How to talk about racial injustice with your child
By Chinwé Williams, PhD
By Chinwé Williams, PhD
Many questions from children start with, “why?” "Why do I look different from Jenny?" “Why is Wonder Woman white?” Your child might be starting to ask you tough questions about race. Dr. Chinwe Williams, Licensed Professional Counselor, is here to help.
From a very young age (as early as 8 months old!) children can start to become aware of racial differences. So, it’s never too early to talk to your child about racial identity. But for many parents and caregivers, it can feel hard to know how to talk to children about race and racial injustice. Children may also ask really big and complex questions about race that can feel hard to answer. We sat down with Dr. Chinwe Williams, Licensed Professional Counselor, to learn about how parents and caregivers who identify as Black, Indigenous, or of color can talk to their children about racial injustice.
Q: What might be prompting my child to ask big questions about race and racial injustice?
A: There are so many doorways into the conversation. Here are a few:
Your child might hear a peer say something in passing (which could be positive, negative, or neutral) about race.
Kids are starting to learn about the world around them and comparing themselves to others. While reading a book together, children might make remarks like, “I don’t want to be Asian. Why can’t I be Black?”
Your kid may come home with questions if they or a classmate are left out or teased for having a darker skin tone. I’ve heard of some cases recently where children aren’t included in social events or invited to birthday parties because of their race.
Some schools might be having events for Black History Month or teaching children about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in class.
Or, maybe your child sees a post about racial injustice on social media or in the news. Racially-charged, high profile incidents in the media also bring on lots of questions and confusion for kids.
Q: What are some questions my child might have?
A: As you know, children ask a lot of questions. It’s completely normal for kids to inquire about a lot of things, including race. Here are some specific examples I’ve heard from families I work with:
“Why is Wonder Woman white and not Black?”
“Why are people treated differently because of their skin color?”
“Why do I look different from Jenny?”
"Why am I called Black if I actually have brown skin?"
“Why was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. killed?”
You don’t need to know the answer to every question your child might ask. The truth is, kids are often asking very complex questions!
Q: What are some feelings my children might have?
A: Kids experience a lot of the same difficult emotions as adults when it comes to racial injustice. They may be feeling things like confusion, anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, or shame.
Q: How can I support my child as they’re learning about racial injustice in the world?
Regulate your own emotions.
First of all, support your child by regulating your own emotions. If your child is having a big emotion related to race, it’s completely normal if you feel triggered by it. See if you can pause, take a breath, and calm yourself first.
When you’re talking to your child, you don’t have to hide your emotions. (It can be helpful for them to know that what’s hard for them is hard for you, too.) But try to remain calm as you explain how you’re feeling, even if you’re describing a big emotion like sadness or fear.
Also, I always recommend reaching out to a trusted friend or therapist after talking to your kid about racial injustice, especially if the conversation was tough for you.
Find out where the question is coming from.
When your child asks a question, you might know the answer and you might not — kids stump us all the time. But here’s the thing: it’s not always necessary (or even possible) to answer your child’s question. The key is to find out where the question is coming from . Where did your child learn this information? What are they confused or curious about? How are they feeling about it?
To use one of the earlier examples, if your child asks, “Why is Wonder Woman white?”, that question came from somewhere. I often go with something like, “I’m not sure! What made you ask that question? How does it feel to know that Wonder Woman is white? What do you think about that?”
Leave the conversation open-ended so your child feels comfortable asking more questions in the future.
Bring it back to your own values as a family.
You don’t need to worry about speaking for all families or experiences. I always recommend grounding your conversation in your family’s values. You can say something like, “Thanks for telling me about what your friend said at school. In our family, we think every skin tone is beautiful. And we celebrate that we’re all different.” By reinforcing your values as a family, you can emphasize the strength and value of your child’s race and ethnicity.
Validate their emotions (and don’t sugarcoat things).
When my child shares, I’ll say something like, “I feel that way, too, sometimes. It’s okay to be scared.” It can be really hard to hear that your child is feeling scared or bad about themselves. But, instead of trying to make that feeling go away, make more room for them to share. Validate that what they’re going through is really tough.
You might be tempted to tell them everything’s going to be okay. But, make sure you’re always clear, direct, and factual. Always avoid sugar-coating or lying when it comes to the facts. Offer a realistic picture of society, even when that picture is upsetting.
I recommend offering your child coping skills (like taking three big belly breaths, drawing, painting, time outside, or music) after having a particularly tough conversation.
It’s okay to need more support.
Most adults are not trained to have conversations about race. You don’t need to be an expert. Listen more than you speak, and rely on resources such as books, articles, videos and documentaries to help. Take breaks if you need to, but be sure to pick the conversation back up.
Here are a few resources I recommend:
Raising Race Conscious Children: 100 Race-conscious Things You Can Say to Your Child to Advance Racial Justice
Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
Here are a couple resources where I share more about how to talk to kids about race:
RBG Podcast: Dr. Chinwe Williams on Talking to Kids About Race
Remember, kids are perceptive! They’re picking up on what you’re saying and also how you’re saying it. So, be honest when you just aren’t sure about something. Your child might be grappling with some of the same difficult things adults are. You can always bring it back to three things: What does your child know? Where is the question coming from? And, how is it making them feel?