Discussing Race with Young Kids | First Steps

Research shows that from infancy, children categorize visual attributes and assign meaning to them. If we don’t talk about race from a young age, we miss a critical window.

Authors’ note: We are two white library professionals, and this article is written from our perspective. We are grateful to the women of color and anti-racism educators quoted here who provided new ways to address race in our work with children.

At a recent teacher workshop at the Brooklyn Public Library, “Talking About Race in the Classroom,” educators and librarians discussed situations when we had heard young kids mention race, and how we responded. During the event, two white teachers said that their kindergartners “don’t see color” and are “too young to say or think racist things.”

However, research shows that from infancy, children categorize visual attributes and assign meaning to them. If we don’t talk about race from a young age, we miss a critical window.

Children as young as three make distinctions based on racial differences. When we don’t discuss race with them, “they will not just come to their own conclusions, they’ll come to racist conclusions,” says Kate Engle, an early childhood educator and anti-racism education consultant.

“We live in a racist society. They are going to see the impact of that,” Engle adds. “So if we don’t describe the reasons…they may fall into that idea of blaming individuals.”

A recent study from Child Development found that some five-year-old white children showed implicit pro-white bias. Other research shows that having the right conversations with young kids can help counter their racially biased thoughts, and parents are best equipped to have those talks.

Can librarians support parents in this essential work? Kirby McCurtis, branch administrator at Multnomah (OR) County Library (MCL), and Danielle Jones, MCL youth services librarian, think so—and developed “Talking About Race with Preschoolers,” a four-week workshop for parents and caregivers. They shared research, facilitated discussions, and modeled how to use picture books to ­discuss race. MCL is now looking to develop a similar series for early educators.

In her programs at the Grand Rapids (MI) Public Library, youth services manager Jessica Bratt shares talking points to help parents talk about race with young kids, along with early literacy tips. These can be as simple as noticing skin color or pointing out cultural differences while reading with children and acknowledging that a book is by an author or illustrator of color.

When Bratt reads These Hands, a book about racial discrimination in the 1950s written by Margaret H. Mason and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, at storytimes, she tells parents, “Share with your child your feelings about race when reading picture books. You can say, ‘It makes me sad that laws allowed certain groups of people like African Americans to be treated differently.’” She mentions things that are fair and unfair, concepts that preschoolers understand.

“Every book is a book about race in the same sense that every book is a book about literacy, math, colors, or shapes,” says Megan Madison, research associate at the New York City Early Childhood Professional Development Institute. If all of the characters are white, discuss that: “Did you notice all of the characters in this book have white skin? What do you think about that?”

Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents, according to a 2007 study. One reason: Many white parents worry, “What if I say something wrong?” and “We don’t want to teach racist things,” says Engle. It’s a healthy fear, she adds. But silence is powerful, too: It sends the message that race is a taboo topic.

McCurtis says, “Lean into your discomfort” and educate yourself. Start conversations about race with your colleagues, parents, and children. Bring these conversations into your programs. If it’s daunting to launch these workshops at your library, McCurtis recommends starting small—by reading diverse books at storytimes.

“Young children are learning the vocabulary of race and racism in America,” says Madison. Let’s give them the words and tools to fight it.

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Rachel G. Payne & Jessica Ralli

Rachel G. Payne (right) is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). Jessica Ralli is BPL’s coordinator of early literacy programs.

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