By Leilani Raglin
Teaching our children about race and cultural differences is important work. What is the best way to talk to our kids about these topics without causing more harm than good?
I have a multiracial family. I am a mixed race Asian woman, my partner is a white man, and our toddler son is mixed race Asian and white. My dad is an immigrant and moved to the USA in his twenties, both of my parents went to college in the Philippines, and I was born in Hawaii. My partner was born and raised in Yakima, WA. We have a lot of things in common, but our race and ethnicity are not one of them, which adds immensely to the richness of our family and our experiences.
I have been researching the topic of race and cultural differences and sharing it in my work for 8+ years. The initial motivation to explore this topic as it pertains to children was the desire for my son to be equipped with knowledge, confidence, and compassion once he began engaging with others, especially since there is a strong likelihood that he will, at some point, be in spaces as the only person of color. I want him to have the tools to feel empowered to talk about race and ethnicity when he chooses and to be able to convey his thoughts, feelings, and experiences effectively.
Regardless of how you identify racially and ethnically, talking about race and cultural differences with children can be challenging work. It may also be some of the most important work you can do with your children.
Start early. You may be surprised to learn that children begin to develop biases towards people more like themselves over the first year of their life.
So, what can we do as conscientious parents to raise our children with an anti-racist lens?
Below are some of the strategies that have worked for me and that I have coached my clients through. I encourage you to try some of them out and see what makes sense for you and your family.
My first recommendation to anyone seeking to be a better steward of this work is to focus first on your own growth and awareness. A great first step for this is to explore your own racial identity. Take an Implicit Association Test (IAT), which can help identify your biases and blind spots and give you a starting point. Find someone in your network that would be willing to support your journey as you make discoveries about yourself. (Caveat: if you are in the dominant group, aim to rely less on people of color [POC’s] to be your ‘teachers’ or ‘mentors,’ which would require immense amounts of emotional labor on their part.). If you are able, work with a culturally competent therapist.
Once you’re ready to begin having conversations with your kids, make showing up authentically a priority. Here are some ways you can try:
- Share personal stories. I attended a multicultural communication workshop once, and as we shared in the circle, I did not want people to ‘label’ me as a minority. At the time, I didn’t know the immense shame that I had attached to being the ‘other’ in groups. Now, years later in my journey, I can acknowledge how difficult it was to begin my journey and see all of the painful ways that racism, which I had internalized, surfaced in my life. It’s a story I plan to share with my son early. Sharing our personal stories can help our kids link with their own feelings and experiences and promote greater connection, vulnerability, and authenticity.
- Let your feelings show. Be sure to talk about your feelings as they come up. For example: “Wow, I feel really sad and uncomfortable talking about this. I feel guilty. I feel angry. How do you feel?” Being able to talk about our feelings during these types of difficult conversations can promote emotionally intelligent behaviors in your child, which will support them in building self-awareness and making solid choices when engaging with others.
- Make mistakes and be accountable. Let me make one thing very clear: you will make mistakes in this work. I make mistakes. Other experts make mistakes. We are – and should be – constantly learning, growing, and evolving with this work, so mistakes are part of the journey. What’s important is that we stay courageous and curious, be willing to be wrong, and continue to make choices to engage. It’s equally important to own up to your mistakes when they do happen. You may offend someone, say the wrong thing, or phrase it the wrong way. Model being accountable to your mistakes in front of your kids. Apologize. Thank others profusely for pointing out missteps and supporting your growth.
- Rely on your community. Find people to talk about the difficulties of talking about race, your self-discoveries, and anything else that comes up for you during this journey. Again, if you are in the dominant group, rely less on POC’s to “teach” you or provide emotional support, unless you are hiring a POC coach, consultant, or therapist to support you.
Let Kids be Kids
Children learn and grow best when they are allowed and encouraged to be their authentic selves. Therefore, the next step in this work is to simply allow kids to be kids, even with this tough work.
- Don’t silence curiosity. Kids are curious beings. Rather than silencing children when they ask traditionally ‘taboo’ questions, lean into their curiosities and cultivate opportunities to talk openly together and clear up confusion. Talking about race and ethnicity is not impolite; rather, it is a necessary part of moving this work forward. The harm occurs when we pretend that we don’t see these differences and perpetuate ‘colorblindness’ within our family structure, essentially invalidating the experiences and perspectives of non-dominant groups. Also, leaning into your child’s curious nature empowers them to be thoughtful and questioning, which is something that our world needs.
- Be playful and have fun! It is hard to imagine being playful with such incredibly difficult discussions, but that is what is required for kids to internalize the work. Have conversations and make a game of it. Use art to help them make connections with their feelings and experiences. Explore forms of art, music, and dance from different cultures (respectfully, please). There are lots of ways to make this playful for kids without minimizing the importance of the work.
Seek Out Diverse Media and Spaces
Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote a fantastic book which describes the ‘smog’ that we breathe in every day. That ‘smog’ is anything that reinforces the dominant narrative and keeps us believing false notions (consciously or unconsciously) such as people in the dominant group automatically being the most capable, competent, kind, beautiful, intelligent, etc., in our society. As you can imagine, this ‘smog’ exists in almost every type of media we consume and in many spaces we enter with our children.
Therefore, the next step is to change the narrative and interrupt the ‘smog’ by being incredibly discerning about what we expose our children to.
- Support media centering POC’s. How many black and brown people are in your child’s favorite TV show? Favorite book? How are these characters depicted? Are they brilliant? Kind? Warm? Are they complex main characters or goofy sidekicks? Is the book written by a POC? Is the show produced/directed/written by a POC? You may be surprised to find that much of the popular media for kids today still don’t center POC’s in ways which would interrupt the dominant narrative, which is why it’s important for you to look at every TV show and every piece of literature closely.
- Expose your children to diverse spaces. A friend of mine (who presents as white) told me that she is very strict about the spaces she brings her child into. If a space they are entering is not visibly diverse, they leave. This one may be a bit tricky depending on where you live and how diverse your neighborhood is, but if you take the time to expose your children to diverse spaces, and cultivate authentic friendships with parents and families of color, your child will benefit from it in the long run.
This work is a never-ending journey. Even those of us doing this for a living must stop and acknowledge that we are constantly learning, evolving, and growing in our work to interrupt racism. Every day, I am rethinking how I engage with my family, my community, and the world to move this work forward.
If you haven’t already, I invite you to begin your journey today, remembering that you may (and likely will) make mistakes. Our world needs thoughtful parents to guide children through these difficult topics. Reject the ‘smog’ and breathe in fresh air. We need you!
Feel free to connect with me to share your thoughts and/or questions!
Looking for additional resources for learning and teaching for yourself and your children? Visit your local library or bookstore for these titles.
Adults books for learning and increasing awareness:
• “So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
• “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race” by Beverly Daniel Tatum
• “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi
• “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo
Children’s books for sparking conversations:
• “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña
• “All Are Welcome” by Alexandra Penfold
• “I am Rosa Parks” by Brad Meltzer
• “Counting on Community” by Innosanto Nagara
• “A Kid’s Book About Racism” by Jelani Memory
Instagram accounts to consider following:
• The Conscious Kid @theconsciouskid
• Books for Diversity @booksfordiversity
About the Author
Leilani Raglin is the Founder and CEO of Raglin Consulting. She is also the Director of the EmpowerWOC Project and a social justice advocate and activist with a robust background in business, leadership, organizational development, and diversity, equity, and inclusion(DEI). Leilani specializes in growing radically authentic, empowered, and equity-minded organizations, leaders, parents, and families, while creating intentional, positive change in the community.