The Race Talk
Navigating conversations with your child about race
How to use this guide
“There are many talks that take place along the journey of raising a child. You know the ones: The importance of kindness and sharing, the physical changes that occur while growing up, why it’s important to be smart about dating and sex. There is, however, a unique talk that takes place in households where children of color are being raised.”
Khama Ennis, MD
For Black, Indigenous and racialized families, conversations about race and racism are inevitable. For others, it is a privilege to avoid the topic. Either way, we know the topic of racism is a difficult one. Yet, we believe that everyone is a part of the solution. Our hope is that as you read through, you’ll gain concrete tips, ideas and actions to raise your family with anti-racist values.
Starting the conversation
Here are some things you might want to think about as you prepare for these conversations. You may find many of the approaches below are the same ones you use in other areas of your life and with your family. It’s worth noting, you may never feel 100% ready and that is OK.
It is never too early to talk about race and racism. When discussing race and racism, it’s important to consider your child’s age. That can help you assess how much and what information to share. For example, images of violence are not appropriate for young children. Instead, for young children, you may choose to talk about the topic more generally - how inherently unfair it is that a group of people are treated differently. For older children, you can ask more complex questions and work to unpack situations with more depth. At any age, chances are you will learn something from your child through these conversations.
It’s worth noting, there are some harmful approaches that must be avoided at all ages such as the colourblind strategy (e.g., telling children “Skin colour doesn’t matter,” or “We’re all the same on the inside” at the risk of overlooking how we are different and celebrating those differences) or refusing to discuss it (e.g., “It’s not polite to talk about that”).
It’s OK to say: I don’t know
We don’t have all the answers. And especially for adults, we have many years of unlearning to do when it comes to tackling our own biases and habits born out of a system and society that is racist. The best we can offer when we don’t know is to be curious and seek to understand, alongside our children.
We as adults appreciate and benefit from others being honest with us. So will your child. These are not easy topics and it may involve asking yourself questions and taking an honest reflection of your role in systemic or interpersonal racism. It can be uncomfortable at first, but honesty and vulnerability will allow your child to learn and grow. This might raise feelings of guilt - for you and possibly your child. It’s important to acknowledge these feelings but don’t let them stop you in your tracks. If you can find forgiveness for yourself and others, it can help you move the conversation forward and learn from the experience.
These conversations may take a bit of courage. While we want to be mindful of our children’s emotional and mental wellbeing, we also don’t want to avoid discomfort. The emotions may be challenging and uncomfortable. But by avoiding them, we don’t save our children from harm. They will experience the impacts of systemic racism, directly or indirectly. Having open and honest conversations will help your children recognize racism and take action against it. It is important to remember that when we acknowledge and work to dismantle anti-Black racism and other forms of racism, we all benefit from a more just society.
Seek to understand
We’ve all been guilty of jumping to judgement or making a correction when we see an error. Sometimes that can shut down natural curiosity and learning. By using open-ended questions to talk about a situation or incident, you may find that the resulting conversation will be more meaningful than asserting a correction.
Pattern and Practice
This may be the most important on the list. Like many things about raising a family, the commitment is lifelong. It is not enough to have one or two conversations when a major news story emerges and tweeting about it on social media is just not enough. Systemic racism exists in every aspect of life and informs our everyday biases. No matter how small, consider building in a practice to have these conversations regularly (e.g., did you notice that the TV show only had white characters - I wonder why that is? At school, did you notice that all the authors and characters are predominantly white? Do you notice the lack of diversity in our school? What can we do to change things?).
Modelling & Practice
Do as you say. You are your child’s first and most important teacher. They are watching and learning from you each and every day, whether or not you intend for those moments to be lessons. Show them kindness and love, model compassion and helpfulness. Help them learn positive ways of interacting with people and the world around them. For example, at a schoolyard, greet parents and caregivers that don’t look like you - treat them with respect; plan playdates with families that don’t look like you; introduce books and toys that celebrate racial diversity. Being intentional in understanding race is not a performative act, but a critical and conscious effort to racial justice. In short, our actions can speak louder than words.
Responding to questions and call it out
Situations where your child may have questions
Using some of the approaches above, let’s explore some examples. We’ve included suggestions on what to ask to help guide your conversations.
Situation: At school, a student uses a racial slur against another student at recess. Your child sees this happening but isn’t directly involved. At home, they share that they heard a friend call another classmate a mean word.
How did it make you feel?
How do you think your friend who was called a racial slur felt?
What happened after the child said the racial slur?
Is there something you could have done?
What would you have done differently?
For older children: what do you think should come next? Is there something that can be done to help these two classmates? And also improve the situation and avoid hurtful language like this in the future?
You may want to look up the history or context of the word. If you’re not from the racialized group that the term refers to, consider finding a video or article to understand what it feels like to be called those words. A good place to start is a series called Kids Meet on HiHo Kids.
If your child was the one who was called a racial slur: