4.5-6 years). One thing I’ve continuously observed year after year is that topics involving skin color and stereotypes come up in the classroom and at home naturally. Sometimes in the form of a question: “Why am I darker than you, Mommy?”, and sometimes through observations of those around him: “That lady has REALLY dark skin.” While you might think, “Oh! NOW that my child has brought up skin color, it’s finally the perfect time to talk about why people come in different shades.” However, you can (and should!) start much younger. Studies have shown that infants recognize differences in skin color as young as 6 months old! Below is a list of resources and specific conversation starters as a beginning place for you and your little ones as you embark on this crucial journey of talking about race and racism…
- Notice and celebrate out loud the differences between various people’s appearance. Just like you would compare a red, soft ball with a hard, blue ball, you can easily do the same with differences in appearance. This could be with the use of board books featuring people/babies of varying skin shades, or pointing out the beautiful shades of brown you notice in your neighborhood, or circle of friends. Make sure you’re not only pointing out the skin and hair color of people who look different from you or your child. White folks especially: we/you are used to whiteness being the default, and therefore invisible. To make whiteness visible we also have to talk about it.
Johnny: I will tell you -- this one is challenging for me as a person who came up in the "we don't see color" "rainbow tribe" generation, and as a middle-class white person taught that it was "impolite" to talk about race. When I say to my child, "look at your friend's beautiful brown skin in this picture" I feel great about the statement itself, and then I also feel mortified imagining the person hearing me. Am I objectifying them? Am I reducing them to their skin color? Am I being *gasp* indecorous, the worst thing a WASP can be?
Tracy: I’ll never forget the day I overheard a white 18-month-old at the child care center where I was working comment, “man dirty, dirty man,” while pointing to a photo of President Obama. The infant room teachers had posted the photo of our great past president up on the wall hoping to create a diverse, anti-bias environment, I’m sure. Kids are noticing differences all the time, and we can help them shape their associations with those differences -- brown is beautiful, not dirty.
- Notice all the things that make people special that don't have to do with what they look like. This person rides a bike a lot. This person speaks 4 languages. This person cooks delicious food. This person loves drawing with chalk. Those things might be similar or different than us, and they're all part of what makes people themselves -- along *with* what they look like, and where they come from.
- Notice and engage with cultures different from your own, when invited to. Are there cultural events that are open to community members and allies that you could bring your child to? Parades, festivals, storytimes, block parties, dances. If you don’t live in a diverse neighborhood, seek out places where you are welcome to come learn about other people’s cultures -- outside of a museum! (Some museums have really great programming which you should totally participate in, just make sure that if you’re white, you’re not implicitly teaching your kids that non-white cultures can only be experienced through the lens of white academia. Seek out non-traditional museums and POC-led museums, and push your traditional/white-led institutions to do better. For example The National Black Doll Museum is right here in Massachusetts!)
- Eat foods from many different cultures, and feed them to your baby! Most importantly: stress that no foods are “gross” or “yucky” or “weird”. No one has to like every food, of course! But there’s no such thing as “weird food”, just food you haven’t tried yet, or food that doesn’t appeal to you personally.
Johnny: We do takeout from restaurants and our own cooking at home, though we don’t try to present our own cuisine as “authentic” in any way that it’s not, just “Dad made a curry tonight”. We also studiously avoid calling any foods “ethnic” or “exotic.” All food is part of culture, which means it’s all “ethnic”! And “exotic” is a word that positions white culture as “normal” and everyone else as “other”.
Tracy: As a student in the METCO program bussed to a nearly all-white school, my lunch was made fun of every day at school. My mom is an immigrant from Malaysia and was unaware of the social pitfalls in revealing the wrong lunch contents in the cafeteria. My once scrumptious dumplings were “the smelliest foods in the whole wide world.” My fish with egg scallion pancakes were “stinky, gross, and no one would ever eat that.” Now, when I hear those same comments during lunch in my classroom, I simply respond with, “I’m sure that’s a new smell for you. Have you ever tried it?” Or “I’m not a fan of certain types of fish, but [child’s name] seems to love it! We all have different palettes for various foods.” And at home when my own son Ezra tries something unfamiliar, we just call it “something new,” rather than telling him he’s having Thai or Mexican or Indian. He will say, “new chicken sauce with cumin and turmeric,” or “that curry is spicy.”
Johnny: As a white person, I often feel worried about cultural appropriation, and food is such a big part of culture. Like, I want to give credit where credit is due! But, Tracy, it sounds like you’re saying that we need to make sure kids don't get *reduced* to their ethnic background. Like, "X child likes dumplings because she's Chinese-American" versus, "X child has a palette that really appreciates dumplings. Her mom has a great recipe that she learned from her family. Eating dumplings is part of her family culture. Is eating dumplings part of your family's traditions?"
Tracy: Yes! Exactly! I tell Ezra, “This curry was created by the people of India, but not all of the people who live there eat this curry, or even like it.” I think there’s a difference between saying, “Let’s have Pad Thai tonight” and noticing with your child what the dish tastes like, as opposed to making a statement like, “Thai food is so peanutty and has so much sugar in it!” -- which positions Thai food as being different from “normal” food.
Read your child books that center characters of color, and books that feature or are rooted in many different cultures. There are many wonderful board books that are great for your infant or toddler to get used to seeing people of color as protagonists of their own stories.
Tracy: Take your time when showing your baby each page. Point out facial features and clothing in positive ways. “Look at this boy’s dark brown eyes and pink lips. His hair is very curly, and yours is straight.”
Board books that center kids of color and non-white cultural traditions (There are MANY! This is a short list to get you started):
Books for ages 3-8
And if you want books for older toddlers and kids that center characters of color, check out:
- Read your child books that talk about activism and actively building radical community as part of life. Make “protest” “action” and “march” words that your child hears spoken directly to them, instead of just in their vicinity. Even if you choose not to bring your child to a protest yet, they can see drawings, hear the words, and learn about collective action in age-appropriate ways. Here are a few to get you started:
And for older children:
- Provide your child with dolls of different races. To paraphrase one white parent who responded to the original thread: it’s important to teach our children to nurture and care for people who look different than them. And two different educators who chimed in on the thread pointed out that social-emotional learning for young children happens through play -- what a perfect way to teach both about differences in appearance and about empathy and love! For children of color, it absolutely goes without saying that they deserve to see representations of themselves in their play, just as in their books. Manhattan Toy, Olli Ella, and Meri Meri all offer dolls in many shades.
- Rethink “punishment” when maintaining boundaries with your child. We know this is a sticky one, and maybe seems like it’s in a different lane than the one we started in. However, helping our children understand that our criminal justice system is racist at its core starts with examining our own beliefs about justice and how “punishment” fits into that. Holding your children accountable for their actions, and asking them to participate in setting things right when they’ve hurt others is foundational for shifting our larger culture around putting people in cages when they “do wrong”. There are many different blogs, groups, and books you can read about respectful parenting, so we won’t go into that here, but please take time to think about how accountability and restorative practices can start young!
Conversations with children are the beginning of change. It is the beginning of understanding one another, of finding a common ground and noticing the beauty that lies within all of us, no matter the color of our skin. The conversations that feel the most uncomfortable to have, are almost always the conversations you should be having.
But conversation alone is not enough! Children learn about race as a result of their own individual experiences; and they are learning in every moment. Their lived experience and interactions with peers, teachers, coaches, neighbors, siblings, family, and strangers matter greatly. The choices parents make about how to set up children’s lives influence their ideas about race and racism. Whether you’re white or a person of color, everyday behaviors matter: when you lock the car doors, how you react to news headlines, the topics of conversation at dinner, whom you invite to get-togethers (and whom you don’t), whether and how you respond to children’s questions about race, who your adult friends are, what literature and media you keep in the home, how you overtly respond to Grandpa’s racist remarks at dinner, and where you spend leisure time. Parents may not even be aware they’re conveying these ideas about race through these behaviors, but children learn from them implicitly all the time.
As adults, many of us are undergoing a long process of “unlearning” the biases and internalized racism that our world has steeped us in our whole lives. As you do that work for yourself, notice how your infant or toddler can be a way-shower for you. You have the opportunity to help them unlearn bias before they even learn it! And together, we can build a generation of world-changers dedicated to taking apart the systems that keep racism alive.
Want more resources? Follow these Black educators on Instagram:
Special thanks to parents, educators, and allies: Adam, Adara, Ann, Anna, Cami, Cindy, Darcie, Greg, Jack, Kat, Kathryn, Katie, Kelsey, Lisa, Meredith, Natasha, Owen, Renée, Sara, Shelby, Su, and Taylor for their wonderful book suggestions and insight into how they’re raising their babies, how they were raised, and how we can move forward together! Special credit and gratitude to Atara for her insight about the connection between punishment and dismantling racism.