As youth serving librarians, we have a unique opportunity to build relationships and interact with young children and their families. This opportunity allows us to support families in many ways: building literacy skills, learning the importance of play, enjoying library programs, and of course much more. Among the “much more” is the opportunity to speak with young children about race, to speak with caregivers about how to talk about race, and to model talking about race with children for their caregivers.
It’s Never Too Early to Talk with Children about Race
Research indicates both that children notice racial differences from a very young age (Winkler, 2009) and that if caregivers do not openly talk about race with children, children make up their own, often erroneous, meaning from what they see (Bigler, as cited in Dwyer, 2013). But, many caregivers/librarians/teachers, particularly white folks, are uncomfortable talking about race. They may feel that talking about race and racial differences contributes to prejudice and bias. Again, research indicates that the opposite is true, “despite good intentions, when we fail to talk openly with our children about racial inequity in our society, we are in fact contributing to the development of their racial biases, which studies show are in place by ages 3-5″ (Aboud et al, as cited in Winkler, 2017).
Why Talk with Young Children about Race?
There are many answers to this question; I’m going to focus on two that are highly relevant to youth serving librarians.
Accuracy. As mentioned above, research indicates that if caregivers don’t talk about race with young people, the children may draw their own incorrect conclusions about racial (and other) groups. Part of talking about race with children is providing them with accurate information, so that when they are confronted with stereotypes or inaccurate information, they will have their own foundation of accurate information and understanding from which to draw. Additionally, opening up the conversation from a young age increases the likelihood that children will be comfortable asking whatever questions they have about race, thus allowing adults additional opportunities to discuss race with the young people in their lives.
Values. The importance of talking with young children, and all children, about race comes down to a fundamental value of recognizing that it is essential for us to break down the hold white supremacy has on our culture and institutions; push back against racism, bias, and hate; and help create communities where diversity is celebrated, equity is achieved, and inclusion is the norm. These are lofty goals, given where we are as a society right now, and these efforts must be made on a multitude of levels and in a multitude of contexts, including when working with, living with, and/or caring for young children.
How to Talk with Young Children about Race
There are many roads that can lead to successful and meaningful exchanges with young children about race. Below are some starting points. There are also dozens of excellent resources available online, several of which are outlined in the Resources section below.
First Step. Look inward. Take some time to think about how your race affects your life and the lives of those around you. Think about how race impacted your life when you were young. If you are uncomfortable talking about race, ask yourself why. Think about how adults spoke to you about race as a child, if they did; if they did not, why not? Think about what messages you received about race as a child. Read articles and personal accounts, non-fiction, fiction, poetry, anything that helps you empathize with and understand how race and racism affect the lives of a variety of people and to learn about race, racism, bias, and hate. Think about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. Race is not a monolith; racism exists within a system of multiple oppressions. Think about how race intersects with ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity, sexuality, age, ability, national origin, citizenship status, and more. Read about microaggressions, white privilege, white fragility, and tone policing — these are especially important for white people. Explore structural and institutional racism and the history and legacy of racism in this country. It’s important to take a look at these topics from a wide lens as well as zooming in on the personal stories to get a full picture. I have some suggestions here, but seek out what speaks to you. This can be an ongoing effort of exploration and expansion, and you don’t have to do a full spectrum of step one, before moving into step two, as long as you take some time to think about where you are coming from and what feels feasible to you as you embark on this journey.
Second Step. Just do it. The second and most important step in talking about race with young children is talking about race with young children. As mentioned above, some librarians, teachers, parents, and caregivers are intimidated/scared/unsure about talking about race at all, let alone with young children. As mentioned above, some erroneously believe that talking about race and pointing out racial differences would contribute to racial bias. There are also lots of adults who do talk to young children about race for many reasons, including as a necessity for their children’s safety and well-being, because they want their children to grow up understanding and resisting racism, in order to raise children who can contribute to creating a more equitable and just world, and to make sure the children that they live/work with have accurate information about race.
Third Step. Make talking with kids about race part of your practice. Since we’re talking about children ages 0-5, talking with them about race probably isn’t going to be a long discussion or sit-down talk, particularly for us as librarians. But there are things we can do to simply introduce the concepts of race and racial differences and potentially model how to open up these discussions with young children for their caregivers. And the best tool we library staff have in order to do this, is…BOOKS (luckily, we all have a few of those lying around). These tips can be used with reading one on one, to a small group, or to a 100-person storytime.
For the littlest children, simply pointing out skin colors and other attributes on the children in books can get kids noticing and appreciating differences. “This baby’s knees are brown,” or, “Look, her hair is puffy, isn’t that beautiful?” Another important piece of this is to make sure to assign a positive outlook on the thing you’re pointing out. You don’t have to call everything beautiful or interesting or exciting, though it’s useful to do that where it feels appropriate, but even your tone can convey “this is an interesting bit of information that warrants our attention.” And, particularly when you are talking about the attributes of marginalized groups, you want to make sure to support positive self-esteem development among children who are from (or look like) that group and you want to support empathy and appreciation among children from outside that group. Though children this age may not be able to ask questions, we know that they are taking everything in and soaking up information, which is helping them make sense of their world.
For children who are verbal, or semi-verbal, they are getting to the age where you can still point out different physical attributes, and they can also get involved in a little more discussion. As you read a book, talk with them about what they see. Ask questions, “Is his hair straight or curly?” “Yes, curly, and look at how it reaches to the sky!”
Books with lots of faces with different skin tones can be a natural way to enter into these conversations. These books are a great option if you are feeling intimidated by talking about race, since simply the process of reading these books introduces the concept of skin color.
Older children (4-5) very much understand the concept of fair and unfair, so if you read a book where a person or people are discriminated against, you can discuss that. “Was it fair that Ella Mae and Charlotte couldn’t try on shoes in the shoe store?” “What would be fair?”
Shayna Cureton is founder and director of Abundant Beginnings, “a community education and empowerment initiative that is re-imagining how communities can grow learners who think critically, live responsibly, and create meaningful change” in Oakland, CA. Among Abundant Beginnings’ many initiatives is Forest Freedom School, where Shayna talks with young children about race and justice every day. She recommends not being afraid to introduce big language with children, breaking it down a la Fancy Nancy: “My favorite color is fuchsia. That’s a fancy way of saying purple.” For example, “Racism is a fancy way of saying that some people are treated differently than other people because of the color of their skin — is that fair?” Abundant Beginnings has generously shared with us their “Tips for Talking to Kids about Social Justice” and “Social Justice Children’s Book List.”
Jessica Anne Bratt, Youth Services Manager at Grand Rapids Public Library and 2016 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, is an innovator in the world of talking with kids about race in storytimes. Jessica has generously shared her ideas through essays, presentations, as well as an extensive “Talking about Race in Storytimes” toolkit. Using these resources from Jessica alone would be a great starting point for gaining practical knowledge and accessible tools for bringing discussions of race into your storytimes.
One last thing to think about: your library environment sends a message about race to all who enter. Displays, collections, and programs are places where you can tell your patrons that all people and their experiences are important, or not. Who is on the covers of the books you are displaying? Is every child who enters the library going to be able to see a face that looks similar to theirs every time they enter? Do women of color show up in Women’s history month displays? Does a science display show a diversity of scientists? Do you have books that provide Rudine Sims-Bishop’s “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors” for ALL children?
Racial justice work is a life-long endeavor. However we can integrate it into our library practice means we are making a difference in the lives of children, their families, and their communities. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s difficult and sometimes discouraging work. We’re all going to make mistakes — that’s the nature of this type of work — when we make mistakes, we can stop, listen, learn, apologize, make amends where possible, and then keep moving forward. This work is important, essential, life-affirming, and it is the collective responsibility of all of us, particularly those of us with privilege to wield, to create a world free of racism, all forms of hate, discrimination, and bias. As Rosa Parks said to a Washington Post Reporter in 1998, “Racism is still with us, but it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
There are so many resources available to us to help us with this important work. I have linked to several resources within the text above, and there is also a resource list below. Most of these essays/articles have resource lists within them as well.
- ALA 2018 Program: If you are interested in presenting programs for parents, caregivers, and educators that give them tools to talk with kids about race, and you will be at ALA 2018, please join a diverse panel of experts (I will be moderating) for the program: Let’s Talk About Race with Kids: Library Programs and Activities that support Parents, Caregivers, and Educators in Talking to Young People about Race
- ALSC Community Forum: On Monday, August 14, 2017, Dr. Nicole A. Cooke, Jessica Anne Bratt, and ALSC President, Nina Lindsay, hosted an ALSC Community Forum live chat on the topic of Social Justice Practice in Youth Librarianship. Jessica discusses her “Talking about Race in Storytimes” toolkit. ALSC members can log in and then access the archive of this community forum
- Article: Aya de Leon On How to Talk to Small Children about Racism: Celebrating Bree Newsome, by Aya de Leon
- Article: Here’s How to Raise Race Conscious Children, by Erin Winkler
- Article: How to Talk to Kids About Race: Books and Resources That Can Help, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
- Article: How to talk to kids about racism: An age-by-age guide, by Alex Mlynek
- Article: Should we Talk to Young Children about Race? by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton Ph.D.
- Article: Talking to Kids about Race, by Lindsey Krabbenhoft (Jbrary)
- Article: Talking to Kids About Race: Racially Diverse Storytime Books, by Lindsey Krabbenhoft and Echo (Jbrary)
- Website: American Indians in Children’s Literature
- Website: Embrace Race
- Website: Raising Race Conscious Children
- Website: Reading While White
Bishop, R. S. (1990). “Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).
Dwyer, D. (2013). What you can learn about prejudice by putting kids in different colored shirts. State of Opportunity. Retrieved from http://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/what-you-canlearn- about-prejudice-putting-kids-different-colored-shirts
Milloy, C. (2005, Oct. 26). “She sat down and taught us to stand up.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/25/AR2005102501827.html
Winkler, E. N. (2009). Children are not colorblind: How young children learn race. PACE, 3(3), 18. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/3094721/Children_Are_Not_Colorblind_How_Young_Children_Learn_Race
Winkler, E. N. (2017). Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/erinwinkler/tips-for-talking-to-children-about-race-and-racism
Meredith Steiner is a Children’s Librarian in the San Francisco Public Library system and a member of the ALSC Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee.