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  • Kristen Churchill

Discussing Race with Young Children: Thoughts from a Mom and a Youth Services Librarian

It’s uncomfortable to have uncomfortable conversations – there’s nothing secret or surprising about that simple truth. However, sometimes (more often than we may like to face) it’s important – even necessary – to make ourselves uncomfortable.

This past week has reminded many how their race provides either privileges or disadvantages. It has reminded me of this and how, as a white parent of 2 white sons, that I have a responsibility to already begin raising them in a way that leads us toward the chance for racial equality. It’s easy for me to avoid this responsibility by saying I feel like my toddler is too young for something so complex or beyond his years. However, as a Librarian, I certainly don’t feel that way about introducing him to his ABCs, even though he may be years from being able to read. I know that I can already begin to instill the foundations of reading and writing in him through such activities as sharing books, coloring together, and playing music. Truthfully, my procrastination in talking to him about issues like race is not because he is too young, it’s because I’m uncomfortable with and unsure about how to approach the topic.

During a keynote speech he gave on May 27, 2020 with Ibram X. Kendi during the School Library Journal’s Day of Dialogue program, Stamped co-author Jason Reynolds expressed how in order to beat racism it’s necessary to accept that racism exists and to live with it….that racism can only be attacked once people who are white see it and accept white privilege. This reminded me of my time as a writing teacher in a college EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) program when we’d have heated conversations about topics such as race and language. Classes sometimes met together for larger debates. I distinctly remember during one of these a student, who was white, compared the experiences of the Irish to those of African Americans in terms of discrimination. This did not go over well with her classmates because she couldn’t understand how her comparison was flawed or as Reynold’s puts it, accept her white privilege. It’s been quite some time since I taught in the EOF program; at that time it was one of the most emotionally challenging and rewarding positions I ever held. Then I became a mom…

When I was pregnant with my first child, I found out that I was having a boy not long after the 2017 Women’s March. I immediately remember asking myself “how am I going to raise my son to be a feminist, to be respectful of women…or more immediately, to not think trucks are for boys only and that dolls are only for girls.” I didn’t immediately also actively think about how to approach the subject of race and racial inequality with him. I just assumed as long as I taught him that all people deserve to be treated with respect, he would be “colorblind” – but it’s so much more complicated than that simplification. We live in a society based on labels and differences and this isn’t going to change, at least not anytime soon. The question then is what do we do with these labels as both parents and members of society?

In her essay “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” Audre Lorde begins by sharing how “as a forty-nine-year-old Black lesbian feminist socialist mother of two, including one boy, and a member of an inter-racial couple (she usually found herself) a part of some group defined as other deviant, inferior, or just plain wrong” (from Sister Outsider). She then further explains that “there are very real differences between us of race, age, and sex. But it is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences and to examine the distortions which result from our misnaming them and the effects upon human behavior and expectations” (from Sister Outsider). It’s important and necessary to not only acknowledge these differences but to allow ourselves to become uncomfortable because of them.

Right now my son, who is currently 2 ½, is in a superhero phase. His favorites at the moment are Spider-Man and Superman. He also likes Captain Marvel and Black Panther – but while I may reread him a Spider-Man book several times a day, he’ll want Captain Marvel and Black Panther once every few days or even just once a week. Is this because he is gravitating already toward characters who remind him of himself – I assume so. Is this a bad thing in my opinion? No, not at all. It’s natural to gravitate toward what is familiar and children like to see themselves mirrored in the people/characters they admire. However, I shouldn’t ignore the fact that the characters he doesn’t favor are different from him either.

How, though, do I begin to explain to him, to have a conversation about the characters who look different than him and what that even means? How do I begin to introduce him to how people of color are othered by many in society. How and when do I teach him that because he is a white male he will have it easier than others, but that this fact should neither make him feel guilty about who he is, nor should it make him disrespect those with a skin and/or gender different from his own? That while it may be nice to think that we are all equal, we are not yet because of the preconceived ideas of what it means to be white, Black, Hispanic, gay, straight, male, female, that society has embedded in all of us throughout our lives. And how these labels also often influence how many are treated. Change can’t and won’t happen by ignoring the reasons behind why change is needed in the first place.

As for my son…he is already starting to place labels on characters as “good” and “bad” which makes complete sense given the basics of superhero stories. Superman equals good; Lex Luthor equals bad. As adults, we know good vs. bad is so much more complex than a simple binary. How do I begin to approach the very beginnings of this with a toddler? I do so by not only listening to him label characters as “good” or “bad,” but by asking him questions when I read a book to him. I do the same when we are reading books that feature people of color.  I engage him as best I can, even if he doesn’t have a true understanding or vocabulary with which yet to share his thoughts. I share books featuring diverse characters with him. I talk to him and encourage him to talk to me whenever he is ready or has questions. I will keep looking for resources to help and guide me along the way.

The following are links to some resources that I have found helpful as I try to understand my role as a parent in terms of introducing the topic of race and racism to my son:

Here’s an example of how I recently approached  discussing race with my son while reading one of his favorite books, Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See by Bill Martin , Jr. This is far from a perfect example because, like all of us, I’m learning as I go.  My toddler loves Brown Bear, Brown Bear because he practically has the entire book memorized and can say it along with me as we read it. He also likes to make the animal noises.  I never, until recently, thought of it as a book to use for bringing up race to him.

Over the weekend, after reading it for probably the third time in a row, I paused when we got to the page that shows all the children. I asked him if he noticed that the children on the page have different skin colors.  He said he did. I asked if he noticed how some have a skin color different than his. Again, he said he did. I then asked who he would want to be friends with. He immediately pointed to the little white blonde boy on the page.  I paused here, because I wasn’t sure what to do next…after taking a few seconds I asked him about the other kids.  I then prompted him a bit by asking him what his favorite color is (it’s red) and then if any of the kids were wearing the color red.  He pointed to a darker-skinned child who has an orange-red shirt on.  Would you want to be friends with her too I asked. He said yeah. I explained that it’s okay to notice others who look similar to him, but that he might have interests in common with kids who look different from him as well. Then we finished the book. These types of conversations are going to be awkward and feel strange, and we’re going to question whether or not we did them right.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to have them as best we can.  Think about the books your child(ren) likes to read – is there an opportunity within them to talk about race – perhaps something you never even noticed before like Brown Bear, Brown Bear? 

Here are some other potential books to share with young children:

Board Book Examples:

I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont Feminist Baby, He’s a Feminist Too by Loryn Brantz Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Eric Carle Baby Faces Board Books (Splash, Smile, Peek-a-Boo, etc.) Roberta Grobel Intrater One Love by Cedella Marley

Picture Book Examples:

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty Those Shoes by Marybeth Boelts The Rain Stomper by Addie K. Boswell I am Enough by Grace Byers Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall Grace for President by Kelly S. DiPucchio Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman Thank you, Omu! By Oge Mora The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

Visit and explore these websites for further reading lists and resources:

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