Discussing Racial Injustice with Children

Books and visual art can help begin difficult conversations.

As horrific scenes of police brutality and images of passionate protesters fighting for racial justice are ubiquitous in a smartphone and social media obsessed society, parental control over information that children receive can be limited. Framing and discussing such issues can be equally as challenging.

Children pick up on racial injustice earlier than parents might think, so toddlers can begin to learn about injustice early in very basic terms, says Glenda Hernández Tittle, Ph.D. Montgomery College, School of Education. “I think it’s really important to start talking to children about racism and biases early and why it’s wrong that people are mistreated,” she said. “Ask how they would feel if they were treated that way themselves. Research shows that as early as two to three years old, children are quite aware of biases.”

Parents can create a safe environment in which children and young adults can express their thoughts. “Conversations about racial injustice can be difficult, but they are necessary,” said Karen Bentall, a librarian at Oakridge Elementary School in Arlington. “Books can help, [but] I must stress the importance of reading a wide variety of books where children can see themselves and others.”

Reading can give children an appreciation of the experiences of those whose lives are different from their own. “Books can be windows into the lives of others, mirrors to reflect our own experience, and sliding glass doors that allow us to step into other worlds,” said Bentall. “They help develop empathy.”

Literary classics such as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird can offer a springboard for lively discussions on race, suggests Bentall. “Many parents feel a sense of nostalgia toward their childhood books, but looking at them through a social-justice lens can spark conversations about the insidious bias that has crept into our language, thoughts, and patterns,” she said.

Movies can also give children an opportunity to understand the lives of others. “You can ask questions about characters and why they did what they did,” said Tittle. “You can also ask children about their own peers and who sits with whom at school and how they feel about that.”

The types of characters that children see in books, movies, television and other types of media can have an impact on their cultural and racial understanding. “It’s important for children to see diverse characters in positions of leadership and power,” said Tittle. “Be cautious in selecting. Some classics often perpetuate biases and racists attitudes.”

Visual art is another medium by which children can see and absorb beliefs about the characteristics of others. “Looking at art can also be a powerful part of raising awareness of racism and calling for needed change,” said Kathryn Horn Coneway.

One example, says Coneway, is the Four Freedoms Project co-founded by Hank Willis Thomas. “[It] includes multiple versions of images that focus on freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of worship, freedom of speech,” she said. “Families can view the original images created by [artist] Norman Rockwell 70 years ago and reflect on how the recreated versions made by the Four Freedoms Project both signify and call for change.”

Parents can encourage their children to be agents of change, suggests Tittle. “Such as, ‘What do you think we should do if we see something like that?’ These prompts go beyond what we’ve typically done and help to develop a culture beyond awareness but also of advocacy and activism,” she said.

Conversations around race should be ongoing, advises Tittle. “Parents will have different comfort levels about talking to kids about these topics and that’s okay, she said.”

An examination of the past can inform current conversations on racial justice. “Though parts of American history can be difficult and even heart wrenching, remain honest about our history, and that while we are proud of some of our history, there are things we didn’t do right and that we need to work to change,” said Tittle. “These conversations should be ongoing.”

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