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Teach Young Kids About Race

By Naomi O'Brien


Why Should We Teach Young Kids About Race?

Why should we teach young kids about race? Isn’t this too heavy for kids? Isn’t it too tricky? Aren’t kids too young for this?

Race has become such a hot button word. This is usually because of a lack of education around certain topics. Also, some people were raised to be “colorblind” and pretend not to notice race. This is a HUGE problem. It is OK to say a person is Black, or White, or Asian. It is only because of the lack of conversation and education that some people can feel scared and uncomfortable. Through open dialogue, children can learn that people are of all different races, but unfortunately, not all races are treated the same, even though they should be. They can also learn why they should pick up the mantel and be anti-racist. It may seem like a tall order because we are seeing the end effects of racism play out in real life, however, I have found by teaching kids earlier it leads to more equality and a keener eye in the world around them. Making the time in younger years also lays the groundwork for children and parents to have common language for those deeper conversations that are sure to come as kids grow older.

How Do We Go About Such a Task?

How do we teach young kids about race? It can be so tricky!

Actually, no, and it isn’t as hard as one would think.

Teaching kids about race is as straightforward as naming what race is- a group people are put into based on their physical characteristics, then talking about racial differences and what they really mean. Can the color of someone’s skin influence their abilities? Their behavior? Their friendliness? Of course not! This is something that is so important to instill in kids who will be hearing stereotypes and possibly developing biases for or against certain groups of people. They need the constant messaging that race is not how we should judge people.

In books and in the world, point out different races when you see them to celebrate them. Highlight the similarities that connect us and point out the differences that make us unique.

When one explores history, it is easy to see how people immigrated or were forced to come to the United States and were subsequently treated differently based on their group, or race. Should it be this way? Is this right? Of course not! Then what is the solution? To be anti-racist! How do we do this? By learning and speaking up! Data shows that kids as young as 5 have been shown to unconsciously choose friends based on race. By having explicit conversations early on, kids can be sure to learn how to be respectful and inclusive towards everyone early on. Racial attitudes that kids develop can improve in as little as a week with direct conversations.

I always like to uplift communities before I dive into their oppression. I don’t want negativity to be the first things my kids associate with certain groups.

This conversation is a good next step if you have already spent time discussing diversity. (If not, I have a blog post all about it. Be sure to check it out and find some great books too!)

Our Experiences

Kids are naturally justice oriented. Have you heard the common phrase, “That’s not fair!” Kids are primed to make things fair. They want to understand fairness and all the rules. While many feel it is inappropriate to teach young kids about race, I disagree. Not only are kids capable of understanding what race is, research supports this. Kids are aware of race and differences from a very young age. By naming differences, celebrating diversity, and also shining a light on injustices, kids can make better sense of the world around them and grow into conscious caring adults.

And keep in mind, the images, stories, and experience that pop up for you when you hear the word race or racism aren’t the same for kids. When working with young kids, they likely won’t have graphic violence attached to those words.

We can talk about race and be age appropriate. If young Black kids can experience racism then young kids of all races can be learning about it and making sure they aren’t a part of it.

Notes for Adults

When we begin to teach young kids about race, unfortunately some adults may get anxious at the potential for pushback. Know your why and do it anyway.

Why do you think this work is important for kids to be doing? Be ready to share that answer often.

I created a lesson that has teacher guides to help you on your way, as well as parent/caregiver communication to ease the nerves. Being upfront and open can make things easier. If you are a parent or caregiver, this is 100% something you can teach at home. I now have these conversations with my own kids on a regular basis, but it began with a simple reading of a book. The subsequent conversations we had were phenomenal. Now, kids are able to name racism around them and understand what is harmful to others.  When kids make mistakes, we have common language to talk through it.

Books To Help You

While you can google and find endless books to help teach young kids about race, here are some to get you started. These books celebrate racial differences and name them.

  1. Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race, by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli, and Isabel Roxas
  2. Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, by Joanna Ho and Dung Ho
  3. I am Brown, by Ashok Banker
  4. We Are Still Here!: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know, by Traci Sorell
  5. Skin Again, by Bell Hooks

The books below talk more explicitly about racism and will allow you to have conversations on how to identify racism and work to be anti-racist in daily life.

  1. Separate is never equal, by Duncan Tonatiuh
  2. Something Happened in Our Town, by Marianne Celano
  3. When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett
  4. Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You, by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi, and Sonja Cherry-Paul
  5. Let’s Talk About Race, by Julius Lester

Have you ever tried building perspective through picture books? Read about it here!

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Hi, I'm Naomi

I have been teaching elementary students for over 10 years. Effective reading instruction and accurate social studies at the primary level are huge passions of mine! 

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