How to Talk to Your Children About Race and Oppression.


Turn on your television or view the latest live feed on your phone and you will see mass media coverage of protests occurring all over the world. The protests are a result of the long history of racism that is still present today. During this racially charged climate, parents are tasked with talking to their children about race, but many may feel confused or may not know how to begin the conversation. Ethnic-minority parents may wonder “How do I teach my child to navigate and survive within a society that consistently devalues them?”; On the other hand, non-ethnic-minority parents may wonder “How do I teach my child about white privilege?” Regardless of the question, talking about race to children does not have to be difficult.

When parents communicate to their children about race they are engaging in racial socialization. Racial socialization messages can be shared implicitly and/or explicitly through attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Through the use of positive racial socialization parents can equip children with tools to question and combat racial biases.

Studies have shown that positive racial socialization messages about one’s heritage and cultural pride leads to positive adjustment and academic outcomes, as well as fosters resilience and self-esteem among children of color (Kelly, Maynigo, Wesley and Durham, 2013). Although the research on racial socialization primarily focuses on ethnic-minority families, new conversations are emerging that stress the responsibility of White parents to also talk to their children about race and equality in order ensure the struggle for change is sought by all, not just those that are oppressed.

Parents may be hesitant to discuss issues of race with younger children; however, children form ideas about race and exhibit discriminatory behaviors as young as the age of two (Hirschfeld, 2008). Parenting can be difficult but avoiding conversations on race does not make it easier. Parents who avoid communicating about race-related values and current events risk their child being unprepared to face racial injustice and privilege. Parents who take a “color-blind” perspective and refuse to explicitly discuss race, can still communicate messages about race or leave children exposed to racial socialization from broader society.

To help break the systems of oppression within our societies, parents should intentionally communicate messages that promote cultural pride and racial equality among children. White families also have a responsibility to talk to their children about how the value of whiteness works to promote the status quo.

Here are a list of activities and scripts to use to begin the conversation:

  • Expose children to culture and heritage through food, music, artwork in home, and family stories
  • Read books and social stories with younger children
    • Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard
    • ‘The Name Jar’ by Yangsook Choi
    • Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness’ by Anastasia Higginbotham

Discuss hardships using these conversation starters:

  • What were your initial thoughts and feelings when you heard about what happened (INSERT CURRENT EVENT)? What is surprising? What is troubling?
  • “How can we stand with and support others who are feeling vulnerable?”
  • “What do you think the movement to stop police violence against African Americans mean?”

Educate yourself and your children about history:

  • Talk about current events using a creative outlet to express feelings such as writing a poem, creating a song or rap, drawing a picture.
  • Promote awareness of racial differences by:
  • Providing appropriate vocabulary for racial or ethnic differences.
  • Model the use of inclusive and culturally sensitive language.
  • Be intentional about providing teachable moments while in public.
  • Normalize various ethnicities by including multicultural books, movies, television shows, and other cultural expressions within the home.
  • Practice activism by helping your children write a letter to community organizations or local officials to express how they feel and/or what can be done.

Gaskin, A. (August 2015). Racial Socialization, ways parents can teach their children about race. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2015/08/racial-socialization

Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Holcomb, J. (June 29, 2018). Children are not colorblind: 4 ways to talk to young children about race. Psychology Benefits. https://psychologybenefits.org/2018/06/29/children-are-not-colorblind-4-ways-to-talk-to-young-children-about-race/

Kelly, S., Maynigo, P., Wesley, K., & Durham, J. (2013). African American communities and family systems: relevance and challenges. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 2, 264-277. doi: 10.1037/cfp0000014

Lesane-Brown, C. L., Scottham, K. M., Nguyên, H. X., & Sellers, R. M. (2006). The racial socialization questionnaire—teen (RSQ-t): A new measure for use with African American adolescents. Unpublished manuscript.

Reynolds, J. E. (2017). Predictors of ethnic-racial socialization in early childhood among African American Parents. The Florida State University, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. 10258625.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *