Talking to Children about Race: Dr. Diane Hughes & Parents Discuss Approaches

Thanks to Dr. Diane Hughes and the amazing panel of parents–Jocelyn Cleary, Geeta Mehra, Reynaldo Tapia, Patricia Canning, Kristen Mahoney, and Michelle King–for their insight and honesty about the importance of addressing race, racial and cultural identity, and racism in the home.

The Schools Committee convened this new session of Talking to Children about Race based on ongoing requests for more opportunities to bring information out to parents who continually face challenges in addressing race and are on the look out for strategies and resources.

Dr. Hughes opened the evening by talking about how early kids recognize race: that fact makes it critical for parents to acknowledge race, invite open conversations, to consider and address their own biases (she recommends the IAT or the Implicit Association Test) and to be careful of essentialism in explorations of identities. She then turned to the panelists–parents of different racial, cultural, and national identities at different stages of parenting–for their responses to questions about what they found most challenging and what successes they had in addressing race with their kids.
Jocelyn, who is from Ireland, noted that the parents of white children are most important to her in raising her black girls. White parents need to understand that racism happens in in our community and that white parents’ efforts to be colorblind and that “everyone is the same” is denying people their racial and cultural experience. She has witnessed explicit racism expressed by kids in elementary and middle school toward black children and how black kids don’t speak up for fear of causing trouble. All parents should be aware of this and take responsibility for working on addressing racism in the home.
Geeta talked about the importance of teaching her child about the range of diversity in her family and her community beyond just the range of skin color in her family and among friends. She noted that many Indians face racism here; they assimilate and deny their Asian backgrounds or stay insulated in their Indian groups. Her goal for her child is to not be treated as an outsider here in America or in India. She shared how important it was for her daughter to develop pride in her special family celebrations like Diwali–enough to want to share them with friends and the whole school.
Reynaldo shared his experience as a Latino. While he was raised here, his wife is Colombian and experiences racism differently. In Colombia there was more class discrimination and some colorism. He has a deeper experience of American racism directed to all brown-skinned people and especially to “undocumented immigrants.”  As a family, they work to embrace Hispanic culture and celebrate being Latino while also getting their kids to see themselves as part of the greater community.
As the parent of biracial children, Patricia had to think about race and parenting early on. She is from the Caribbean and her husband is white, and she faced challenges about skin color differences between herself and her children. Even the school district didn’t accommodate mixed race identification in the early years. Her daughters felt forced to choose but “we told them they didn’t and shouldn’t have to choose,” and that they could identify as biracial. Patricia also shared that having literature, reading books together, and talking regularly about race at home is so important. The challenge she still faces is being optimistic about overcoming racism.
Kristin and her husband came from racially segregated towns or very white towns before moving here. They are white and wanted a different place to raise their kids. She noted that her challenge is to acknowledge privilege in her own experience and with her kids and to be intentional in her efforts to address race. “We hoped a lot would happen by osmosis but it doesn’t. White people have to learn to listen- that’s on the people who have privilege.”
Michelle and her husband are black and have young children. They try to talk about race in natural ways when it comes up with their kids. They have wide-ranging books in the home and they make an effort to expose them to different groups socially. They are also intentional about black pride as part of their kids’ socialization. Her goal is to raise strong black kids not angry black kids. Her hope is that black parents can help their kids feel that sense of pride.
After sharing their experiences, the panelists met with groups of parents for small group discussions. Dr. Hughes closed out the evening noting the common themes: kids notice race, we should too, and we need to make the conversations a normal part of life. Kids are exposed to stereotypes in everywhere–we can’t avoid it, so must address it. Pride socialization is important for kids of color. Race exposure–in schools or communities–is not enough to solve the issues of racism. We all need an intentional agenda.

Click here for the Talking to Children about Race Strategies guide.

Click here for the Diverse Reading List compiled by the Schools Committee.

We would also like to thank Renee Joyce, Director of the Montrose Early Childhood Learning Center, and the school’s PTA for welcoming us into their space for this event.


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