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Talking about racism with your kids

Project Humanities hosts program discussing strategies on how caregivers should broach the subject of racial bias and race relations

Woman and child holding protest sign
February 19, 2021

Despite the fact that conversations on race relations are more common today, many parents, guardians and educators from all races still feel uncomfortable having these talks with young children.

The reasons are complex: They feel it’s not appropriate. Children are too young to discuss race and racism. Parents conflate childlike innocence with alleged “colorblindness.”

Research shows that as early as 6 months old, babies recognize race-based differences and that by ages 2 to 4, children internalize racial bias. What that means, according to the founding director of Project Humanities, is that if children are old enough to perceive these differences and start absorbing biases, then they’re old enough to talk about them.

“With our expert panelists and facilitator, this program will highlight challenges to racial justice and identify strategies for having conversations about race that actually disrupt the status quo,” said Neal A. Lester, professor of English and director of ASU's Project Humanities. “Ever since George Floyd’s (killing), mostly white folks have reached out to me personally as an African American educator who studies and teaches about U.S. race relations, asking for strategies not just to talk with their typically white children about race and diversity, but also about talking with other white people — their families, peers and neighbors — about race and racial justice.”

The virtual conversation “Humanity 101 on the Homefront: Anti-Racist Parenting” explored the role parents and caregivers, as well as other societal forces, play in dismantling racism through parenting and modeling anti-racism work.

Project Humanities

Clockwise from top left: Maureen Costello, Brandon Yoo, Michelle F. Renteria and Kareem Neal speak at the Project Humanities virtual event on Feb. 18. Screen grab by Charlie Leight/ASU News

The Feb. 18 event’s panel featured Brando Yoo, an associate professor and faculty head of Asian Pacific studies in the School of Social Transformation and the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics; Kareem Neal, a self-contained special educator, restorative justice trainer and the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year; and Michelle F. Renteria, a school climate coordinator with Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico. Maureen Costello, executive director with the Center for Anti-Racist Education in Montgomery, Alabama, handled facilitating duties.

The Project Humanities goals for the panel of experts:

  • Define racism and what it means from a historical perspective.
  • Explore whiteness and how it relates to racism.
  • Identify the challenges and feelings of the anti-racist parenting experience.
  • Clarify how to discuss the role of race, ethnicity, gender and equity with children and ultimately, how to recognize injustice and help fix it.

Yoo said that people often misunderstand the true meaning of racism, often defining it as individual and intentional acts of meanness or behaviors. He said racism is tied to history and that people need to see and understand it from that perspective.

“It was used (in this country) as a system of white dominance, power and privilege … constructed to benefit a particular group in power,” Yoo said. “Using that ideology of whiteness to benefit … and to justify the cultural genocide of the Indigenous people, the slavery of Blacks and the exclusion and internment camps of Asians and many other groups. If we look at racism to be more than individual intentional acts of meanness but a cultural and institutional level in which it benefits whiteness, then we can start the conversation of, ‘What does anti-racism work look like?’”

Not only is it important to be a good parent, but it’s also important to be a good ancestor, said Renteria, who taught in the classroom for approximately 20 years. She said she often shares with her nieces, nephews and two multiracial sons who they are, where they come from and how they benefited from others.

“Although I am Native New Mexican, I have to tell them I am on Indigenous occupied land and that I have a history,” Renteria said. “A Spanish ancestry that has to be accountable for the genocide of Indigenous people, so it’s very important to me … it’s also important to share the history of my parents.”

Even though that type of conversation comes naturally to Renteria, it isn’t as easy for others, especially to parents, guardians and educators, Neal said. He said his conversations with his own parents were “super incomplete” and would only surface when there were frustrated by racial violence or tension.

“It would only be times where, say a Black person was killed by a police officer … it was just blurted out there,” Neal said. “But it was not like this — a nuanced conversation about race. It was more like, ‘I’m tired of Black people being harmed by white people … so I had to do a lot of work on my own and then as a grown person, I would start having these rich conversations with my mother … amazing conversations about race and civil rights.”

Neal said those are the types of conversations he has with his students through skits, writing activities and community-building circles.

“It connects very well when you have that kind of equity of voice,” Neal said. “We’re having the kinds of conversations that let people say, ‘I’m heard and valued.’”

Costello said having conversations about race with children also means “living in discomfort and realizing that it’ll pass, and you’ll have gotten something better out of it.”

Top photo: Image courtesy of Project Humanities.

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