Racy Conversations Founder Karen Fleshman on How to Talk to Kids about Racism

Racism is a difficult subject but it’s also a very necessary conversation, especially when it comes to our kids. No matter what values we instill in our children, it’s inevitable that they’ll come across something – a racial slur at school, some inappropriate graffiti, or racial micro aggressions in their daily lives – that points to issues of racial inequality and discrimination.

So how do you deal with the talking about race and racism with your kids? We had the opportunity to speak with Karen Fleshman, founder of Racy Conversations, whose mission it is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. We asked her about how she’s raising her own children to understand the role race plays in our society, as well as what she recommends for other parents in the workshops she facilitates.

When do children start noticing that some of their playmates look different from them?

Children start noticing differences in appearance as infants. But at that very young stage, it’s really without greater implications – more a matter of simple differences in color or features and so on. What’s more important is if they start thinking that those differences have greater associations attached to them. There were some very interesting studies conducted by Kenneth and Mamie Clark decades ago. It was around 1939-1940, when segregation in schools still existed. In their studies, they presented children (both black and white) with two identical dolls – they were identical except that one was black and the other white. The children were asked which doll they would like to play with, which one is bad, which one is nice, etc. All the children in the study chose the white doll as the ‘good’ one.

More recently, the same study was recreated by the filmmaker Kiri Davis for the 2005 film A Girl Like Me. The results were very similar: 15 out of 21 children also chose the white doll.

The results obviously aren’t because the white doll is in some way inherently preferable. It’s because our cultural history of racial perception gets passed down. Children are very smart and they pick up on many different subtle messages throughout the day and we have to be aware of that.

So given how impressionable children are, should we start talking to our kids about race before they mention it, or wait until there’s an issue?

I definitely think you should talk about it before there is an issue. My parents taught me racism is terrible, Dr Martin Luther King is awesome, and you should be kind to everybody and treat everybody with respect. But we grew up in an all-white community and I never saw them interact with people of color.

If I ever pressed them about why there is so much racial inequality in our society, the story they taught me was, ‘Well we used to have terrible racism but then we had the Civil Rights movement and now opportunities are distributed equally, and some families like ours choose to work hard and that’s why we’re in our situation and other families choose not to and that’s why they’re in their situation.’

What my parents taught me is racist, harmful, and inaccurate. Opportunity has never been distributed equally in our society. We are a society with a history of genocide and slavery and we’ve never fully faced this fact or repaired those who were harmed by it. Yes, my white grandparents worked hard – but they also benefitted from government policies designed to support their wealth accumulation that they qualified for because of their race. It’s just not the same for people of color. And it’s not because they don’t work hard, it’s because of racism. That’s a massive obstacle that they have to contend with every step of the way.

We need to change that narrative. Learned behavior can be unlearned – both on an individual level and as a society. If we teach our children historical truths, their sense of justice will naturally recognize the inequality and unfairness in all that. We need them to understand the past then move forward from a position of power, where they can be agents of change.

In a recent story on the news, a black child at a mostly-white private school found graffiti on his locker that said: Die N----R. His mom took him out the school. Is that a good idea, or should they have stood their ground?

No one should have to sit through that kind of abuse and aggression. Removing the child from that situation was a good idea. And having their story told is even better. If we’re aware of the different incidents of racial aggression, then we can do something about them.

My kids go to a very diverse school. Yet, I still see discrimination all the time, against the black and brown kids. This kind of bias is pervasive and there are very few schools that are addressing it well. It’s really important not only for parents of color, but ALL parents to stand up for racial justice in our schools. It’s especially important for parents to educate their children about what racism actually is, how to identify it, and how to stand up against it.

What are some resources you like to use to help your kids understand racial issues better?

Surprisingly, Teen Vogue has incredible videos about race. The videos are created by young people for young people, and they’re a fantastic resource for parents who want to raise race conscious kids. It’s really good for kids get to hear their own peers talk about the subject and these videos do that. We also watch historical films and miniseries on the subject to get the conversation going.

I think parents tend to know which resources (videos, film, books, museums, etc.) resonate the best with their kids. The more important part is not shield them. So we use a mix of resources. There are the videos and the films, and plenty of books, whatever it takes to teach the truth about American history. I take them to visit sites where Native Americans were massacred. We talk about lynching; we talk about Japanese internment. I want them to know the truth about our country, not a white-washed version of our history.

What can parents of younger kids do to help them appreciate diversity?

You obviously can’t and shouldn’t ever force your kids to develop friendships, but you can make sure that your kids are exposed to other children that come from a variety of racial socioeconomic backgrounds to give them the opportunity to develop new and different friendships. It’s never a good idea to isolate your kids with one particular group of people. Even if your local school is less diverse than you would like, you can make up for that with the extracurricular activities and outings you choose to take outside of school.

It’s really important to teach kids that no skin color is more beautiful or more valuable than any other. It’s also not shameful to notice differences. If your kid comments on racial differences, by shushing them, you’re teaching your kid that noticing differences is wrong. It’s a lost opportunity for appreciating the differences instead. Get them racially diverse toys. Read books written by diverse authors. The more you broaden your child’s world, the more they’ll appreciate diversity and absorb it. Make sure that they are also seeing you interact respectfully with all types of people. And I’m not talking about just when you check out at the grocery store – I’m talking about sitting down and having a cup of coffee and connecting.

Cheryle Moses, who founded Urban MediaMakers, recently created a “Come Meet a Black Person” event… What do you think of events like that to help bridge racial divides?

If you’re living in a community that’s dominated by a single race, it’s always a good idea to create intentional opportunities. It doesn’t matter what your race is, we can all learn something by creating new opportunities to integrate and to get to know each other.

I co-host ‘Inclusive Conversations’ empowerment events for women of all colors. They are intentionally designed to create opportunities for women to meet each other across race because nine times out of ten, if a white friend of mine invites me to a social event whether it’s a kid’s birthday party, a BBQ, a women’s empowerment event, all the women there are white. If a woman of color invites me to their kid’s birthday party, their BBQ, their women’s empowerment event, all of the women there are women of color and I’m one of maybe two white women there. There is so much segregation, and because of the racial divide, we are just drifting further and further apart. So if you don’t create these intentional environments, you don’t meet each other.

The good news is, we can build those bridges for our kids at a much earlier age. The sooner children are exposed to all people, they unlearn prejudice. The more they know about history, they stand up for equality and justice. The more racially diverse toys they have, the more they have to love. It’s a gift we can give back to them.

Have you spoken to your kids about racial issues? How did you approach the topic and what were the lessons learned?

If you have a personal story you would like to share, contact us at [email protected]

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