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How to talk to your kids about racism and diversity

Kia Morgan Smith is a popular mommy blogger at Cincomom.com where she blogs about her life as a mom of five children and wife.

As parents, we look to teachers, politicians or religious leaders to eliminate racism. But that process truly starts at home with open conversations about race, ethnicity and bigotry. As we prepare to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday and Black History Month, it's a great time to answer some questions about complicated topics and begin an honest dialogue with your child about race.

mother talking with son

Growing up, I can remember going to the first grade and being the only black kid in class. My skin color was different from that of the other kids, and for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why I didn't have "yellow" hair. And at recess, I was often left to play alone. Nobody wanted to play with the brown kid — and I truly didn't understand why. At 6 years old, perhaps my classmates didn't either. But due to their parents' beliefs, they had been taught to stereotype and ostracize me.

As parents, we look to teachers, politicians or religious leaders to eliminate racism. But that process truly starts at home with open conversations about race, ethnicity and bigotry. As we prepare to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday on Jan. 20 and Black History Month in February, it's a great time to answer some questions about complicated topics and begin an honest dialogue with your child about race.

Talking about race

Not only do our children inherit our good looks and ways of doing things, but they also adopt our attitudes about the world around us. Here's how you can help them learn to live and work closely with people whose race, religion or culture may be different from their own:

  • Speak openly about similarities and differences between people. When you speak openly, you help your children foster a greater understanding of other people, and you build their confidence in confronting and addressing social issues without fear. You also help them to understand and recognize discrimination and ultimately become adults and social activists who fight to change it. Julius Lester has a book called Let's Talk About Race, which offers readers a poetic introduction to the topic of race. It celebrates the unique features of and differences between the races while discussing the important bond everyone shares with one another as human beings.
  • Educate your children about stereotypes. During childhood, we mold our kids directly, and they are indirectly molded by what they see on TV and what they hear from their teachers, classmates and family members. By the time they are 11 or 12, they have formed stereotypes about the world around them. Don't let the world misinform your children about racial and ethnic groups in our society, because otherwise, they could offend classmates without even knowing why. Be sure to educate your children through history lessons and literature and introduce them to the great pioneers — from presidents to civil rights activists — who made a difference and worked for equal justice.
  • Have round-table discussions. You can easily have an informal discussion about race by inviting over your kids' friends and parents who are of a different race. Over snacks and drinks, lend an ear and listen to their stories about their own racial struggles. This will give you and your children a greater appreciation of what others have gone through — and still go through in this day and age! Talking to people you know in the present who have experienced racial problems in the past will be a big eye-opener for your child. Often, kids think of racism as something that happened years ago, and they really can't gauge that it still exists today.
  • Answer the tough questions. What biases do you have? How do you really view white people, black people, Asians, Hispanics, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Native Americans and the other racial, ethnic or religious groups that populate the world? Sometimes, the most difficult prejudice to get over is your own. Ask yourself these questions: Do I cross the street to avoid teenagers of a race or ethnicity different from my own? Do I clutch my purse a little tighter if I'm standing next to someone of a different racial group? Do I avoid driving through some neighborhoods just because of the color of the people who live there? Be honest with your answers when talking with your child and explain how difficult it can be to understand the world we live in. And if you have biases, explain why. Maybe you grew up with these prejudices but really want to change. Talk openly about that. It's also important that both parents talk with each other about the questions children raise. If we are comfortable openly discussing difficult issues, we foster openness in our children, too.

Also, be sure to show your child that you love all people. Do you have friends of other races? Have you ever bought them a doll or toy of a different ethnicity? Through example, if children see that their parents are open and loving, then they are more likely to be, too.

Other things you can do to raise a child who's comfortable with talking about diversity

  • Enroll your child in activities like sports where they can meet other kids of different ethnicities.
  • Choose books and toys that include persons of different races and ethnicities.
  • Visit museums that feature exhibits about a variety of cultures and religions.
  • Celebrate cultural events and attend religious services with friends of different faiths.
  • Invite others to share your cultural and religious experiences.
  • Encourage your child's school to incorporate activities that teach about other ethnicities.

Having an African-American president also offers teachable moments and opportunities to start meaningful conversations about race with our kids. By encouraging our children to reach across racial and ethnic lines and embrace differences, we help them to lead richer, fuller lives and to recognize the humanity of all people.

Here are some of my favorite books about race and culture

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis

American Born Chinese
by Gene Luen Yang

Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines
by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

The Diary of a Young Girl
by Anne Frank

Maniac Magee
by Jerry Spinelli

Color Me Dark: The Diary of Nellie Lee Love; The Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois, 1919
by Patricia C. McKissack

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