Talking about race is uncomfortable when you've avoided the conversation your entire life. But as the Black Lives Matter movement grows and white allies are listening, learning and un-learning, one of the most important tenents of supporting BIPOC people is to actually have those talks amongst peers, family members, and yes, according to founder of A Kids Book About, Jelani Memory, children. Author of A Kids Book About Racism, Memory is an African American father who believes it's essential that we not only honor our children's observant curiosity, but help it grow by engaging in truthful conversations. We might be scared of them, but kids aren't. Sound hard? Memory broke it down it for PureWow, offering his straightforward and honest advice.
Do you recommend any conversation starters for parents wanting to talk to their kids about race?
“Honestly, anything will do. The problem isn't how to bring it up...But if parents wanted some prompts, try, 'Did you know that there are lots of different kinds of skin colors? Even you have a skin color? Do you have any friends at school that look different than you? What do you think about people who have different skin color than you?' Seriously, any which way you can get into the conversation, do it. The biggest barrier is likely YOU when it comes to a conversation about race happening, not your kid.”
At what age can you really begin these talks?
“Talking age, or even earlier. Kids notice the differences. This idea that kids don't notice until adults tell them is nonsense. It's not backed up by any studies. The talk will look different at different ages, but it's definitely OK to start talking to your kiddos super early. There literally is no harm.”
What is your advice for parents who are themselves learning (and unlearning) many things for the first time?
“It's OK to not get everything right right away. Learn, listen, grow. Know that you'll get better the more you talk about [race] and learn. You'll also say something stupid or hurtful or, dare I say, racist. But what's the alternative? Not talking about it at all? Being colorblind? Don't do that. It'll take time to undo, often a lifetime of habits, ways of thinking and truths that you've been taught. And don't constantly hit up your one Black friend like it's their job to mentor you on everything 'Black people.' Learn. Ask questions along the way. But don't make it someone else's responsibility.”
Have you heard about real-life results from children and parents who've read your books?
“Yes! Oh my gosh yes! We hear story after story about grownups and kids reading our books together and the conversations they have afterward. Across the board, every grownup is delighted that their kids 'got it' and that they had lots of thoughts already about the topic. For kids of color, my book tells them a story about themselves. It lets them feel seen and known. For white kids, it's a satisfying exploration of something they've been curious about, but don't have permission to talk about most often.”
How do you—or how have you seen other parents—initiate conversations on race without the use of books, media, etc?
“I can't stress this enough, it's not hard! There are people at the grocery store, on the street, in the classroom who have different color skin than you and your kid. Talk about it. Remark about it. Bring it up. Notice it for God's sake! Noticing skin color isn't racist! Not noticing is! Once you get on the topic of race and differences of skin color, that's your opportunity to talk about differences in experience. Go back to the history books if you need to, but you can also point to what's happening in the world right now.”
Are there any common "mistakes" parents make that can be avoided?
“Yes. Mistake number 1: 'In our family we don't see color.' Not only is that nonsense, it's hurtful and denies not only reality but the experience of every Black and brown individual. Mistake number 2: 'We don't want to break our kid's innocence, so we don't want to teach them about racism yet.' This is white privilege at its finest. For families of color, it's simply not an option. And while we're at it, I have no idea why white parents believe that their kids will somehow not do anything racist if they don't learn anything about racism. Mistake number 3: 'It's really about respecting everyone, why do I need to bring up racism?' This one is sneaky. On its face, it almost seems like the right thing to do. But if it's really about respecting everyone, why wouldn't you teach your kids about a very specific way that someone can be not only disrespected, but devalued and dehumanized? This kind of thinking has an underlying belief that racism as it is described by individuals of color cannot be nearly as systemic, prevalent and pervasive.”
You say "kids' lives are complicated." In what ways might kids experience real-life challenges that we're unaware of?
“This one is a biggie. We grownups spend a lot of time trying to shield our kids from things. To protect their little hearts and minds. But in that effort to protect, we often think that we've done a fool-proof job [and that] their internal lives and their external experiences aren't nearly as complicated, nuanced and traumatic as our own are. How many adults do you know that still remember traumatic moments from their childhood, things that still impact them to this day? This stuff impacts kids while they're still kids. They may be sitting there watching Teen Titans Go, laughing their head off, but inside they might be a total mess. It's not until we invite kids into conversations on the most important topics, that they begin to open up and show us what's hiding inside.”
We've been underestimating our kids' thirst for truth. Can children be activists too?
“Yup. Plain and simple, yes. In fact, kids are better than us when it comes to this. They have a better innate sense of justice, right and wrong and fairness. When kids see something wrong, they want to stand up and do something about it. They don't have all the same political, mental, emotional hangups that we do about trying to do the right thing.”