Talking About Race With Kids and Teens

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Talking with children, preschoolers, teens or in between, about current events can be challenging in the best of times. When illness, inequity, violence and hate surround us, it can be an overwhelming prospect.   

We’ve been recommending that you start with an open book for a long time, on a lot of different topics. A couple of the lists we’ve created for parents of young children might be especially useful just now, like our list on Positive Racial Identity or the one on Feelings.   

Racial identity and institutionalized racism can be hard for adults to talk about, especially for white people whose experience of the world has been presented as the norm for so long. Some parents believe that discussing these ideas will somehow introduce concepts that children aren’t already aware of and worry about the impact of this new information. 

Research shows that’s not the case. The Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) is a program that exists within the Office of Child Development, part of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Their reports show that “Young children notice race, and make decisions based on race.” And their awareness of race starts very young—at about three months of age.  

That report is one of the reasons we created this set of booklists to celebrate and explore the lives and history of African Americans. 

There are also a variety of other resources and organizations that can support your efforts to raise and discuss these issues. There’s information available from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Another source of information and support is Embrace Race, an organization which seeks to “nurture resilience in children of color, nurture inclusive, empathetic children of all stripes, raise kids who think critically about racial inequity and support a movement of kid and adult racial justice advocates for all children.”  

And there’s a movement within and about publishing, We Need Diverse Books, which advocates for more representation of characters and creators of color. Related events are happening too, like the Kidlit Rally for Black Lives, hosted on The Brown Bookshelf on June 4, 2020.  

Ultimately, it’s up to you. The decision about what news and information you choose to share and discuss with your children is not one that anyone else can—or should—make for you.   

How do you start the conversation? That we can help with. Consider these steps to prepare for your conversations:  

  • read the book yourself, first, so you know what to expect and can consider which parts might be especially meaningful, painful or confusing for your child  
  • read the book to your child, as many times as needed, in whole or in part or read the book alongside your older child 
  • talk about the books you have read with your child 
  • be willing to revisit titles you’ve read and discussed when your child brings them up again or asks new questions  

Below are some books that we think offer a good place to start. Please feel free to share books that speak to you and your family in the comments or request titles on specific topics.  

 

For Preschool and Kindergarten  

Child of the Civil Rights Movement A moving first-person account that will help young children understand this historical era. 

Crown A young boy’s trip to the barber shop provides opportunities to uncover and celebrate self-confidence and joy. 

Don’t Touch My Hair! A young girl must defend herself against unwanted, though not obviously hostile, touch.  

On the Playground: Our First Talk About Prejudice , On the News Our First Talk About Tragedy  Titles in this series are aimed at helping parents of young children introduce and explain difficult topics.  

What Was the March on Washington?  Books about the Civil Rights era remind us that today’s struggles are part of a larger effort to promote equity and respect for all people. 

  

For grades 1-5   

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship A book of poems written by two authors, one black, one white, who examine the ways that race impacts our lives.  

How to Build a Museum: Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture This book showcases the depth and breadth of the African American experience.  

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness This story about a white family’s reaction to racist violence offers an opportunity to think about what responses we will choose to make ourselves. 

The Undefeated An inspiring look at African Americans whose triumphs have been hard won against great odds. 

 

For middle schoolers:  

A Good Kind of Trouble After attending a powerful protest, Shayla starts wearing an armband to school to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but when the school gives her an ultimatum, she is forced to choose between her education and her identity.  

Marching for Freedom: Walk Together, Children, and Don’t You Grow Weary This photo-essay brings the Civil Rights era to life and shows the ways that children and young people participated in the efforts to bring about change. 

This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work Learn about social identities, the history of racism and resistance against it, and how you can use your anti-racist lens and voice to move the world toward equity and liberation. 

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality This story about school integration offers some background to the current conflicts and challenges around building racial equity into our system of beliefs and laws.  

Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice Illustrated poems by women that reflects the joy and passion in the fight for social justice, tackling topics from discrimination to empathy, and acceptance to speaking out.  

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices What do we tell our children when the world seems bleak, and prejudice and racism run rampant? Fifty diverse creators lend voice and comfort to young activists.  

 
For high schoolers:  

The Port Chicago 50 Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights Presents an account of the 1944 civil rights protest involving hundreds of African-American Navy servicemen who were unjustly charged with mutiny for refusing to work in unsafe conditions after the deadly Port Chicago explosion.  

Take the Mic: Fictional Stories About Everyday Resistance An anthology featuring fictional stories and poems that reflect a slice of the varied and limitless ways that young people resist every day. (This anthology covers more than just race, but many of the short stories in it are about race and racism.)  

This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work Learn about social identities, the history of racism and resistance against it, and how you can use your anti-racist lens and voice to move the world toward equity and liberation.  

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You A history of racist and antiracist ideas in America, from their roots in Europe until today, adapted from the National Book Award winner Stamped from the Beginning 

Slay An honors student at Jefferson Academy, seventeen-year-old Keira enjoys developing and playing Slay, a secret, multiplayer online role-playing game celebrating black culture, until the two worlds collide.