This article was first published on Aug. 15, 2017, and updated on Jan. 12, 2018.
Author and speaker Doyin Richards — a black dad raising two daughters — says he often sees well-meaning parents refer to themselves as “colorblind” parents, who teach their children there is “only one race — the human race.”
Richards is quick to set those parents straight.
“I’m not going to mince words — raising your kids to be colorblind is just straight dumb,” Richards told TODAY Parents. “And, not only is it dumb — it’s dangerous. By doing the whole, ‘We’re the same,’ thing, you’re dismissing what a black kid or any person of color deals with.”
Richards, who wrote a children’s book titled, “What’s the Difference? Being Different is Amazing,” says kids cannot grow or learn as people if they believe that everyone is the same. And, especially in the wake of the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the California dad says the responsibility to educate kids about differences falls on today’s parents, even when they are unsure of what to say.
“Teach kids to be conscious of race,” said Richards. “Teach them to be like, ‘This black kid or this Mexican kid has had a different life experience than I have as a white kid, and that’s what makes it great. I see their differences and I embrace those differences and want to learn to be a better and more productive citizen going forward.'”
Eirene Heidelberger is the founder of GITMom, a parenting coaching and advice service, and says while parents may feel nervous about discussing race with their kids, it’s a necessity.
“No one wants to talk about it because they are completely uncomfortable with it and don’t know what to say,” said Heidelberger. “Parents stay silent because they don’t feel comfortable, but it is up to parents to get educated and find the right words to teach about color, culture and religion.”
Lori Riddick, a managing partner at Raising Race Conscious Children, an organization that provides practical tools to start conversations with kids about race, agrees, saying an honest, ongoing dialogue between parents and kids about race is essential.
“Research tells us that when we’re silent about race, kids pick up their own definitions,” said Riddick, who lives in New York and has two children of her own. “When we don’t talk to our kids about race, we maintain a culture of white supremacy, where white is what’s normal and we notice race only in terms of negative attributes.”
So how can parents steer their children away from “colorblindness” and begin to have open conversations with their kids about race — and racism?
Heidelberger says, depending on a child’s age, there are simple steps parents can take to begin the conversation.
“Here, it’s really as simple as saying, ‘Our family does not tolerate racism,'” said Heidelberger.
The Illinois mom-of-three recommends parents of young children take a proactive angle, refusing to be afraid or silent about race and pointing out different skin colors on television or in books. Parents can also point out different cultural outfits, starting a discussion about what life may be like in other countries or cultures. And, Heidelberger recommends pointing out different skin tones in books during story time, and speaking openly about friends and their different races.
“It’s about pointing out to this little toddler, ‘This is why our world is so special,'” said Heidelberger. “And the general idea is that we are all equal, and we all deserve to be treated with respect.”
During the elementary years, Heidelberger says it’s OK to talk about more serious topics, making them easier for kids to understand by comparing racism to things kids easily understand, such as a game of baseball where a team captain is picking players based only on skin colors or cultural clothing he does or does not like.
“I highly suggest that, at this age, parents introduce to their kids the idea that some people get treated unfairly because of their skin color, culture or religion,” said Heidelberger. “Parents also need to teach their child that racism is neither nice or fair, and they need to say how important it is to be inclusive of all people, no matter how different they may be.”
Heidelberger says that because of social media, teens these days get exposed to more than their parents were at the same age. They may hear, and even use, derogatory words they don’t fully understand.
“As a mom, I immediately address comments like, ‘You’re so gay,’ or ‘That’s gay,’ for example, by saying, ‘That is a bigoted remark and it’s not accurate and it’s hurtful. Please don’t say that.'”
Heidelberger says parents should remember that kids — even teenagers — can only take in a certain amount of information at a time. Get to the point, she advises, and put the teen in the hot seat.
“All you have to say is that their words are not acceptable,” said Heidelberger. “Then, ask them where they heard it or what they think it means. It’s OK to let them squirm a little.”
Since teens often judge others by their appearance or physical characteristics, Heidelberger says it’s important to teach them when certain words are disrespectful and when they are OK.
“We need to teach teens it’s OK for them to use correct names — like African American or Asian — when they are talking about others respectfully,” said Heidelberg. “We are the adults, and if we’re going to change this next group of children, it’s up to us to find our words, have confidence, and have difficult conversations.”
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