Teaching children the truth: A guide on talking to kids about race
These conversations aren't easy for anyone but they are necessary, says anti-racism educator Shanice Nicole
A few weeks ago, a friend reached out asking for recommended resources because they were having a hard time finding words to explain "how we got here" to their child. That story is a long one, and I encourage everyone to seek out that story because it is clear the truth is not what we were taught in our history classes.
In fact, many history books are at best historical fiction, but if we're being honest (and I think it's time), they are yet another stark reminder of systemic racism and white supremacy. The way history is taught here is a prime example, given Quebec's history of colonization by the British and refusal to centre historical oppression other than its own.
However, this article is not about that story.
This article is an offering to parents and educators of children. It is one of many guides such as this one, for how to talk and learn about race with them — no matter what page you're on in the story. These things aren't easy for anyone, but they are necessary because in many ways, how we got here is precisely because of silence.
Children have so much to teach us, and one of those lessons is how to be curious and imaginative. I am not yet a parent, but I am an auntie to many babies and have grown up around, babysat, and worked with many young people. I am also an anti-racism educator. So I invite you to take what works, and to leave what doesn't. All I ask is that you be curious and that you let yourself imagine what truths a child deserves to hear — including your own inner child.
Here is my response to my friend.
"It's so important to engage in these conversations with your child, so thank you. I would say similar to talking about sex, let go of the idea of it needing to be one conversation and instead think of it as multiple conversations over time. This can take away a ton of understandable pressure for you to teach or explain something that is neither of your lived experiences, and for them to better receive and understand the truth you are trying to share.
In addition to letting go of the "one conversation" idea, also try and let go of (or at least loosen) the pressure to explain perfectly. There is no perfect explanation. There is no logical explanation. There is no simple explanation for what has been done to Black people and to so many people who have been marginalized, oppressed, and have died because of colonization, white supremacy, and racism. Therefore, the explanation they will receive most genuinely is one that is genuine.
For example, being honest when you don't know something or doing research together demonstrates that you are also engaged in this ongoing learning process — that you also didn't learn the truth in school. I'm sure you already do this with other topics as a parent so tap into that familiar skill and knowledge of how to talk to and hold and support your child.
Also, integrate the learning into your existing routines and practices. If they like to read, include books; if they like to watch movies and TV, include movies and series; if they like to play, include creative games and different activities. The feeling of newness can be overwhelming for anyone, and especially for a child. Adding to the already existing routine or environment will allow for some ease for both you and them.
It's also incredibly important that you share stories and resources that are not just about Black struggle, grief, pain, and oppression. Centre and celebrate stories and resources that are about our resistance, joy, beauty, and power. You have a responsibility to provide them with the opportunity to see what most media doesn't show — the diversity and richness of Blackness and that not only includes our histories, but also our futures.
Remember that environment is also important in terms of where and when you have the conversation(s). Again, you know them best, so be intentional about creating the best possible container for them to receive. For example, that might look like a planned chat or it might be spontaneous while you're in the kitchen together preparing lunch. Thinking about how they best receive information will result in the most effective sharing of said information.
I would say though, in general, when it comes to talking about race — at least with adults — a warning is important. Similarly to sex, because of the taboo and deep shame attached to the topic of race, our bodies often shut down very quickly, and we disengage.
I think it will be different for them, but they are still old enough to know and feel tension in their body when talking about race (or any part of our identity), because we are socialized to do so. And they have also seen you do so, hence why these conversations are uncomfortable, but nonetheless, critical. Take a deep breath and ask your child to do the same.
I'll stop there but ultimately: do what you can, with what you have, and from where you are. Any conversation you have with them is an opportunity for them to question or to challenge and that's exactly what we need. It doesn't need to be perfect, and it won't be perfect. Tell them the truth, and love them through it. It will be hard, but you will find your way."