Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child

RIISE thanks Jaime-Jin Lewis, Executive Director of Border Crossers for debunking the myths and giving us tools…



I get a lot of mixed feedback when I say that adults need to learn to speak openly about race with young children. They are afraid of spoiling their childhood or crushing their natural curiosities. However, when we look at the root causes of racial inequity in this country, we see that they grow out of the lessons we learn in our earliest years. In fact, honest conversations about race have a positive impact on children, honoring their observations and lived experiences, and better preparing them to recognize and undo social injustice in their lives. Then, why don’t we do it more?

The truth is that most of us adults have incomplete and competing ideas about the role of race in our own lives. Young children’s comments often illuminate the uncomfortable gap between our good intentions and the thorny truths of the world.

In my experience over the past two years facilitating  Border Crossers‘  “Talking About Race With K-5″ workshops and seminars, I have had the opportunity to share struggles, dissect scenarios, analyze the institutions around us, and offer support in developing and implementing concrete tools and strategies with over 400 educators, activists and parents. I have learned a tremendous amount from each of them.

Over and over, I hear the same excuses for why adults don’t have conversations about race with children. In this article, I dissect five common myths of talking about race with children and offer a few simple sentence starters that help reframe the approach.

1. “Children don’t see race.”

Research shows us that children do, in fact, see race. They are never “colorblind.” One study revealed that infants recognize racial differences between three and six months of age. Dr. Phyllis Katz’s research (as cited in “See Baby Discriminate” ) shows that by three years white children exhibit an overwhelming preference for same-race friends. By age five, 68% of children sort decks of cards of people’s faces by race over any other indicator. The infamous doll test originally performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark and repeated most recently by CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360 shows that pre-k and kindergarten-aged children express racial biases that remain with them through adulthood.

To be clear, the purpose of this research is not to figure out if your child is a racist or not. The intention is to debunk the colorblind myth and frame an approach to interrupting these troubling patterns.

Here’s something you can try:

Instead of saying, “We are all the same.”

Try making connections saying, “Race is one of the beautiful things that makes us different, but I know that the color of our skin does not mean someone is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘nice’ or ‘mean.’”


2. “Talking about race creates racist thinking.”

Our country still has a race problem that permeates our culture (resource), plagues our institutions (resource), and affects individuals (resource). We know that children absorb these messages without our help. Not talking about race actually allows stereotypes and generalizations to go unchecked.

Here’s something you can try if a child brings up a comment about race:

Instead of saying, “Race isn’t something we talk about.”

Try getting more information by asking, “That’s a good comment. What makes you say that? This is something that I’m interested in talking about with you.”


3. “Exposure to diversity is enough.”

Dr. Birgitte Vittrup performed a study with 100 families in Texas (also in “See Baby Discriminate” ) that found that mere exposure to peers of other races or reading multicultural books is not enough to counter the development of bias in children; they must be accompanied by conversations about race. These conversations about race should reflect an honest acknowledgement of systemic inequalities but seek to engage the child in enacting solutions.

Here’s something you can try:

Instead of saying, “We’re all equal.”

Try saying, “We’re all equal here. But sometimes in the world, people are treated differently based on the color of their skin. What are things we can do to make sure that doesn’t happen in our home?”


4. “My child said something racist, therefore I must be a bad parent.”

Racism is a powerful system that affects individuals and institutions. Children are steeped in this culture from birth and it should come as no surprise when they ask a question or make a comment about race that gives us pause. Too often I see parents get caught up in feeling guilty for things that their child has said, rather than seizing the opportunity to have a deeper conversation that examines the source of the comment. This guilt also prevents them from seeking out the support of peers who can bring expertise and insights to the situation.

Here’s something you can try with other parents:

Instead of saying, “My child said something so horrible I can’t even repeat it.”

Try saying, “I think my child is beginning to notice inequalities in society. She said ______. Has your child ever said anything like this? What did you do about it?”


5. “I don’t have all the answers.”

This is a true statement, but not a reason to not talk about race with children. It’s okay to say that you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s okay to ask for more time to think before answering a question. It’s okay to take these conversations slowly. Framing tough questions from your child as “teachable race moments” opens up opportunities for your own growth and development as a parent and a citizen.

Here’s something you can try when your child asks a tough question about race:

Instead of saying nothing and avoiding the conversation.

Try saying: “That is something adults haven’t even figured out. Let’s learn about it together.”

Make no mistake about it, these conversations will always be tough, uncomfortable and test the very fabric of our character. When we know children are not “colorblind,” that explicit conversations about race are healthy and necessary, and that it’s okay not to have all the answers, it’s easier to be brave and talk about race.

Jaime-Jin Lewis is the Executive Director of Border Crossers an education equity nonprofit that provides racial justice training and resources to elementary schools and teachers in New York City. She is Asian-American, born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia. She has worked as a committed activist, organizer and educator all along the East Coast and in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 
In 2011, Jaime-Jin and Border Crossers launched a “Talking About Race With K-5” initiative, which has already trained of over 375 educators from over 75 schools in New York City, as well as over 100 educators nationally. Jaime-Jin was recently cited in the New York Times article, Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids” and the ColorLines article, ”Here Are Easy Ways to Have Tough Talks With Kids About Race.”  She also presents at conferences like the National Conference on School Diversity, the People’s Education ConventionFacing Race 2012, and NYCoRE Conference 2013. She had a degree in Urban Planning from the University of Virginia. 

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  1. Amy
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Another good reason to talk about race with white children is to raise their consciousness about not saying things that will be hurtful to children of color around race. It is essential. I was struck by how early my friends of color’s kids were coming to them with feelings about not being good because of skin color. I would have thought ages 5-7, but it’s more like age 3.

    Kids will say hurtful things out of no real malice but because they are absorbing the cultural pecking order. If they then learn that their parent disputes this, its a big influence.

  2. Posted February 16, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    love your children. simply love them. you’ll say and do a million wrong things and right things by the time they’re raised. race is something that shouldn’t matter at all and yet at this point in human history, somehow it does. be true to your own feelings and little by little we’ll all grow.

    • Posted February 16, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      Thank you Mike for your comment. Live continues to be the answer. Loving our children provides beautiful opportunities to teach

  3. Katherine
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this helpful blog post. Do you have tips regarding at what points to initiate these conversations? Should it be when your child brings up the issue or is there a way to have such a conversation completely unprovoked?

    A second question — any tips on how to have these conversations with preschoolers, starting at age 2? I agree that early education is important and I don’t want to miss any chances.

    • Posted February 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Katherine, thank you for commenting! As I reflect back to those pre-school years, I would say that conversations and exposure to race were pretty organic. It could have been my good friend, who happened to be white, and I getting together with our toddlers, or books I chose to read sharing the beauty of difference. My kids are older now, third and sixth grade, and I intentionally look for opportunities to share their history, race, and the institutionalization of race to empower them and to justify the disparities they see inside and outside of school communities. For instance, I managed to get them to watch 30 minutes of the documentary, Slavery by Another Name. The history books in school tend to stop the discussion of slavery at Emancipation, a grave over-simplification.
      Katherine, I am confident Jaime will reply with answers to your specific questions. In the meantime, here is a link to books you might find useful in support of proacctive conversations with pre-schoolers. Click here for resources

  4. Jennifer
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Could you give some tips about talking about race with middle-class, mostly white teenagers, as an educator rather than a parent? I often hear these kids just making comments about race and class in a casual way when they are out of their own neighborhood — not deliberately derogatory, but noticing differences of race, class, style, language, etc. Everything they notice is true to their limited experiences with people of other classes and race groups, but it somehow it feels oddly “racist” to not say anything to them when they are mostly noticing negative things. And it feels false to say “don’t say things like that” or “don’t notice that those kids act differently than you do.” Would love some advice.

    • Posted February 16, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Jennifer, thoughtful questions from an educator…we appreciate it. As a parent, I will defer to Jaime-the expert on this. Follow up shortly. Long school break 🙂

  5. Jennifer
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    We need your help in France. Do you have any trainers in Europe or have any plans to come here. As a mother of a biracial child I’m struggling. The Bullying about race over her is widely ignored and even excused.

    • Jennifer in WI
      Posted February 19, 2013 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

      JUst start talking – feeling awkward is nto a good enough reason to stay silent. Just enegage in the conversation with an open mind and an open heart. be curious and explore. Be open and honest and reveal your own worries and fears. Race in this respect is not any different than any other topic that adults shy away from talking with children about – there are many. When you hear the trite phrases coming out of your mouth – stop talking and do more reading and thinking first. Be authentic – generate your own new thoughts about what you believe and what you still do not know about. These qualities will be noticed and recognized by the children and will convey much more than the content of what you are saying.

  6. Posted February 18, 2013 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Bonjour Jennifer,
    Jaime should have references for you. Will be in touch soon.

  7. Posted February 19, 2013 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    A Hands-On Workshop for Visionary Educators
    What do you say when a child asks you a difficult question about race?

    When: Saturday, March 9, 2013 | 10am – 4pm
    Where: The IDEAL School – 314 West 91st Street


    Border Crossers invites you to participate in an exciting day of professional development for educators seeking tools and language to talk about race with young students. This is not a lecture or a presentation – we use interactive theater and adult learning techniques to collectively discuss the role of race in our lives, share personal experiences of critical moments with students, develop strategies for confidently and effectively entering into conversations about race in the classroom and practice what to say when tough situations arise.

    REGISTER HERE TODAY are available. Space is limited!

    For more information, contact
    Check out our Talking About Race video,
    and Educator Guide!

  8. Posted February 21, 2013 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Kim for re-post and great blog site

  9. Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    thank you for sharing

  10. Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    thanks for sharing

  11. Posted February 21, 2013 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the re-post PAASC – Parents of African American Students Studying Chinese
    This is a great group coming from the Bay area encouraging language emersion. – check it out!
    Gong Xi Fa Cai!

  12. Posted February 28, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for re-post. Jaime did give great tools to utilize immediately. Thank you for urging us to consider these very same tools to talk to children about disability.

  13. Posted March 12, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    thank you for the repost and supportive website you have. You are providing a great resource and we will share!

  14. Posted March 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    thank you for re-post. like your blog posts culture intel!

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