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!

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*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.”

Ask Dr. Robyn: Tips on Teaching Tolerance to Children

How can parents teach tolerance to children?

Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman Child Development Expert

Dr. Robyn Silverman answers a reader’s question about teaching tolerance to her children who DON’T live in a diverse neighborhood. These are easy parenting tips that any parent can follow to inspire children to keep an open-mind, be more accepting of others, and show more tolerance for differences.

Tolerance is the Powerful Word of the Month!

Do you have a question for Dr. Robyn? Enter it here.

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Dr. Robyn Silverman announces the December Powerful Word: Tolerance

December is Tolerance Month!

Tolerance Quotes:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (paraphrasing Voltaire) Evelyn Beatrice Hall

“The capacity for getting along with our neighbor depends to a large extent on the capacity for getting along with ourselves. The self-respecting individual will try to be as tolerant of his neighbor’s shortcomings as he is of his own.”   Eric Hoffer

“It is the duty of every cultured man or woman to read sympathetically the scriptures of the world. If we are to respect others’ religions as we would have them respect our own, a friendly study of the world’s religions is a sacred duty.–Mohandas K. Gandhi

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority. The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”Ralph W. Sockman

“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” –Voltaire

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.”–Friedrich Nietzsche

“Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others.”— John Fitzgerald Kennedy

“Tolerance is not indifference. It’s respect for difference.” –Dr. Robyn Silverman

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Debate Over the Death of a Child: What’s Fair?

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Debate Over the Death of Washington DC Orthodox Jewish Child: What’s Fair?

Dr. Robyn Silverman

A 12 year old boy is currently lying motionless in his hospital bed in Washington DC after sadly being pronounced “brain dead” (and therefore, medically dead) on Tuesday.

The hospital staff would like to turn off the machines that are keeping his heart pumping and his blood pressure under control so that they can be made available to others in need who have a chance of long term recovery. However, the boy’s parents, devout orthodox Jews, are fighting to keep the machines intact, citing that their religious beliefs dictate that death does not happen until the heart stops beating. This, of course, is a catch 22—they won’t shut off the machines until the heart stops beating—and the heart will not likely stop beating until the machines are shut off.

We must, of course, be tolerant of religious views and practices as we would want others to be tolerant of our personal views. The hospital is going to court over this because the staff feels that treating this child is “offensive to good medical ethics” because, unlike the highly publicized cases of Terri Schiavo and Karen Ann Quinlan, the boy has no brain activity.

There is currently a debate even within the orthodox Jewish faith about when death does indeed happen—is it when the brain no longer is active or when the heart stops beating? Aside from that, should religion or science define the death of this child?

The statement that if God is the decider of life and death, how do we play a role in this process … is an important theological concept and exactly on point. Medicine has a physiological definition as to when they believe death has occurred. Jewish law believes that the definition of death is not exclusively a medical one but is also a theological one and should be decided in the theological or religious arena. The two obviously work together to some extent but the final arbiter is the religious determination. (Rabbi, Dr. Edward Reichman)

What an emotional and sad case.

There is nothing more tragic than the death of a child. Anyone must feel for these parents. However, given that we are exploring fairness this month, let’s ask, is it fair to the boy—to others awaiting treatment—to the hospital staff—to keep sustaining the boy and using hospital resources? What would you do if you were in such a situation? Should the hospital respect and tolerate the views of the parents even though their views differ from the medical view? What makes sense?

For me, I wouldn’t personally want to stay hooked up to machines in a vegetative state with no brain activity and no hope for recovery. I wouldn’t want anyone in my family to have to suffer like that either. HOWEVER- would I want someone to tell me that my view was wrong? Should we all simply be able to say when enough is (or is not) enough? Who gets to decide? What’s too much?

Please comment below.

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