How to talk to kids about racism

Click to play video: 'Jimmy Fallon delivers emotional monologue about racism and Charlottesville violence'
Jimmy Fallon delivers emotional monologue about racism and Charlottesville violence
Jimmy Fallon talked about how he could explain the racism and hatred in Charlottesville to his kids during an emotional monologue – Aug 15, 2017

For the vast majority of onlookers, the events that unfolded in Charlottesville on the University of Virigina campus last weekend were shocking.

But for as disheartening and disconcerting as the images could have been for adults, there’s a good chance that most kids were confused and unable to make sense of what they were watching.

“It’s likely that a child would be overwhelmed by seeing something like that, scared and worried that it would spread to a place close to them,” says Dr. Jillian Roberts, associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria and author of What Makes Us Unique? Our First Talk About Diversity.

“Some might even be worried about friends who have different-coloured skin or about family members who reside in the U.S.”

For this reason, she says, it’s important to address the topic head-on. But before talking to children, sort through your own thoughts and identify any stereotypes you may have.

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“As an educator, I’d say teachers [and parents] themselves have to think about racism, do some reflection, and begin to have a clear sense of history and what racism is,” says Ann Lopez, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

She points out that racism is a learned behaviour, not something humans are born with, and as such it’s necessary for any adult to think about their own assumptions and work through them lest they communicate them to kids.

But this is not time to pussyfoot around the topic, Roberts says.

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“In this scenario, any kind of hoping that your child won’t notice or that it will go away isn’t going to work. This is your opportunity to explain your family values and what it means to be a good human being.”

With very young children, couch the conversation in diversity and inclusion, rather than talking about racism or hate speech. Explain to them that the world is made up of lots of different people and it’s a natural part of the world. The idea is to celebrate diversity.

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“With pre-teens and teens, it’s important to be very explicit about what’s right and wrong. Talk about historical context, what we fought for as a country in the World Wars, and what freedom and equality mean,” she says. “You want an in-depth and contextualized conversation that won’t justify hateful perspectives and teach them how important it is to fight back.”

She says this is also an opportunity to encourage kids to be advocates for change and diversity. Whether it’s standing up for another kid who’s being bullied in the schoolyard because of the colour of their skin, or reaching out to a new student who just moved to Canada from another country, this is above all else a teachable moment.

In the classroom, Lopez says, teachers need to create a safe and respectful environment where everyone can express an opinion in a thoughtful way. Tell the students that it may be an uncomfortable conversation, but that it’s in the spirit of harmony.

“Be careful not to look [to] brown or black students and ask them to explain racism,” she cautions.

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In the event that some students feel attacked or as though they are being held accountable for the actions of generations before them, she says that’s an opportunity to discuss how racism unfolded in the past and the damage that it inflicted. But ultimately, “begin the conversation without casting blame.”

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“Know that one lesson will not change anyone’s mind,” Lopez says. “But over time, as you engage them in dialogue and show them how racism is manifested in society even in the subtlest ways, they’ll learn to distinguish between right and wrong.”

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