Parenting Pep Talk: Talking to Kids about Race and Prejudice

Dr. Jaime Black
Dr. Jaime Black

Children tend to inherently believe that skin color has nothing to do with a person’s value.

It’s 2014 and many of us would like to believe that race isn’t the issue it once was. We’ve had a black president and first lady for the past six years, and it’s almost as common to see interracial families as it is to see same-race families. Comments like those made by LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, however, remind us that racism is alive and well in some communities. Children tend to inherently believe that skin color has nothing to do with a person’s value, so some parents never see a reason to talk about it. It is important for parents to discuss racist and prejudiced comments and images that children are likely to overhear or see. Even if it doesn’t affect your child directly, it is likely to invoke uncomfortable and confusing feelings. We have to be proactive about teaching children to respect and celebrate our multicultural world.

“We cannot and will not ever have control over what our children are exposed to outside of our homes. We do have a lot of control over what we communicate with and model for our children. Parents are the first and forever teachers for their children; they learn from us,” says Donna Y Ford, Ph.D., author of Multicultural Gifted Education, Educator, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice.

Parents must “prepare their children to deal with the effects of racism – racial profiling, racial discrimination and so forth – teaching about race, racism and diversity is not an option, it’s a requirement,” says Patricia Leavy, Ph.D., mother, educator, and author of American Circumstance and Fiction as Research Practice. One way Leavy helps her children and students debunk stereotypes is by teaching media literacy. She uses, for example, the well-known image of Trayvon Martin as a thug or criminal because he was a black male in a hoodie. She asks how people would perceive a white boy in a sweatshirt instead and asserts that had Martin been white, the media would have framed it in that way. Her advice to parents is this: “Engage in media literacy with your kids, throughout their lives. Help them to notice, question and challenge stereotypical imagery.

Colorblindness is not the answer, according to both Ford and Leavy. In fact it is a form of prejudice even if unintentional and well meaning. Both defer to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s sage advice and assert that “we need to teach our children to value and respect all people, and to judge them by their character and actions as opposed to preconceived notions based on skin and clothing – and context.” Leavy cites the following example of how important context is: It only makes sense that Trayvon Martin was wearing a hood. It was raining. The answer lies in teaching children to recognize and appreciate differences, not to ignore them.

Parents can use ignorant comments like those touted by Sterling to open a dialog about race, prejudice, and what individuals can do help. Ask children how they felt about the racist remarks. What do they think about the “Stand Your Ground” law in light of recent events? Talk to kids at a developmentally appropriate level. Children as young as three to six months can perceive differences in skin color but that doesn’t make them racist. Start exposing your children to different races and cultures early on because they notice them anyway. Teach them to embrace rather than fear those differences and don’t forget the plethora of similarities between us all.

Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. Jaime works with high-functioning individuals on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating various socialization groups including an improv social skills group. Visit, e-mail or call (914)712-8208.