FFFChildren and Racism

No. 135; March 2021

Racism is the belief that some people are inferior, and others are superior based on their race, ethnic group, or the color of their skin. This leads to treating certain people as if they are worth less than others. Racism can cause problems at school, work and in relationships. It can also lead to problems with getting access to basic needs like health care, housing, and food. 

When people are affected by racism, they feel like they do not belong and are not safe or protected in their community. This stress, on top of the usual stressors of day-to-day life, is referred to as ‘minority stress’. People can start to believe the messages they receive from the world that they are ‘lesser than’. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

Sometimes current events can bring increased attention to racism in our society. News coverage of protests, police brutality, and discussions about social inequality can lead to questions from your children and provide an opportunity to talk about racism.

These conversations can be hard. Here are some tips for parents on how to talk to children about racism: 

  • You may want to learn more about the history of racism around the world and in the United States. It may be helpful to provide your child with the history of slavery, segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement. You can include the history of Black Americans, American Indians, and those of Asian, Hispanic, or Arab origins. 
  • It is also useful to explore your own beliefs, or biases, about race and ethnicity. Sometimes we carry biases, without even being aware of them. 
  • Set aside uninterrupted time for your child to ask questions. Explore your child’s feelings about what they may have seen or heard. You can use examples in your own life or in your community that you think your child may understand.
  • Children will have different levels of understanding based on their age:
    • For toddlers and preschoolers, limit your child’s exposure to news clips of violence, as they may not be able to understand their own feelings and reactions. Children in this age group notice racial differences and can form opinions based on their observations. They understand the concept of fairness and can begin developing attitudes towards others.

    • School-age children may experience fear or worry about what they have seen on the news, or they may be angry when hearing of mean acts happening to others. Help them feel safe and let them know that one person’s actions are not true of all people. For example, one person in a position of power behaving badly does not mean all people in positions of power behave badly. 

    • Be aware that biracial children, children of mixed ethnicity, or children of a different race than their parents (for example a black child adopted into a white family), have the added challenge of figuring out their racial identity. Their reactions may include mixed feelings and confusion.

    • Teenagers understand more about the world and are capable of abstract thinking. They may be idealistic and passionate about the world. Be prepared for questions they might ask or discussions they may want to have. This is a good time to talk to them about racism and your family values. You can help them find ways to express their views and desire for action.

  • Lead by example: your children are watching and listening to you and naturally model their behavior after yours. Set the example for how you want your children to be thinking about and addressing racism in our world. For those who have been victims of racism, remind your children of your own strength and resilience and what is helpful to you.
  • Children have the power to be agents of change for a better future. Encourage your child to be friends with anyone of any race, ethnicity, or skin color. Help your child understand that having friends with different backgrounds is a good thing and a chance to learn about each other’s worlds. Help your child embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Related Facts For Families

For more information and suggestions AACAP has developed a Racism Resource Center with links to websites and videos that may be helpful.