Using Books to Talk About Race With Children

When reading books, some depict positive racial representations. There are also books and other media that contain content and images which are utterly disrespectful of diversity and race. How can we sift through them all with an anti-racist lens? This question applies to parents and other adults reading to or with children and adults reading on their own.

When parents of children of color teach and instill a sense of cultural and self-pride, they are sharing important life lessons. Parents understand that their black or brown child’s life and life experiences will be impacted and influenced by their race. It is vital that certain lessons be taught to children in order that they may cope and still thrive in a racially charged society. Until systems, policies and perspectives reflect anti-racist frameworks, it falls upon families to prepare and arm their children with the necessary tools to navigate the world.

For white parents, these lessons are generally unnecessary. The default in society is to support and affirm ‘whiteness’. So, for parents who wish to raise anti-racist children, there are a number of tasks to complete and strategies to employ. There is no real expectation that social practices will cease supporting and validating their children’s existence through the privileges they are afforded at the expense of all others. There’s only hope and good works; ‘good trouble’.  Parents therefore have to create an awareness of the rights and worth of others as they seek to raise anti-racist children.

How does a white parent raise anti-racist children?

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To begin to support anti-racist practices and ideologies, parents must broaden their own worldview and cultural lens. Instrumental in doing so is via wider, more diverse social circles. Personal experience will have much more impact on growth than strictly professional relationships. Being able to say that you work with black[or Latinx] people is surface level awareness only.Besides, most employers are mandated to have ‘diverse’ representations among their workforce. Authenticity begins with familiarity.

Parents and all ‘woke’ or ‘wannabe’ enlightened folk, will demonstrate and model their own sincerity. In a highly segregated society, daily encounters with black and brown people, at a personal level, is challenging. However, there is no absence of media options, particularly books, magazines, museums and articles. In fact, there are many picture books from which conversations about race can emerge.

Obviously, the very first step in anti-racist teaching, is to engage in conversation. You’ve got to talk about life, race, diversity and reality. Discussions can center around differences and similarities, while framed in respect and equity. Initiating conversations ‘off the cuff’ can pose a challenge at times.

Where do I start? How do I start?

Start with a book, a movie, a news story. Biographical and autobiographical selections are ideal. The most natural way to begin a conversation on race is in the content found in books-the written word. A bonus is if the books contain images and pictures.  There is usually a lot to talk about from a single picture or photo. “A picture is worth a thousand words”. So true.

Diversify your bookshelf. Add books written by, for, about and with diverse groups as audience and actors.  There are expert resources to draw from in finding diverse books. Conduct a diversity audit of your private book collections at home and the same goes for educators at PreK-12 schools. How many books written by and about people of color do you have? If there are none, you know what to do.

Another thing to do, when discussing race and diversity, after you have included diversity in your library, is to recognize differences; the difference between reading to children and reading with children. When reading to children, we make them our audience, spectators. When reading with them, we take a journey with them and discuss where we’re going together, which also informs children that their ideas[ABOUT PEOPLE, PLACES, ACTIONS, ETC…] are valuable. It also invites us to broaden their perspectives, helping them to possibly see things differently than on surface.

Ask open-ended questions, rather than simple ‘yes/no’ questions. This type of inquiry encourages children to expound on responses and fully develop their ideas. Talk about the visual depictions of characters through pictures shown on the pages. Look to find meaning and messages in the art. This encourages art and design thinking—visual thinking strategies and skills. Sometimes, there are profound revelations in the art. Explore ‘hidden’ meanings.

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Intentionally integrate discussions about racial representations into shared reading. Use these thoughts as guidelines:

  • It is okay to point out racial differences in picture books. Things like, “How would you describe this skin color? Yours? Mine?”
  • Share your feelings about race and racism when reading books together. Statements like, “It makes me sad that certain laws allowed one group to be treated differently than another.”
  • Respect children’s curiosity about sensitive issues by responding to the difficult questions. Sometimes a child’s observations may be embarrassing, but respond to them, as well. Regarding the hard questions children may ask, don’t hesitate to say to them , “I don’t know.” You may choose to follow up by asking for their input, and resolve to find the answers together. Remember that not every question can be answered. Just be open to learn more.
  • Just as different is not always deficient, different is also not necessarily ‘weird’ either. Help your child embrace cultural and racial differences. If your child says, “That girl’s hair is weird!”, respond by pointing out that it is ‘different’ from hers. [WAVY, STRAIGHT, CURLY, ETC…]
  • When talking about stereotypes, use terms like “fair/not fair”. Discuss how inaccurate stereotypes usually are and remind children that everyone is different, not the same, even if they look similar or share similar backgrounds. Challenge stereotypes by posing questions that ask for proof of uniformity. Examine the notions of whether stereotyped portrayals of people are fair . Remind them of the danger of generalizing and reducing the multi-facets of others to one exaggerated and often fabricated trait.
  • Encourage news and media literacy. Remind children of the dangers of relying on media sources randomly. Increase their awareness that not every source of information is free from bias. Point out inconsistencies, and don’t be afraid to discuss current events with your child. Place current news in comparison and contrast with times past.

Help your child to become anti-racist by practicing what you preach. Be honest, authentic, and with consistency. Be what you say you are and then be even better. There is always room for growth for everyone. Take frequent visits into history, with the purpose to learn, listen and look for new and broadened perspectives. Study history as written and told and experienced by black and brown people.

If you must imagine yourself a child, an innocent child, seeing life from a child’s viewpoint. Explore life of adults as seen by a child, your child. Talk about that which you learn and uncover with your own child. Imagine yourself living in someone else’s shoes. I promise you that the journey of empathy and compassion will transform your world. It is at that point that you can then work on being an ally and take anti-racism to the next logical level-no longer a spectator only. Go from being a bystander in silence to being an ‘upstander’ with a strong voice! After all, children tend to learn better by doing….show your child what that looks like. You’re now on your way to enlightenment!

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