Talking With Kids about Race….

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At a time when racial tensions are erupting across the country, on talk radio, and on the campaign trail, my guess is that conversations are also taking place around family dinner tables. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young children who may not see racism in their daily lives, but they definitely see skin color.  A friend of mine, Katy, who is white, has two young black daughters. She says that well-intentioned friends will often encourage their own children to be “color blind,” and not acknowledge that Katy’s daughters are black. But as she says, “my children know they are black.”  Not answering their question sends the wrong message and “discounts their interest in a conversation.”

As Katy said, “kids don’t see race. They see skin color.”  In fact, her two young daughters first described their skin as brown – which, of course, is the true color. “Being black” is a social construct.  When young children ask about someone’s skin color, it’s adults who add the overlay of racism, the history of slavery, and racial tensions. Kids are genuinely asking why some people’s skin is darker than others.  The answer to a child’s genuine curiosity, Katy said, is that “dark-skinned people have more melanin in their skin than light-skinned people.”

Like many subjects that can cause discomfort for parents, sometimes a book is a good way to spark a conversation.  Here are ten recommendations for books to introduce children to our ethnically diverse world in a way that encourages healthy and honest conversations about race and identity.


Families by Shelley Rotner (a picture book celebrating all kinds of families – for the youngest children)


One Family by George Shannon (another good book to introduce young children to all kinds of family units)


Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families by Robie Harris (a colorful book about families. I often recommend this title to parents looking for a book to start a conversation about adoption, divorce, same-sex couples and other family structures.)


Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (a picture book biography for older children about Gordon Parks, a photographer who chronicled the racial inequality in the mid-20th century.)


The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko (the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who met in Virginia in 1958. They were not permitted to marry in Virginia, though, because Mildred was African American and Richard was white. They did get married – in Washington, D.C. But when they returned to Virginia, they were arrested.)


Firebird by Misty Copeland (Copeland tells her story of being an African American soloist with the American Ballet Theater. A beautiful book about a young ballet star.)


Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Before Brown v. Board of Education, Mexican-American children in California fought to end school discrimination. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Sylvia Mendez, a young girl who wanted to attend the local public school, but was instead directed to the “Mexican school.”)


Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter (An inspiring picture book biography about Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.)


Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (Published in 1993, this book remains one of my favorites. I remember reading it to my son many times when he was young and I still recall his questions about the WWII-era Japanese internment camps.  Baseball was a way to pass time for the young boy in this story, but of course the symbols – like his game-winning home run are appropriately obvious to young readers.)


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (An absolutely essential – and beautiful – read for everyone between the ages of 10 and 90. Written in verse, Woodson tells her story of growing up in South Carolina and in Brooklyn.)

Relatedly, I was in the Harvard Book Store this week and saw this display at the check out….


and in the children’s book section….




One thought on “Talking With Kids about Race….

  1. Hi Shelley,

    I hope your summer is going well!

    I just read your latest post, I just had to share with you a couple of things.

    First, by complete coincidence, Aldous will be playing on the same bill as Trombone Shorty at the Levitate Festival in Marshfield soon. Small world moment.

    Second, we have been having these discussions at home, and often on the way home from school as a continuation of discussions held in seminar that day. Celia has always had a hard time understanding why a group would be discriminated against because of skin color. She’s known Ruth & Aster since they were babies and has always loved their beautiful skin.

    It is something we have talked about a lot and Jimmy has had discussions with the 6th graders about the riots and undue force by white officers. I have often found myself referring to a documentary I watched when I was about her age. I think they showed it on 60 minutes one night and it made an everlasting impression on me. We sat down as a family recently to watch it – “A Class Divided” – about a 3rd grade teacher’s classroom experiment begun the day after Dr. King was killed. It involved splitting the children into groups of “blue eyes” and “brown eyes”.

    On day 1 the “blue eyes” were told they were superior, smarter, better behaved, better learners and listeners and deserved privileges that the “brown eyes” didn’t. The children very quickly turned on their best friends. On day 2 the groups were reversed. The results were fascinating. The dominant group completed learning tasks quicker on day 1 and much slower on day 2 when the roles switched. I would highly recommend it if you are unfamiliar. In the 80s they had a reunion with the kids in the film who spoke about the lasting impact it made on their lives. It is a powerful film.

    The Hingham Library has a copy or you can view it on YouTube. It aired as part of Frontline and can be found on their site. There was also a book titled Eye of the Storm.

    Hope all is well, Tricia


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