How to Talk to Your Kids About Race

I was waiting to discuss race with my kids, but then someone beat me to the punch—with a very different message.

Talk About Race Elsa Marie Collins Family
Photo: Courtesy of Elsa Marie Collins

The car ride home from school with my three children is usually filled with little anecdotes about the handball game Alessandra, 8, won, the song Valentina, 6, learned in music class, or the book that the teacher read to Massimo, 5. One day last year, when I asked the kids for the usual update as they piled into the backseat, Valentina replied, "A kid told me that a wall is being built and asked me if I am going on the other side of it once it's finished." I was completely unprepared for her answer; my husband, Jarron, was not.

You see, I was born in the United States to Mexican parents, but I lived in Tijuana, Mexico, until age 16, which means I was never taunted in school because of my Latina ethnicity. Jarron, on the other hand, is African American and grew up in Los Angeles, where he was exposed to racial slurs as early as the third grade, when some kid first called him the "N-word."

So he's always been more aware of discrimination and the need to prepare for the uncomfortable moments that come with it. And while I always intended to discuss racism with our children, I didn't think we'd need to broach the topic so soon. After all, I was doing my part to raise "woke" children by telling them bedtime stories about civil-rights leaders Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. But Jarron, who had been given "The Talk" himself as a child, knew we needed to take it further and explain to them what it means to grow up brown and black in America. We might feel our mixed family is a beautiful thing, but some people will disagree and not think twice about letting us know.

It broke my heart that Valentina's first experience with the notion of race came from a classmate, not her parents. By not addressing bigotry sooner, I was letting other people dictate the terms of the conversation, which at the time had turned into a national discussion, with the rhetoric on the news all about "bad hombres." In a way, I had been lulled by the notion that if I didn't mention race to her, she wouldn't notice other people's skin color. But kids don't grow up color-blind. In fact, research shows that they start assigning meaning to skin color at 18 months and can distinguish different races by age 3. And if left uninformed, they fill in the blanks with what they hear from teachers, peers, the media, and society, and sometimes those outside messages can be prejudicial.

Jarron and I decided to approach the topic from our own perspectives. He told our kids what each generation in his family had shared with the subsequent one: that they are held to a higher standard than others because people will make judgments about them solely based on their race and skin color, that they have to work harder because their great-great-grandmother was a maid in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era and sacrificed everything to move the family out West. And that there are some people who don't want them to succeed and will use negative terms to bring them down. His delivery was meant to sway not with emotion, but with facts.

For me, the conversation was in Spanish: ¿Te acuerdas esa vez que una mujer nos dijo que habláramos en inglés? Do you remember the time a woman told us to speak in English? When people start talking negatively about you because you speak another language or have dark skin, they are doing it out of fear and ignorance. Some folks are scared of those who are different, but it's OK to be different. To lead by example, I have continued addressing them in Spanish everywhere we go, from the supermarket to the airport. Because even when people rudely demand that we speak in English, I need to show my kids that I'm proud of who I am, and they should be too.

Talking to our kids about race has been an ongoing dialogue. While we are teaching them about their own identities and how to combat prejudice when they are the targets, we're also helping them develop respect, acceptance, and appreciation for others from backgrounds that contrast with their own. I set up playdates with children who practice other religions and speak different languages at home, to expose my kids to all kinds of people. I also make it a point to do more than just highlight the struggles they might confront—I want to open their eyes to inequalities experienced by people of other ethnicities. This summer, I took them to the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles. When they asked why we were going there, I explained that we have friends who have braved incredible hardships because of discrimination, and we should make every effort to understand them. By expanding the conversation beyond their own identities, they're learning about empathy and being kind to people in the world at large.

I try not to make things political with my kids, but I do use morality to get my point across. I tell them it isn't fair to judge others based solely on their skin color, faith, or the language they choose to speak, because we wouldn't like someone else doing the same to us. It's a simple lesson that goes a long way—if there's one thing my kids dislike, it's when life is "not fair."

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