If you’re worried that your kids are too young to talk about race, they’re not. I understand the instinct to protect our children’s innocence, but we don’t know when our kids will first encounter racism.
How old should my child be when we talk about race?
Research shows that children notice race during infancy, and bias can become internalized during the toddler years. As you can see in the image above, blatant racism can occur at any age, even before our first memory.
If we wait, our kids may already be victims. Or they could be racist to others at school and playgrounds without our awareness.
And racism kills.
But you can be the first person to talk to your kids about race in a safe place.
You have the power to establish this truth: every person deserves respect, regardless of age, ability, skin color, eye shape, hair texture, culture, and language. You can model how to be an ally to fellow human beings.
Normalizing these discussions at home and school is urgent, and change requires time and patience. If we all took a few minutes on a regular basis to talk to our kids, it can make a positive difference synergistically.
Through this starter guide, I hope to reduce obstacles by compiling my research and experience with effective resources and videos. Although many racism guides exist online, the vast majority exclude Asians. Therefore, this guide aims to be more inclusive, though I recommend learning from various perspectives.
Take your time to go through this post and come back to it as needed over the years. This is a life-long project.
For context, I am a Chinese American pediatrician, married to a Korean American man, and a mother of 2 children. Although we have friends of all races, we currently live in a predominantly white community in California. My husband works in a mostly Hispanic community, while I work remotely for a diverse company.
Brief history of racism in the United States
Racism is a worldwide problem in virtually every society. It’s an underlying cause of genocide, wars, and colonization. Since my family is based in the United States, this section will highlight a few key events in my country’s history.
Racism in early American history
In the United States, racism began with colonization by European settlers, genocide of Native Americans (eg, Trail of Tears), enslavement and lynching of African Americans, and deportation and mob violence against Latino Americans. When Chinese immigrants arrived to the United States in the 1800s, anti-Asian racism involved federal sanctions including:
- Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all new immigration from China
- Immigration Act of 1917 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which extended the immigration ban to include virtually all of Asia
- Interment Camps during World War II in 1942, which imprisoned 127,000 Japanese Americans
Police brutality against Black and Brown Americans
In more recent history, 9/11 exposed significant violence, threats, vandalism and arson against innocent Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South-Asian Americans. Islamophobia and discrimination continue to be a significant problem to this day.
Furthermore, the long-standing police brutality against Black Americans has been amplified by the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
According to research, “Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.”
Anti-Asian Hate crimes during Coronavirus Pandemic
From March 2020 to February 2021, 3,795 anti-Asian incidents in the United States were reported to stopaapihate.org. These events ranged from being coughed/spit on to robberies, assaults, and murder. Research from the American Journal of Public Health suggests a temporal correlation with former President Trump’s use of “Chinese Virus” on Twitter with rising anti-Asian tweets and hate crimes.
Prior to this, health policy experts discouraged using location in disease names due to historical trends of discrimination. On May 8, 2015, the World Health Organization updated naming guidelines for diseases: “This may seem like a trivial issue to some, but disease names really do matter to the people who are directly affected. We’ve seen certain disease names provoke a backlash against members of particular religious or ethnic communities…Once disease names are established in common usage through the Internet and social media, they are difficult to change, even if an inappropriate name is being used.”
Racism, microaggressions, and gaslighting definitions
Before diving into strategies, I want to clarify definitions. Many people that I’ve spoken with seem to be unaware about the persistent prevalence of racism, microaggressions, and gaslighting. However, if we aren’t willing to humble ourselves to the possibility that we carry potentially harmful bias to various degrees, we cannot make progress and move forward collectively.
What is racism?
Racism is the conscious or subconscious belief that a race is superior and has the right to dominate others and that other races are inferior. Racism occurs at 2 main levels:
- Individually with direct discrimination between people
- Systemically with policies that benefit a dominant race and oppress people of color
What is bullying?
Bullying involves aggressive behavior, including verbal insults, physical assaults, and social manipulation (eg, gossip). See Bullying Prevention Resources for Multilingual and Multicultural Kids for more details and guidance.
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional verbal & nonverbal insults which communicate biased, negative, harmful messages to a person or community. Examples include:
- “Where are you from? No, where are you reeeaallly from?” (Assuming that Asians cannot be from the United States.)
- “You are so articulate for a Black person” (Assuming that Black persons cannot speak coherently.)
- “You’re the model minority.” (Perpetuates myth that Asians do not struggle and discourages them to reach out for help.)
- “What’s your accent?” (When someone doesn’t actually have an accent) or “How do you speak English so well? Why don’t you have an accent?” (Surprise at the idea of a “foreigner” speaking English)
- “I love Asian women.” or “What type of Asian are you?” or “You’re so exotic.” (Mysogynistic fetish of certain ethnicities)
What is gaslighting?
Manipulative acts including minimizing, denying, questioning, & undermining a person’s experiences, thoughts, & feelings in order to maintain power & control. Example of racial gaslighting include:
- “Oh, [the murderer] was fed up, at the end of his rope…he had a bad day.” (Paraphrasing Captain Jay Baker’s response to the mass shooting of Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia)
- “Are you sure you really experienced racism and not exaggerating? My Black best friend never experienced this.” or “Why are you complaining? My friend is Sikh and doesn’t mind when people say ‘towel head’ and other comments.” (Extrapolating an isolated experience onto others and assuming silence means acceptance of derogatory comments).
- “I’m sorry you feel that way.” (Instead of apologizing and taking responsibility for the wrong act, the offender places blame on the victims feelings.)
- “I’m not racist, because I married a Korean person.” or “I’m not racist, because I adopted a Black child.”
How to talk to kids about racism: start with the 4 As
This is going to be an ongoing conversation that you’ll build upon with time, research, and experience. You can weave race into regular conversation for a few minutes each day in a matter-of-fact way with your children.
Diverse physical features
On a regular basis, talk about various physical characteristics in a positive way, including people who look different than your family. Empathy for other people suffering comes more naturally when we see the good in them. When your child asks questions about someone’s facial features, an encouraging response might be:
- “Yes, I see what you are saying. We are all different. Cool, right?”
- Shì de, wǒ míngbái nǐ zài shuō shénme. Wǒmen dōu bù yīyàng. Tài kùle ba?
- No matter what we look like, we are all human beings.
- Wúlùn wǒmen zhǎng dé shénme yàngzi, wǒmen quánbù dōu shì rén.
When you give compliments, consider whether the comment will affirm this person or whether it’s based on a derogatory fetish of a particular body part.
Positive language for colors
I also recommend describing all colors in a positive way. Using a nature scavenger hunt as an example, here are some ways you can weave race into the discussion:
- How many different colors do you see at this park?
- Ní zài gōngyuán lǐ kàn dào duōshǎo zhǒng yánsè?
- Wow! The world has so many colors!
- Wa! Shìjiè shàng yǒu hěnduō yánsè!
- This black rock is pretty & smooth. Mommy’s hair is the same color!
- Zhè kuài hēi shítou hěn měilì hé guānghuá. Māmā de tóufǎ shì yīyàng de yánsè!
- What color is the soil? Brown soil is important. Flowers, fruits, and vegetables grow in the soil.
- Nǐtǔ shì shénme yánsè? Zōngsè de tǔ hěn zhòngyào. Zhè shì wǒmen de huāduǒ, shuǐguǒ hé shūcài shēngzhǎng dì dìfāng.
- God gave us different hair, eye, and skin colors. Just like a rainbow!
- 上帝给我们不同的头发, 眼睛, 和肤色。就像彩虹一样!
- Shàngdì gěi wǒmen bùtóng de tóufǎ, yǎnjīng hé fūsè. Jiù xiàng cǎihóng yīyàng!
Affirm inner beauty
While we want to affirm our kids God-given appearances, focusing on personality, effort, behavior, and other non-physical characteristics are important for long-term well-being. Here are positive affirmations in English and Chinese that you can practice saying to your child.
Recognizing diversity or lack of is an important step in understanding risks of racial bias.
- Who lives in the neighborhood? If there is lack of diversity, why don’t people of other races live in the area?
- What do friends, teachers, doctors, delivery personnel, store clerks, and farmers look like in your area? Why might certain jobs have more people of certain races?
- What language(s) do you hear in your family and community?
- Do local schools teach more than 1 language?
- Do libraries and stores offer multilingual books?
- What can you do to diversify your personal experiences and that of your local schools and community?
- Taking diversity a step further, what can you do to be genuinely inclusive of people of various races?
Art and media
- What books and shows does your family read and watch?
- What do the people speak and look like?
- Are the creators “own voices” or outside perspectives representing a marginalized group?
- Do you think the characters are realistic or based on stereotypes?
- What art and music does your family see and hear?
- Am I buying products from people of the original culture? Or have the products been created by people who are profiting off cultural approrpriation? (Eg, The Mahjong Line, non-Chinese people opening a Chinese restaurant)
Bilingual books about various ethnicities and races
According to research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, the vast majority of children’s books feature Caucasian or animal protagonists. Conscious effort is needed for reading diverse books and narratives about overcoming challenges.
- Books about racism, oppression, and overcoming adversity
- Books that celebrate diversity:
- Young, Proud, and Sung-Jee (available in English, simplified Chinese, traditional Chinese, Korean, Thai, Italian)
- Picture Books that Celebrate Asian Protagonists (also more in my Amazon shop)
- Children’s Books About Black History in Chinese and English
- Picture Books for Women’s History Month in Chinese and English
- Picture Books Celebrating Hispanic and Latino Protagonists in Chinese, English, Spanish
- Children’s Books About Native Americans in Chinese and English
Movies / videos with real people
- Asian American families
- Latinx families
- Black families
- Native American families
Anti-bias / Anti-racist allyship
- Be honest about systemic racism and oppression against minorities, especially people of color.
- Recognize your privileges. For example, I acknowledge that my light skin color often gives me favorable treatment (unfairly) compared to my darker-skinned friends or friends with accents.
- Be an ally. One act of kindness can make make a huge difference and build momentum for more support. Avoid the bystander effect and speak up when you see something wrong.
“Let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions.” 1 John 3:18
Videos that show how parents and teachers talk to kids about racism
Introducing bias to kids (Part 1)
Recently, I introduced the concept of bias to my children (7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son). I share a 2-minute clip of the discussion on Instagram and Facebook. Apologies for the typographical error in part of the Chinese caption on Instagram (corrected for the Facebook video)! However, I hope it shows that you don’t have to have a perfect PowerPoint presentation to have these discussions with children. The talks can be brief, humble, impactful, and cumulative. Part 2 soon to come.
What does racism have to do with me?
Adapted with permission “A Kids Book About Racism” by Jelani Memory, Katie Yue-Sum Li has an excellent 10-minute video about how racism is relevant to all of us. She uses specific examples from her experience as a Chinese American and adds kid-friendly conversation starters about racism experiences.
Talking to our Asian American children about race
Dr. Jenny Wang is a clinical psychologist who gives a helpful introduction to talking about race as a family in this 18 minute video.
Miss Katie Sings
Miss Katie is a music teacher who has a special gift of talking and making music about current events and human rights issues in a way that is gentle for kids. Click here for her 5-minute video about anti-Asian sentiments and song about standing up for what’s right. Sign up for virtual online classes on her website here.
How I teach my 4-year-old son about racism
Talking about hate crimes in Atlanta with 5-year-old son
Non-profit social worker and mom, Prisca Kim, shares grief, truth, and hope with her 5-year-old son in this 1-minute video. This conversation shows that it’s never too young to talk to our kids about difficult but important issues.
How to talk to kids about to racist insults and attacks
- The Hechinger Report has excellent examples of how to respond to children’s questions about why people are racist
- Ottawa Hills Schools has a step-by-step guide on how to respond to various racist scenarios at school
Bystander intervention tips
The bystander effect is an unfortunately common psychological phenomenon. When a person sees an emergency (eg, bullying, crime, injury), they might not due to feeling less personal responsibility when other people are around.
While feeling shock is normal, bystanders might not know how to help with anything from bullying to life-threatening crimes. They also might be afraid to intervene.
Explaining the bystander effect to kids
Child psychologist, Sarah Kang (@teachingmykiddos), explains that “part of teaching my kids to stand up for themselves and others around them is to first teach them about what bystander effect is, since it can get in the way of their willingness to help or intervene.”
She created a helpful visual guide that you can download here and print for your children or students.
Overcoming the bystander effect as adults
To combat this problem, you can register for Bystander Intervention Training at the Hollaback! organization website. They recommend the following 5Ds:
- Distract: Ignore the harasser and talk to the person who is being targeted about something unrelated.
- Delegate: Ask for help.
- Document: Record the incident if it’s safe. Share only with victim’s consent.
- Delay: Check on the victim & listen.
- Direct: Depending on risk, briefly confront harasser and name the problem (eg, “Leave them alone”, “That’s racist”).
More anti-racism resources
- The MGH Center for Cross-Cultural Student Emotional Wellness: Volunteer-run and operated coalition with clinicians, educators, parents, students, and researchers. They focus on mental health education, prevention, and access to culturally sensitive care.
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice: National affiliation of 5 leading organizations advocating for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans and other underserved communities
- Asians for Mental Health: Dr. Jenny Wang, PhD is a psychologist who is dedicated to common issues pertaining to the Asian diaspora. Her Instagram account features thoughtful reflections, while her website has a directory of Asian mental health providers.
- The Conscious Kid: Non-profit education and research organization promoting equity and healthy racial identity development.
- Be The Bridge: This Christian organization is dedicated to racial justice and reconciliation.
Have you talked to your kids about racism? What other anti-racist resources do you recommend for families and schools?
Friends, I know the above guide will have gaps, so kindly comment below or email [email protected] if you recommend other resources that we can learn from.
Share your story, because your experience and feelings matter.