How to Talk to Kids About Racism and Discrimination

Q&A with Dr. Kira Banks, Psychologist and creator of Raising Equity*

There is so much in the news about George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and the pervasiveness of racism. How can we approach the conversation with our children?

I think it’s important for parents to give age-appropriate responses. Depending on how much the news is on, some kids might not be aware of the murder of George Floyd. If they’re tweens and they have an Instagram account they will see it, so it’s important you have a conversation so you can help guide them and they’re not just seeing it on social media. 

Keep [the discussion] broad, so it’s not just about George Floyd but also one about racism and police brutality as a system. This is not a one-time conversation. It’s kind of like when we talk to our kids about consent. We don’t do it in one sit down, but over time. 

If you have a teenager who is old enough and sees it in the media [the discussion will start with] it’s egregious and police officers should not act this way. But we also need to talk about the fact that it wasn’t just one officer with his knee on the neck, but also lots of officers standing around being complicit. [It needs to also be a conversation about] complicity. This is an opportunity to have broader conversations about history, not just that there are bad apples and racists. How has racism been perpetuated, and where and how can we interrupt it? 

What advice can you give to parents of color raising children of color who have questions about or experience bias or racism firsthand? 

This conversation needs to happen, regardless of the child.  Kids who experience [bias and racism] personally, we owe it to them to prepare them and give them a positive regard for their race. You don’t want to wait for an awful experience to have this talk. Talk about the diaspora and provide exemplars within their family and community that counter the negative stereotypes.

As a parent [of color] you have lived with these barriers [yourself].  So that kids don’t internalize those negative narratives, we need to create a well of positive regard.  So when they encounter these things, they understand that it is a lie about their group, and not just that they themselves are untrustworthy, for example. It’s that person’s problem. Yes, I have to deal with it but it’s not about me

Kids are feeling the baggage and stories about different racial groups as young as preschool. It’s essential you have these conversations early and that they are not just about discrimination, but what is and isn’t race. Also, that and there’s a system of racism that’s unfair.

So how do we do this?

Have different books available and expose them to art that is broad and shows different racial backgrounds and cultures. Conversations will emerge from this. Kids will notice things and ask questions and you will hopefully be open to answering them. [When young kids see people from other races] they sometimes say things like, they’re black because they like chocolate milk, or they’re dirty. They are often shushed, but they’re young and curious, and it’s your responsibility to explain about melanin and what that is. You can explain that there are patterns in society, rules and laws that we’ve created that have kept people from opportunities and schools. And you can give examples of this. 

How can parents recognize their own racial bias when talking about racism with their children?

It’s not so much how as it is to what extent are we willing to be brave? Parenting is so hard in all sorts of ways. This is one more way that if we want to raise children who are citizens of the world and for them to be the change we want to see in the world.  But oftentimes we don’t equip them with the knowledge [to achieve this]. We put them in extracurriculars and send them to learn instruments, but we don’t do the same when it comes to social issues. Information is missing and we as parents have homework to do. We all have biases that we need to navigate. We need to be more cognizant of them and do the work.

But, it’s important to do this work as a community and not alone. You need a community of people who will help you learn, call you on behavior. For example, you can say all day long that you value difference but who was the last person you had over for dinner? Were they all from the same racial group? If so, you are not walking the walk. Are all the people [your family spends time with] like-minded? Are you creating a community that reflects the respect you want them to have? It opens up the discussion when you can say, “We don’t agree with what so and so said.”

How can parents support children experiencing anxiety or depression as a result of seeing news about the violence and injustice that minorities face?

We should not assume our kids are experiencing anxiety and depression. As adults we feel this very keenly. The arc of justice has been long and this fight against injustice, we’ve been here before. But we can support them by listening and asking, “How are you feeling?”.   

My 10-year-old said that he saw the story [about George Floyd] but he didn’t see the video. He saw that he had been killed by police officers, but he didn’t read anymore because it made him sad. So we hugged and he went to ball practice. My 13 year old saw a petition on Instagram and signed it and asked me to sign it, then we talked about it. He felt proud to sign it. He felt like he was doing something and we will circle back to [this discussion] again. 

You have to be willing to talk to them. We are socialized not to talk about [racism and bias], but if we are trying to do something differently we have to be willing to. Could they write a letter to their local legislature, sign a petition, or send a letter to divest from their local police department?

What resources can you recommend that parents can use to help explain racism to their children?

[We need to] raise our kids with the capacity they can be better interrupters, but this is a long game over generations and we don’t know how to have these conversations. We can’t just hope our way out of racism and cross our fingers. I created a community called Raising Equity and I would point them to our website. We just had a broad conversation with a group of white and black parents talking about talking to kids about racism. It’s free and the hour-long video is posted on our Facebook feed.

A book I suggest to every parent is [Beverly Tatum’s] Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?  It’s an oldie but goodie that talks about racial identity and how to have dialogue. It’s a great layperson’s book. 

Another good resource is We Stories (http://www.westories.org/), a website for parents of young children. It came out of Ferguson and teaches kids about diversity, race, and racism. 

You offer an online workshop called Talking Race, Racism and Equity with Kids – can you tell us why you decided to create this and who is participating?

I launched this course about 2 years ago because people ask me this question a lot. It’s a way for me to offer my thoughts and wisdom from doing this work for some time and make it accessible. A variety of people have enrolled for a variety of reasons. It has been used by mom groups and by PTOs (parent-teacher organizations) in a group format so they can walk through it with the parents, teachers, and administrators for professional development.  It comes back to [what I said earlier about] community. You can do the course with a group of people or reflect on your own. 

What, if anything, is giving you hope or optimism right now?

More and more people are asking questions, seeking answers, and saying it’s not enough to spout values, we need to be doing something. We can’t ‘nice’ our way out of racism, we have to be intentional and active about creating new norms, policies, and practices that support it. Just being nice and kind is great, but that won’t fix systemic racism. There is a cadre of folks that get that, a lot of white folks have gotten very defensive but they get this is larger than them as an individual. 

*Dr. Banks’s interview has been condensed for length

Dr. Kira Banks has been working to support individuals and groups to understand themselves, others, and systems of oppression for over 20 years. She co-founded the Institute for Healing Justice and Equity at Missouri’s Saint Louis University, where she is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology. Banks’ research examines the experience of discrimination and its impact on mental health and intergroup relations. Her courses have ranged from Abnormal Psychology to the Psychology of Racism. Banks has published over 20 articles in peer-reviewed outlets including American Psychological Association journals such as American Psychologist, Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and Journal of Diversity in Higher Education. She has also contributed to The Harvard Business Review and popular media outlets such as Huffington Post and The Atlantic.

Banks enjoys facilitating difficult dialogues. She has been described as someone who makes complex and controversial topics accessible and intergroup interactions more understandable. She has done so in schools, communities, institutions of higher education, and corporations.

Banks’ expertise is sought after and she served as a racial equity consultant for the Ferguson Commission and continued as the Racial Equity Catalyst for Forward Through Ferguson. Her thinking and writing has helped frame racial equity in the St. Louis region.