How to talk to kids about race and racism

As schools across the nation resumed in-person classes, teachers and students faced increased pressure from local school boards and organizations over how to teach and talk about race in the classroom. Dana Crawford, a pediatric and clinical psychologist in New York who has developed approaches to reducing bias, prejudice, and racism, joins to share tips on how to talk to kids about race.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As schools resumed in-person teaching this season, teachers and students faced pressure from local school boards and organizations that want to oversee what is taught about race. But no matter what is in a textbook, families need to find ways to talk about racism. Earlier this summer, I spoke with Dana Crawford, a pediatric and clinical psychologist in New York City who has developed approaches to reducing bias, prejudice, and racism.

    Where does a family begin the process of teaching someone how to be anti-racist?

  • Dana Crawford:

    It starts with that family. Specifically, are they a family that their child is particularly at risk for being racist? Are they a family that their child may be at risk for experiencing racism? So I think it must start with the conversation between those two parenting adults or those caregivers to really talk about where do they need to center the conversation? Is it about allyship or is it about resiliency and survival and navigating a world in which a child may be exposed to racism, prejudice and bias?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You can immediately hear parents in the audience say, 'Well, we're not racist and modeling is so important. So I'm not that concerned.' Why is that right or wrong?

  • Dana Crawford:

    Well, I would dare say that, you know, as a parent, I wish only the things that I expose my children to would be the things that they would model that they would be exposed to. But we all know we do not own our children and they live in the world.

    I don't know about the statement: 'I'm not racist.' I daresay that racism is a socially transmitted disease which we're all exposed to, infected with and often spread unintentionally, but definitely has an impact. So that's a different argument.

    But I would say in the same way that you might not be someone that abducts children, but you still talk with your children about people who abduct children, you want to prepare your children to be safe in the world. So although you may not perceive or experience yourself to have very intentional racist thoughts, your children still do navigate a world that they may be exposed to that, their friends may be exposed to racism, and what kind of person are you trying to raise?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    When are children aware of race as a social construct? I know that they can see colors at a young age and identify their parents. But when does this all start to sink in to them?

  • Dana Crawford:

    Well, there is research that shows around the age of two to about two and a half, children start to associate behaviors with race. And I have a little two-year-old and that's a really small person. And as they start to navigate the playground, they may assume and make some assertions that this person is behaving this way because they're brown, because they're white, because they don't have a leg or something in this way. So not just race, but also other ways that people navigate the world. And so the earlier you start, the better. And it needs to occur in ways that are just casual, integrated into your parenting, similar to how you integrate how to cross the street. The ways that we talk about good table manners, these are natural, experiential dialogues and conversation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And what about as kids get older? I don't know whether it's preteen or teenage years where they might be more conscious of the news and the politics around it. How do you initiate one of those conversations about what they're seeing on TV in the context of race?

  • Dana Crawford:

    So I really like the anti-bullying language that many schools have already led the way in, and they have the posters that talk about what bystander expectations are. What do you do when a bully shows up? And so for younger children, I talk about some people are bullied because of their skin color. Some people are bullied because of the way that they wear their hair. Some people are bullied because of their abilities and the ways that they walk. There are many reasons that people are bullied, and in this family, we do not bully anyone for any reason. And if you see bullying or you hear any bullying, it is the expectation that you say something that you speak with an adult that in our family, we expect you not only not to bully, but we expect you to stand up and speak up.

    And so as children get older, I start to name that bullying: The bullying when someone is a bully because of their race, that's called racism. When someone is bullied because of their gender, that's called sexism or queer-phobia. And so getting more specific as children get older is very similar to when we teach them how to read and start with the alphabet, and over time, you expand into letters and words and books and narratives and eventually dissertations.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dr. Dana Crawford, a clinical and pediatric psychologist. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Dana Crawford:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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