5 Ways I’m Talking to My Daughter About Racism

It’s easier than you might think to have tough conversations.

For as long as I can remember, I was aware that I was receiving two educations—the education that I received at school and the one that I inherited from my family, community, and wise men and women along the way. Both my mother and father attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and to my annoyance at the time, they found every occasion to share with me information that was erased from the history books, an anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers, a historical document from the U.S. census, or a story about a cousin’s friend from Eatonville, Florida. It was the norm for my father to drill me on the inventions of Benjamin Banneker and quiz me on the contributions of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, and for my mom, who worked at the Kennedy Space Center for many years, to bring home books for me about Bessie Coleman, Katherine Johnson, and Mae Jemison. As I grew into a young woman, I realized that they were handing me freedom from the forthcoming oppressive teachings that would soon follow as I navigated my way through a society that had a history of burning down the libraries in communities of people whose skin looked like mine.

Now, I am a mother and talking to my daughter about racism comes naturally for me because my parents always spoke so honestly and earnestly with me about it. I am gently talking to her about racism by having honest conversations with her about race, deliberately infusing culturally rich experiences into her life, and genuinely living a life that encourages her to embrace people of all backgrounds.

I encourage uncomfortable conversations without judgment

Teaching my daughter about racial injustice oozes out of my very being just as naturally as teaching her to love her neighbor as herself. When we are walking down a busy Harlem street in the evening and we see six cops surrounding one young teenager, I don’t shield her eyes. I allow her, within reason, to be a witness to the young teenager’s experience of being harassed by police. When we shop at fancy stores on Fifth Avenue, I train her to be aware of the salespeople watching us closely. When we get home, I take the time to talk with her about stereotypes and “shopping while black.” While I am mindful not to project my own personal experiences onto her, I do not deny racial discrimination when it is evident.

In the evenings, after her homework is complete, I allow her to watch age-appropriate shows that have positive depictions of people of color such as Mixed-ish, The Cosby Show, and some select episodes of A Different World. I also have a number of anthologies and diaries about the enslaved that I have been collecting for my daughter since she was born. She is now at the age where we read them on Sunday evenings together and discuss some of the topics as a family.

As a Southern woman currently living in New York City with a multiethnic 10-year-old daughter, I see it as an honor to share with her experiences that lend themselves to cultural awareness, diversity of thought, compassion for others, empathy for difference, and the confidence to navigate the world as a free human with the right to reach for happiness and prosperity. I teach her that people do, in fact, see color. There are many reasons why you should stop saying to your children that you don’t see color. I teach my daughter about color and the beauty of the human race. Teaching your child that color does not exist is highly problematic because in America and around the globe, people of color are reminded of the complexion of their skin every day in the media, on the news, and on the streets. One of the greatest gifts that my parents gifted me with was the ability to know who I was early on, to love my blackness, and yet to still love everyone else unconditionally, too.

I show compassion and empathy for others

Children mirror the behavior of the adults in their lives. I take my daughter to the Irish Parade, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, and the African-American Day Parade. I take her to art classes in different neighborhoods. I show her pictures of the contraptions that were placed on the faces of house slaves so they couldn’t eat their enslavers’ food. I take her to art exhibits featuring artists around the world so that she can begin to understand what it is to have a global perspective. We go to different restaurants and food festivals to try new foods, and this all opens the door to natural discussions about culture, history, and race. I do all of this on purpose. I believe that when you live a life eager to love, learn, and teach, then teaching your child about racial injustice is as natural as teaching them to observe a leaf floating in the wind. It’s like osmosis—who we are as adults permeate through to the very being of our seed.

Teaching kids about the authentic experiences of others and to have tolerance does not have to be complicated. It’s as simple as choosing to acknowledge the real experiences of others and not painting the canvas of the world as if it only revolves around you and your own perspective. Autonomy, privilege, and denial of the experiences of others allow for oppression and systemic racism to be perpetuated. It is not the responsibility of Black people and people of color to teach white children and families about race relations in America. White parents have to decide to be diligent and do the work for themselves, while also not being afraid to reach out to their Black and brown peers and friends of color.

We have genuine experiences that deepen our interracial dialogue

racism teach children mother daughter Courtesy Lynnette NicholasCourtesy Courtesy Lynnette NicholasYour kids notice the real you, not just the one you present to the public. They overhear conversations and observe how you interact with others on an interpersonal level. If you speak of diversity, inclusion, and racial equality publicly but only surround yourself with people who look and live like you personally, then there is going to be a lack of genuine understanding. Glenn E. Singleton, the founder of Pacific Educational Group, a consulting firm committed to forging racial equity, states in a portion of his mission statement: “We cannot hope to eliminate the racially predictable outcomes of our lives unless we first discuss race and racism in a way that is earnest, honest, and sustainable.” Without having courageous conversations with your kids about race and racism, it is impossible to help them be compassionate allies.

As a mother living in a city as culturally, ethnically, and economically diverse as New York City, we comingle with other women, mothers, and kids of various ethnicities and different walks of life. Between late-night poetry readings at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, fun playdates with friends at the Guggenheim Museum on the Upper East Side, and early-morning jaunts to sit in on a play reading at the New Museum downtown, our private lives are filled with authentic moments and experiences that provide opportunities to absorb diversity in its varied forms for our daughter, which encourage her to have a broadened mindset about others. Each experience and interaction provides an opportunity to have conversations about different cultures, different neighborhoods, and different ways of doing things.

To further your own education, check out these 12 podcasts about race you need to hear.

I gently infuse conversations about racial injustice into activities she enjoys

Depending on their age, many children may not be able to connect directly with the concept of racial injustice, but making the conversation personal can add context. For example, both my daughter and I love ballet and theater. As a result, I am deliberate about providing her with cultural experiences that are current and give a glimpse into history using these mediums. From the time that she was old enough to sit up independently in a chair, I’ve taken my daughter to shows at places like the National Black Theatre. When she was little, we watched the documentary on Misty Copeland, A Ballerina’s Tale. It was relevant and age-appropriate, and it opened the door for a gentle discussion. At the time, Misty Copeland had just made history when she became the first black woman in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history to be promoted to principal dancer.

Now that my daughter is almost 11 years old, we recently watched a few appropriate excerpts from I Am Not Your Negro. This led to a conversation about what it means to have a “colonized” mindset, a few topics around systemic racism, and the difference between the word Negro and n****r. I have found that children are very eager to learn about others, differing cultures, and racial and social inequality and that their desire to learn more is contingent upon the adults in their lives and their willingness to teach.

This is why Black History Month shouldn’t be a single month.

I teach her to judge people according to their character, not their skin color

My parents did not just teach me with their words. They taught me with their actions, especially my mom. She was a professional who worked around astronauts and rocket scientists, yet she never felt the need to erase who she authentically was in the presence of other powerful or influential people. She treated everyone the same, whether they owned private property on the beaches of Florida or whether they lived on government assistance. She never tried to pick my friends for me according to what skin color they had or what type of house they lived in. Allowing your child to be friends with kids of various ethnicities and personality types provide them with opportunities to have real, genuine interpersonal interactions that organically encourage comfort in interracial interactions and increase their ability to adapt to different situations.

Though she had a good job, my mom was not in a rush to move us to “the other side of town.” Her only request was that I always treated people the way that I wanted to be treated. She allowed me to have sleepovers with trusted families of different backgrounds, and she discouraged me from being a part of cliques. I exercise this same behavior when my daughter engages with her peers. I am deliberate about helping her to be aware of her social patterns. I don’t encourage her to play with only privileged children; I provide opportunities for her to have playdates with friends of differing socioeconomic backgrounds as well. When we have birthday parties, we do not discriminate and pick friends based on their skin color or the type of careers that the parents have. When she has questions about the different types of neighborhoods that her friends live in, I show her kid-friendly videos like this one that defines systemic racism.

Of all the things that I inherited from both my parents, the way that they have always treated people from varied walks of life has been their greatest gift to me. While it may sound cliché, I wholeheartedly believe that children learn to love others by the way we love them. While my parents were conscientious about teaching me the history of my ancestors, they made it crystal clear with their actions toward others that I am to “love my neighbor as myself.” Knowing how to love is not something that you learn from watching a TV show or from reading a book. Just as racism is a learned behavior that is passed down from one generation to the next, as a mother I aim daily to pass down through my actions the inheritance of loving others unconditionally. This is the legacy that I hope to pass on to my daughter.

Next, check out these 14 small ways you can fight racism every day. And for more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].

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Lynnette Nicholas
Lynnette is a regular contributor to the Culture section on RD.com. She is a culture expert and certified film critic covering the latest in Black culture, books, film and television, faith, and the intersection of parenting and entertainment. She graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Florida, and when she's not writing or traveling, you can find her at an art gallery, theater performance, or film screening discussing the impact of media on children and teens.