When readers expressed the wish that they knew more resources for talking with children about race and racism, I knew just who to ask to write a resource list. My dear friend Lorien is a contributor here and also the person I would go to for advice on discussing social justice. She’s compiled some of the books, music and videos she and her husband use with their kids to discuss racism. I hope you find them helpful! ~Alissa
Resources for talking with Kids About Race and Racism
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by: Lorien Van Ness
Talking about race and racism definitely ranks as one of the more difficult topics I’ve had to broach with my kids. While my training as an early childhood educator had given me plenty of experience talking with kids about diversity, I had been given literally no training in talking with kids about racism.
Before having children of my own, I believed that teaching diversity was enough, that I could simply help children value diversity and in doing so avoid having to discuss racism. While we can and should continue to teach and live the principle of valuing diversity, that alone is not enough; unfortunately we are all exposed to racism even though we ourselves do not agree with such beliefs – even young children are not exempt from its effects.
As Beverly Tatum, an expert on race relations and president of Spelman College puts it, “… like smog in the air. We don’t breathe it because we like it. We don’t breathe it because we think it’s good for us. We breathe it because it’s the only air that’s available.”
People have different comfort zones for when to introduce discussions about racism; everyone’s family is different and I’m firm believer that you know your family best. That being said, I would urge you to think about how you want to discuss racism now, even if you feel that your children are too young. It is such a complex, heavy issue that it can be difficult to know where to start.
For us it has worked well to slowly keep adding to their understanding, we talk about racism from early on in the same way we talk about other sensitive topics – answering questions as they arise and addressing misinformation frankly and honestly, while at the same time exposing them to age appropriate materials and discussions that promote diversity and combat racism.
Books, Activities and Media to Help you Talk with Kids About Race and Racism
For very young children (0-3):
Use books and movies that feature characters of various ethnicities to help build a broad worldview. Some of our favorite books are:
- Baby Born by Anastasia Suen
- Clap Hands and other books in the Oxenbury Board Book Series By Helen Oxenbury
- More, More, More, Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
- Splash and other books in the Baby Faces series by Roberta Grobel Intrater
- My Granny Went to Market by Stella Blackstone
- One World, One Day by Barbara Kerley
- Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
- Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers
For preschoolers (2-5)
Continue to help preschoolers develop a broad world view and give them context for the larger world; this is important whether you live in a homogeneous community or a heterogeneous community.
Help children examine concepts of fairness and encourage empathy by asking your child how they think different characters feel during conflicts in books and movies.
Don’t be alarmed if your child begins to notice and point out differences in the people around her; take a deep breath and lean into the moment. If your child asks about someone’s skin tone you can respond positively and matter of factly how wonderful it is that we are all so different, you might even ask your child to hold out their arm against yours to demonstrate the variety in your own family.
- The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
- The Doorbell Rang by Pat Hutchins
- Grandfathers Journey by Allen Say
- Carlos and the Squash Plant by Jan Romero Stevens
- The Sneetches by Dr. Suess
- Different Just Like Me by Lori Mitchell
- We’re Different We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates
Also consider reading myths from a variety of cultures such as Coyote Stories for Children by Susan Strauss, Princesses From Around the World by Katell Goyer, Tales from India and other books from the Oxford Myths and Legends series.
Crack eggs together for scrambled eggs, cake or meatloaf. Use brown and white eggs and discuss how even though they are different colors on the outside they are the same on the inside. Or for a sweeter example eat candy coated chocolates together- they are different colors but taste the same; bite some in half for a peek at the each colors insides.
Elementary Aged Children (5-12)
It is during this stage that having open discussions about race, diversity and racism becomes crucial. Elementary age children begin to broaden their horizons and participate in more and more social opportunities independently of their families. Discussing these topics openly without an air of taboo will help your child see you as a trusted source of information on the topic – a truth holder and authority with whom they can check the messages they may be receiving from other sources.
Point out stereotypes and racial bias in media and books such as villains and comic relief characters having accents and behaviors attributed to people of Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern or African descent. If you haven’t noticed this before yourself, consider re-watching movies such as The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Lion King, or Star Wars The Phantom Menace. It doesn’t mean your child can’t watch movies or read books with stereotypes, they can be a powerful means of starting or continuing conversation about racism as long as you engage with them on the subject.
When reading older books with racist language, rather than editing as you read, use it as a teachable moment. That being said, don’t be afraid to put some movies, shows, or even books off limits. One example in our household are the really old Felix the Cat cartoons; we just felt that there was too much stereotyping and blatant racism for us to combat with conversation.
The resources in this section deal with race, racism, discrimination, and racial violence in a much more explicit way than the resources mentioned in the previous sections and are meant to be discussed and pondered with an adult who can provide context and additional commentary.
- Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki
- Tea with Milk By Allen Say
- Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter
- The Story Of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
- If You Lived When There Was Slavery In America by Anne Kamma
- Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles
- Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
- Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull
- Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
- by Eve Bunting
- Cheyenne Again by Eve Bunting
- Voices in the Park by DK Publishing and Anthony Browne
- Malala Yousafzai: Warrior with Words by Karen Leggett Abouraya
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
- Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
- Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
- Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
- Streams to the River, River to the Sea by Scott O’Dell
- The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare
- Smoky Night
- Reading Rainbow (we often find these at our library.) Season 1 Episode 24, Season 11, Episode 6, Season 21, Episode 5
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- The Civil War: a Film by Ken Burns
- Ken Burns: The West
- Not For Ourselves Alone
- Which Games Are Culturally Insensitive?? | Game/Show | PBS Digital Studios
- 6 Activities Exploring Prejudice and Discrimination
- Using Crayons to talk about Diversity and Racism
While talking about race and racism may feel uncomfortable and overwhelming, you don’t have to explain or cover “it all” right now. Just starting the conversation and keeping it going is a step in the right direction, as is pointed out in this article by Melinda Wenner Moyer, and this article on Research-Based Advice on Teaching Children Not to Be Racist.
A helpful resource for parents is Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World Edited by Maureen Reddy. This collection of writings by mothers and teachers about their own experiences with racism and discussing racism is formatted in a way that lends itself to picking up and setting down through the many interruptions of parenting and it’s compelling enough to keep you picking it back up!
I’ve also created a Talking About Racism Pinterest Board with additional resources for parents and teachers.
What resources do you use in your family or classroom for talking about race and racism? Where do you struggle in talking about racism? Leave a comment – I’d love to chat. ~Lorien