How can I explain racism to young children?


Explaining Racism to Young Kids: Exploring The Powerful Word Tolerance

Hello Powerful Parents! Tolerance is the Powerful Word of the month. In honor of this important Powerful Word, we are exploring different parts of tolerance throughout the month. In this article, we’re talking about tolerance and racism and how one mother talks about this sensitive topic to her interested preschooler. Unfortunately, racism is still alive and kicking. We must educate our children about tolerance.

Explaining Racism to Young Children
Note: In this article*, a mother is talking to her preschooler about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. How do you explain tolerance and racism to a child?  What do you say?

The Powerful Parenting Blog welcomes guest writer, Zoe Burkholder**

Yesterday I told my 4-year-old son, Dexter, that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. Dexter was dismayed, and his anguish and despair at this news lasted well into the night. He could not understand how Dr. King, a man whose heroic achievements Dexter has been studying in preschool for the past two weeks, could have been killed by a “bad guy.”

Who was this bad guy, why did he shoot Dr. King, what happened to Dr. King, did the bad guy go to jail? The questions went on through the night, surpassing my ability to answer them even though I am a professional historian and teach college courses on the Civil Rights Movement. The problem was not so much that Dexter’s questions were inappropriate or the answers hard to find. Rather I found the larger context of Dr. King’s death to be so incomprehensible to a 4-year-old, I could barely formulate a coherent response. I found myself stumbling over concepts like racial segregation, skin color and social and political inequality.

How do you explain racism to a child?

Parents of young children recognize this quandary. It requires a bizarre balancing act between offering truthful answers to honest inquiries about human difference and social inequality, and not scaring the child. Parents must also be careful of instilling a concern for difference that might manifest itself in inappropriate ways. For example, when Dexter was 3 years old he went through a period of pointing out the exact skin color of people he met or saw in pictures. At one point, he told me I purchased the wrong pack of Pampers for his sister, because the baby on the package was “brown” and his baby sister is “white.”

“No silly,” I replied, “it doesn’t matter what color your skin is, everybody is the same on the inside.”

Over a period of months I reiterated this point in a thousand different ways, trying to find the answer that would satisfy his insatiable quest for understanding.

“Every person has their own unique skin color, and hair color, and eye color,” I suggested. “See, your skin is a little lighter than mine, and mine is a little darker than my sister’s. No two people look exactly alike, that’s what makes everyone special.”

But these answers belied a truth that Dexter, even as a 3-year-old, was starting to absorb from the world around him.

Last year, whenever I read a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Dexter, I would quietly edit out certain words. The book, written for very young children, explains that, as a boy, Martin could only drink from a water fountain marked “colored” and “white” students got to attend a better, newer school. I was scared to introduce these words to my 3-year-old son. These words seemed to box people into categories I didn’t want him to know, yet. But this year, I read the text just as it appeared in the book, taking the time to explain, in the past, some people in America did things that were not fair.

I told him that, in some towns, people who were African American were not always allowed to study, worship, eat or work alongside people who were “white.” Dr. King helped change these unfair things, make America more equal and make it a better place for us to live today.

I was just starting to feel cautiously optimistic about my explanation of racial segregation, when Dexter asked me if I ever saw Dr. King.

“No, he died before I was born,” I explained.

“How did he die?” asked Dexter.

I paused only a second, mostly because I wished the answer was different, I knew the truth would upset my sensitive son.

“A bad man shot him,” I said. “Martin died, and then the bad man was arrested and went to jail.”

Suddenly Dexter had a lot more questions.

That night, my son and I listened to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on the Internet. Although I doubt Dexter understood very much of it, I think he enjoyed hearing Dr. King’s voice and looking at black and white photographs of the crowds on the Washington Mall. But even as we listened, Dexter had new questions. He caught the part where King explained, one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans still are not free.

“What happened one hundred years ago?” Dexter wanted to know.

I looked at my son, and knew I was not yet ready to explain slavery. Thinking forward, my mind flashed through horrifying images of world wars, atomic weapons, the Holocaust; things for which my son and daughter will someday have to face and account.

“It’s time for bed,” I said instead.

“Let’s have some ice cream,” I added as an afterthought.


See article: 7 Ways to Raise a Prejudice Child

How do you think this mother did? What are your thoughts on explaining racism to a child?  How can you be an anti-racist parent? What has been your experience with this topic?  What are your concerns or questions?  Please discuss below!

Dr. Robyn Silverman signs

*This article was originally posted on the resource cite, Teaching Tolerance and is posted here with written permission.

**Dr. Robyn Silverman welcomes guest writer, Zoe Burkholder, Ph.D. candidate in the History of Education department of New York University and a Spencer Fellow for Research Related to Education. This article is based on her dissertation work entitled, “With Science as His Shield: Teaching Race and Culture in America, 1900-1954.”


3 Responses

  1. It’s our natural instinct to want to shield children from certain things. Let me take you back to my first year of teaching…my first week of teaching. I was 24 years old and it was a Tuesday and the date was September 11, 2001. Fairly new to teaching and I suddenly found myself having to explain to 26 seven year old children what had happened and why and why would someone do that and the questions were endless. It was my natural instinct to protect them…..I too didn’t want to scare them. I have found over the years that children absorb everything around them..they know what is going on. There is no use in trying to hide it …but it’s better to try as best you can to explain things on their level. There was no way for me to hide the events of September 11th from this class… as best I could I tried to explain things to them in a way that I hoped they could understand .

  2. I think this mother was very thoughtful about how and what she shared with her inquisitive child. There is so much to explain and so much to teach about what has happened in the past and what still takes place today throughout the world.
    I do have to say that “tolerance” is one of my least favorite words. Tolerance to me infers that “I tolerate you” however I don’t accept you. I would much rather teach acceptance rather then tolerance.
    Thank-you for posting this article.

  3. I understand what you are saying about the word “tolerance.” I wish it could be that easy– just to accept. Alas, for many, it may be too much to ask. Therefore, to tolerate differences is the next best thing…don’t you think?

    Thanks for coming by. Please visit again.

    Dr. Robyn

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