Talking to children about race is new for some of us who are white or "white adjacent" *. Start young, we're told... but what does that mean? How does one talk to a toddler or a preschooler about racism in America?
At 18 months old, my oldest, who I’ll call Am, took a liking to Faith Ringgold’s picture book, If This Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks. This book was part of my grade 1 teaching library and the concepts were waaaaaay above her head. However, she adored it. She dragged the book around for a good 2 years, screaming “Parks! Parks!” until we read it to her. Eventually the cover fell off.
We did not read the book word-for-word but summarized. This is Rosa Parks. Here she is as a little girl with her grandfather and grandmother. Here, the bus driver told her to get off the bus, and enter through the back, but before she could get back on – he drove away! And do you know why? Because he didn’t like the color of her skin. I bet you’d never do something that mean! And so on.
You can reasonably ask – did she get anything from this? I can’t know for sure, but I can say that she connected to Rosa Parks. And perhaps, discussions of inclusion and kindness vs exclusion and harm, and the introduction to ideas skin color and discrimination set a foundation for deeper discussions later on.
Rosa's Lawyer and... Balloons?
Yesterday, I asked Am (now 17) if she remembers this book. She does! And... she also remembers Mr. E.D. Nixon. I’d forgotten about Mr. E.D. Nixon, Rosa Park’s lawyer. I'd forgotten how much Am connected to him. He helped Rosa Parks when she needed it! In fact, for reasons only clear to small children, Am named every single helium balloon she received between ages 2-4 ... after Mr. E.D. Nixon.
Three Simple Ways to Get Started
1. Begin with Books
Make sure your picture books include people of all backgrounds – and make sure you read them often. No commentary needed. The simple act of using inclusive texts will model your beliefs. Here are four resources to expand your library:
2. Continue with Conversation (simple conversation!)
Don’t shy away from hard discussions with young children. Keep your explanations clear and simple and avoid overly abstract and involved explanations. Instead, try linking the issues under discussion to a young child’s world.
“In this story, other children are treating this girl poorly because of the color of her skin. Can you imagine that? How would you feel if that happened to you? What would you do if you saw this happening?”
Keep going - same books and same topics - covering the same ground is fine and new books and new topics.
* white adjacent is the term I use to recognize that some on this journey are not white- while also experience discrimination. My children, biracial (White/Asian) are white adjacent. They have some privilege conferred by whiteness but also face discrimination at times.