Help Children Understand, Honor Racial Differences

Race Exhibit Kaesar Patel & Noah Cho 2

For some children, Martin Luther King Jr. Day may simply be a day off from school – a reason to stay up one hour longer Sunday night and sleep in the next morning. This year, consider using the holiday on Jan. 16 as an opportunity to discuss race, diversity and whether we really are so different. Help them understand why we celebrate this important day.

Why discussing race is important

Racial socialization is everywhere: at schools and parks, on TV, in books – even within families. Children may unconsciously adopt attitudes about race from their families and friends based on what they observe, according to April Harris-Britt, a licensed psychologist specializing in child, adolescent and family issues and a researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill who studies racial socialization and racial identity.

"If you don't tell your kids something, they will come up with their own reasoning of why and how races are different," Harris-Britt says. "Children can verbalize racial differences as early as age 3, so it is never too early to bring up the topic of race in your home."

Children should understand concepts about race that counterbalance any negative messages they may receive from society. Around the time they enter middle school, most children are likely to be exposed to different forms of racism in their school environment. It is especially important to talk to children at this age about race.

"It's all about acknowledging and em-powering," Harris-Britt says. "I really encourage parents to embrace and actively emphasize the broader value of acceptance, whether it is race, gender or anything else."

What to teach and discuss

It's important that children recognize that differences do exist and there are many racial and ethnic groups – no one better or worse than another, Harris-Britt says. She recommends several tips for talking about race with your children:

  • Start the discussion before a situation occurs in which your child is made fun of or sees someone else being bullied as a result of race. If your child does say something concerning racism or racial differences, try to figure out where she picked it up.
  • Respond openly and non-defensively to your child's comments about race. Do not hush your child or tell him that talking about race is rude.
  • Teach children about equality by making the distinction between people being "equal" versus "the same." Overall, communicate the message that being different is not automatically a bad thing.


Ways to introduce race


Simple strategies can help you lay the foundation. Harris-Britt suggests some basic ways to introduce the idea of racial differences in your home.

  • Offer various skin-tone crayons or pieces of construction paper and encourage your children to draw or create people of various ethnicities.
  • Display pictures of children and adults from a range of races around your home.
  • Offer multicultural dolls or puzzles depicting different racial groups.

All of these are easy strategies to help your children become racially conscious at a young age.

Visit a community resource

An award-winning interactive exhibition titled RACE: Are We So Different? is at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham through Jan. 22. This traveling exhibit, a project developed by the American Anthropological Association, is the first of its kind to tell the stories of race from biological, cultural and historical perspectives. The exhibit also features puppets, books and other activities families can explore together.

The exhibit uses videos, interactive activities, information boards and pictures to show the history of race. "The entire purpose of the exhibit is to show that race is a social construct," Harris-Britt says.

The exhibit's first section takes visitors through an interactive timeline of the history of race. The timeline is presented on boards arranged in a circle, with a play area in the middle where families can read books or put on shows with culturally different puppets.

The second section displays information on current topics, including racial wealth gaps, the controversy of having Indians or Seminoles as mascots for sports teams and opinions regarding the 2008 election. An interactive census allows adults and children to find a paint swatch that best matches their skin tone and place it on a sticky wall. The display of various skin tones offers a nice visual of the Triangle's diversity.

"The RACE exhibition provides a safe place for Triangle families to learn about and discuss the subject of race," says Taneka Bennett, director of marketing at the Museum of Life and Science. Bennett has already discussed race with her young daughter, who came home from day care at age 3 and asked why someone called her black. Now, Bennett and her husband use dolls and read books that celebrate visible ethnic differences to discuss race with their children.

Biracial parents Chante and Darrick Woods found the exhibit very engaging. "Race is always a matter of discussion in our home," Chante says.

The couple lives in Durham with their three children: Addison, 3, Darrick Jr., 2, and Anderson, 1. When asked what color her skin was by her mother, Addison responded, "A beautiful brown." 

Megan Finke is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.


The Museum of Life and Science
433 W. Murray Ave., Durham
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.;
Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

$14 adults, $10 ages 3-12, $11 seniors (age 65 and older) and active military with ID
For more information
919-220-5429 or; the RACE exhibition page includes a link to download a family guide for talking about race.

Introducing Race to Little Ones

Here are some fun books parents can use to begin teaching young children about diversity and cultural differences.

The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (Chicago Children's Museum, $14.95) Characters in this rhyme-styled book talk about all of the great things they can do in their own skin. Their stories simplify themes of self-acceptance, self-esteem and social justice, and can help your young reader understand the many aspects of cultural diversity. Ages 4-8. Hardcover.

We're Different, We're the Same by Bobbi Kates (Random House Books, $3.99) This Sesame Street book shows that even though people – and Muppets – are different sizes, shapes and colors, they still share many similarities on the inside. The illustrations offer a fun way for children to explore different external features but in the end, readers understand that we all enjoy many of the same games and activities. Ages 4-8. Paperback.

The Color of Us by Karen Katz (Owlet Paperbacks, $7.99) In this story, 7-year-old Lena discovers she and her friends are all different shades of brown, but all beautiful. Lena begins to see people as different foods – honey, peanut butter, ginger and cinnamon – and learns to celebrate the delicious colors of each of her friends and family members. Ages 4-8. Paperback.

A Rainbow of Friends by P.K. Hallinan (Ideals Children's Books, $4.99) People can be serious or funny, outgoing or shy, musical or athletic. This book reminds children of why it's important to have friends of every type, and why the uniqueness of every person is what makes the world a better place for everyone. Ages 4-8. Paperback.




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