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Commentary: Five tips for raising racially aware children

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2010 - A recent article in the Race, Frankly series covered the hard work of parents in the Community Connection program in the Webster Groves school district. It got me thinking about explicit actions that we can take as parents to raise racially aware children.

From my work on race, it seems parents are most afraid that talking about race with children will instill racial bias rather than eradicate it. It is important to keep in mind that children develop an awareness of race in their preschool years. Therefore, we are not inserting ideas into their heads when we are intentional about teaching race. In fact, we can help steer children toward more productive paths rather than simply leaving them to soak up the negative baggage about race.

Here are five tips to raising children with a healthy awareness of race.

1. Expose kids to exhibits that highlight their own and other races and cultures.
    2. Be thoughtful about your own philosophy on race.
    3. Be willing to answer kids’ questions about race, and avoid shushingthem.
    4. Diversify your personal friendship circle.
    5. Take advantage of area programs specific to race.

“Racism is like smog in the air. We can’t help but breathe in.” This idea was put forward by a psychologist, Beverly Daniel Tatum. Therefore, as adults in the lives of children we need to be intentional about filling children with positive and accurate information about themselves and others.

Be careful not to make the mistake of only teaching about others and failing to explore the racial history of the child. Take children to the museum, bookstore or simply online to see pictures, hear stories or see creations related to different racial groups. When you travel, take a glance at what the city has to offer that you might not be exposed to at home. Cover what you can, knowing that the act of exposure will create a spirit of openness towards race that can be fostered for a lifetime.

What are your personal ideas about race? Where did they come from? Do you want to pass down the messages you received or share different ideas about race?

Those questions are a good place to start when reflecting on your own beliefs about race. Once you have begun to grapple with those ideas, move on to consider the following: Do you have an awareness of how race has shaped who you are? How does it fit into how you see yourself?

These questions refer to racial identity, which is how people think about themselves in terms of race. You might have clear understanding of how your gender, religion or political affiliation has shaped your beliefs and life experiences, but the influence of race is often unexplored. If not, be sure to explore those constructs, too. Doing this work will help you better articulate what you decide to share with your children and prepare you to do number three.

Answering the tough questions that emerge about race is easier to tackle as an informed adult who has reflected on personal beliefs. Even then, it is difficult. However, doing that pre-work will allow you to at least know where you are ultimately headed with a child.

For example, if you have decided that, contrary to what you were taught, you want to raise your child with the message that we are all the same on the inside despite variations on the outside, your response to a query will follow.

When your child inquires about why the man in the store looks dirty and how he needs to take a bath, although embarrassed, you will be armed with a comment like, “Actually, he is clean. His skin happens to be a different color than ours, but we are all the same on the inside.” You can sidestep the shushing by providing information. Can you imagine how much harder it would be to respond if you had not reflected on what messages you wanted to convey beforehand?!

We often live segregated lives, which them limits who our children are exposed to. It’s worth asking yourself, “Who do I invite over for dinner?” “Do my children see people from a variety of backgrounds as prominent in my life, or is it primarily people from our race?”

If the answer is that most of the important people in your life look like you, then consider expanding your social network. Maybe there’s a neighbor, a parent of one of your child’s friends, or a coworker.

The important thing to remember here is that reaching out of your comfort zone will feel uncomfortable. But children mimic their parents’ actions, so it is important to set a good example.

Last, but not least, find a way to stay informed about local events that might help you in your endeavor to raise consciousness about race. It could be a listserve, a website - anything that feeds you information about what is happening and who is doing what.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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