Say what? Talking to kids about race doesn't have to be daunting

Parents, caregivers and early childhood educators play an important role in helping young children form healthy racial identities and attitudes toward others. But for many adults, talking to kids about race can be uncomfortable. The Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance's 'Talking to Kids About Race' workshops empower adults to address the topic that helps children learn to respect and value themselves and others for their own unique racial and ethnic backgrounds while celebrating diversity and encouraging inclusion.
Children, especially young ones, usually don’t have a problem saying what is on their mind, but when it comes to comments about skin color and racial differences, adults often don’t know how to respond.

Research shows children do in fact see color. Babies as young as six months old start to sort out differences in skin color. And by 36 months, they are choosing who to play with based on that color. But whether or not they negatively internalize messages about their skin color, or start to judge and separate from others, is impacted by how parents, childcare providers and early childhood educators not only talk about race but create a positive space to explore racial identity.

Rather than shying away from conversations about race, and how racial identity impacts one’s self-image and social interactions, the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance is tackling it head on.

Workshop training uses puppets to help discuss race with kids. The Holland-based nonprofit holds “Talking to Kids About Race” workshops at various organizations, child care centers and schools throughout West Michigan. Since the initiative started in 2012, an estimated 17,000 children have been impacted by nearly 900 child care providers, parents and educators who are better equipped to talk about race after completing the training.

The Diversity Alliance developed the Talking to Kids About Race initiative as a way to engage and empower adults with the knowledge, skills and tools to have open and honest conversations about skin color and racial stereotypes with children. Participants also gain tips on how to intervene and educate when they hear or see bullying situations in group settings, as well as promote conversations about diversity, inclusion and tolerance, says Alfredo Hernandez, program director for Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

Alfredo Hernandez, program director for the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. “This program seeks to target the conversation at an early point,” he says. “We understand kids begin to internalize messages about race and gender and sexual orientation from early on; kids begin to recognize the color of skin as early as sixth months of age.”

The goal is to never shame, minimize or avoid a child’s statements about skin color. Participants are encouraged to take advantage of opportunities to talk about race as a way to foster healthy racial identities and dispel stereotypical messages about racial groups.

“What is it that we did to acknowledge the child’s statement and provide them with examples?” he says. “Not only do we acknowledge the reality, but we make it a positive thing. We have handouts and tools and strategies we provide child care providers and people in the training.”

So why the need for such a workshop? Racial inequalities, and even hatred for certain ethnic, racial and religious groups, continue to persist in America despite its changing demographics. Besides living in a racialized world, research strongly suggests racial stereotypes and racialized messages coming from media, peers and at home impacts a child’s sense of self from a very young age.

In one study, three-year-olds were shown a set of photographs of children and asked with whom they would like to play. Eighty-six percent of white children picked a white playmate, while only 32 percent of black children chose a black playmate.

The study demonstrates that at this formative age, children have already internalized racism. Even more, research finds highly biased children have fewer people from diverse backgrounds in their environments, highly biased children have more same-race friends, and highly biased children’s parents do not talk about race.

Other studies have found the most effective strategy to foster development of non-biased attitudes toward racial difference is for parents and child care providers to openly bring up and discuss issues of race with children.

Hernandez presents and facilitates Talking to Kids About Race workshops and says the training provides research-driven data on the development of racial attitudes in early childhood, helps participants understand the complex dynamics of racial stereotypes, implicit biases, and when and why young children start to internalize messages about race. The goal is to encourage positive dialogue, self-esteem and interaction among peers.

“I think people want to know how to have the conversation so they appreciate gaining the tools,” he says. “They have moved away from feeling shame or guilt and more proactively embrace the development of an inclusive space.”

Sharon Valdo, a licensed child care provider in Holland, took the workshop for continuing education credits, but found the information useful for her own relationships. Her daycare primarily has white children, but Valdo has a Hispanic granddaughter and an African American boyfriend.

“We are different,” she says. “It kind of helps me learn how people grow up in different ways and how it affects people later in life. What we’re brought up with as a child stays with us.”

She found the activities in the workshop helpful and said her main takeaway was to encourage children to embrace differences in others.

“Those differences are what makes us unique and special and so we have to treat those in a positive way; be glad we have people in all shapes, sizes and colors,” she says. “We live in such a white community here, where I am, and I just want to open the kids’ eyes to everything else in the world.”

Kristie Kulikamp, another workshop participant, offers childcare part time in her home in Allendale. Although the children she watches are mostly from white, middle-class homes, she also volunteers at a pregnancy center and has several friends who have adopted biracial children.

The information helped her see ways to come at one situation in multiple ways.

“I think it’s something that needs to be talked about in a positive way; however, I think we can talk too much about it, in which it draws negative attention to it,” she says. “It’s just incorporating culture in your life and not making something so different; pull out the similarities of who we are rather than focusing on the differences.”

Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani, board chair of the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.The Talking to Kids About Race workshops were started in response to feedback from clients and the community. They expressed concerns of early childhood teachers and daycare providers around the idea of talking to kids about diversity and making sure they were doing the best they could to address it, says Zahabia Ahmed-Usmani, board chair of Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance.

The training, materials, and activities are research-based and interactive, and participants receive information on how to appropriately respond to comments and questions.

“We really use the research to back up what we propose child care providers do with young children,” she says. “We leave them with a toolkit they can actually use. The training is really well set up. It helps address on the surface level implicit bias we as adults have. You have to start with the person who is going to be working with the children.”

Ahmed-Usmani has helped facilitate various LEDA workshops and cited an example of a young girl who said she was “weirded out” by her traditional clothing. While other adults felt awkward, Ahmed-Usmani encouraged a frank conversation. The goal is to help children, as well as adults, feel more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.

“Kids will tell you what’s on their minds and we as adults send them messages this isn’t okay to talk about,” she says. “We have this age where kids are really questioning the world around them, learning about the world around them. We want them to know this is a safe place to have these conversations. If you think something is weird, let’s talk about it.”

The training also provides participants with resources to look more critically at the stories, toys, and media they use in their classroom, and ways to incorporate diversity and cultural awareness into regular lessons rather than take a tourist, or culturally appropriative, approach to diversity issues. An example of a more ignorant approach would be celebrating Cinco de Mayo with tacos, a piñata, and a coloring activity with a man in a sombrero standing next to a donkey.

There are coloring and puppet activities to use when talking to children from infant to five years old about skin color differences. The training also uses the book “Everywhere Babies,” which celebrates the uniqueness of every child.
“We would like to help them create a space where kids feel included and they seem themselves represented and understood and talked about in those spaces,” Hernandez says. “We do our best to ensure that we speak of all ethnic backgrounds… It just reinforces things in a positive way, but it also provides that exposure that is sometimes lacking for the average readings.”

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook.
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