Can We Talk About Race with Young Children?

From the moment they are born, children are learning. So what are we teaching them about race?
Monday, April 13, 2015

By Dianne Hackett, Sharon Martland, Darci Paulk-Hayes, Julia Hieser, and Annie Carmona​


A collage of five different close shots of young teachers and young children smiling.

“I’ve never consciously thought about when I’ll begin having these discussions with my son, but never ever thought to shield these conversations, or shy away from them until he was ‘old enough.’ It’s surprising (and I admit being naive/ignorant here) to think that people don’t have race conversations (be it positive or negative) with their children from the time they can communicate.” – PARC parent

If you’re reading this, it’s likely because you care about young children. If so, then you may expect this piece to preach to the choir with viewpoints about young children that you’ve seen many times before. Rather, we’re taking on topics that are not always discussed during the early childhood years: race, racism, and antiracism.

Last fall, national focus was riveted on the police killing of Michael Brown. Since that time, there’s been no let-up in the number of highly-publicized racist incidents that have drawn further media attention.

These were the catalyst for the creation of the Parenting Anti-Racist Children (PARC) resource group for Teach For America staff of which we are members. We meet monthly to discuss what we’re doing (and struggling to do) to raise our children in an antiracist manner. We represent different racial and ethnic backgrounds; we are both people of color and white. We have professional backgrounds in everything from teaching to technical design. Our children, for the most part, are quite young. And deciding to take on topics as seemingly “adult” as racism and antiracism is no light task regardless of our backgrounds. We want to get it “right” and the concern about getting it wrong is temptation not to do it at all. But we’ve decided that our children need parents who are willing to explore what antiracism means.

You may be wondering, “Is antiracist parenting something more than nonracist parenting?” We wondered that, too. There have been a number of articles written recently about the phenomenon of “racism without racists,” highlighting a narrow view of the topic that leaves many “good people” thinking that our actions couldn’t possibly be racist despite actions to the contrary. The parents of the fraternity brother recently made infamous when caught leading a racist chant are convinced that he’s a “good boy” who made a “horrible mistake.”

So, understanding antiracism begins with defining what we mean by racism. Mica Pollock defines it “as any act or situation that, even unwittingly: tolerates, accepts, or reinforces racially unequal opportunities for children to learn and thrive; allows racial inequalities in opportunity as if they are normal and acceptable; or treats people of color as less worthy or less complex than 'white' people (Pollock, 2008)."

Dr. Beverly Tatum describes antiracism in this way:

“I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt … Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway … But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt—unless they are actively anti-racist—they will find themselves carried along with the others (Tatum, 2003)."

Since we’ve started PARC, we’ve realized that our already difficult work as parents will get harder. As a community we are still finding our way, but we know a few things are certain:

  • As parents, we can take responsibility for messages that our children receive about race. We want our children to be agents of change and, beyond being concerned about their manners, we must equip them with critical thinking skills to challenge the messages they receive about themselves and others to interrupt the cycle of oppression in their environment.  
  • It still takes a village: We need every adult in our children’s lives to commit to antiracist action for our children, as well as conscious media and programming to raise the next generation with hope, appreciation for differences, and the audacity to see the world changed.
  • Before we take this on for our children, we must do the work ourselves: This learning is continual. There is never a destination or certifying body that can approve that we’ve arrived. For our kids, we must start challenging ourselves today to understand our complex histories as a human race and to disrupt institutionalized racism with courage and without apology.
  • Our kids can’t wait. Verna Myers has recorded a Ted Talk that everyone should see. We should start earlier without being bound by a fear of “getting it wrong” and take steps now to model antiracism as parents and educators of young children. This, we argue, is one of the best ways to honor young children and make way for their future in a more equitable world.

Each month, one PARC member will be writing for Top Stories about parenting in an antiracist manner. Join us by commenting or by joining our group.

To learn more about the Parenting Anti-Racist Children (PARC) resource group contact

Read more articles on our new Top Stories page or explore more content from Inside TFA.


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