Reading race: Pro-active conversations with young children

by guest blogger Sarah Bender Miller

Children’s books have been an incredibly important part of my parenting journey. Not only have books helped me answer questions, bond with my children, expand world views, and start conversations, but books have also been the center of an early childhood group that I lead, Baby Toddler Book Club. This group uses children’s literature to bring parents (with their children) together for support, play, and healthy snacking. This year our group, of mostly White parents, has been especially intentional that every book we have selected includes multicultural characters and contexts.

While you can explore our children’s book club list and the conversation starters we use on our blog, today I am going to share three books that I’ve used one-on-one to discuss ethnicity and race with my children and some of the conversations that we’ve had as a result.  As my experiences demonstrate, intentional book selection is only one part of raising race conscious children, we must also be TALKING to our children about what we read.

Can You Say Peace? By Karen Katz (2006)

Since my youngest was a baby, I fell in love with picture books and began cultivating a book collection that I thought was representative of the larger world. One of the many books featuring world cultures that we read was Can You Say Peace?  by Karen Katz. This book features children from around the world saying peace in a language spoken in each child’s country. We read LOTS of books like this. I believed that in doing so, I was teaching my children about diversity.

Then one grocery-shopping trip, when my oldest son was about four, I was bagging groceries while he looked out the window. Suddenly, he said:

“Look! That person is from another country!” I looked up and saw a woman wearing a hijab on the other side of the window. I paused. I always try to abide by the great advice to clarify what my child means before jumping to a response.

Me: “What do you mean?”

Four-year old: “She’s dressed funny.”

Me: “Do you mean she is dressed differently than you and I are dressed?”

Four-year old: “Yes, just like in my book, they are dressed like that in other countries. Like that thing on her head. I love it.”

Me: “Oh, well did you know that people in the United States can wear hijabs too? A hijab is the scarf she is wearing on her head. She might be from another country, but she is probably American just like us. You can be American if you don’t wear a hijab, like me, or if you are wearing a hijab, like that woman that you see.”

Four-year old: “Oh, ok. (Pause.) Can I put the crackers in the bag?“ (This is the very real attention span of young children!)

I realized I had been missing an important piece of our conversation. We had been reading books about diverse cultures, but I hadn’t been explicitly saying that a variety of cultures, languages, skin tones, and races were right here in America and in our town.

It drove the point home hard: if we aren’t saying something, kids will fill in the gaps with their own interpretations (Bronson & Merryman, 2011). In this case, my child had assumed he appreciated (“I love it”) cultures that were not our own, but they were cultures from OTHER parts of the world. This conversation suggested that his definition of who “looked American” was very limited. I had work to do.

So I began to reflect: what other gaps do I need to fill? I needed to start talking to my children about race and racism in America.

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester (2005)

We read many books about race, but Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester seemed to really resonate with my (now) six-year-old and three-year-old.

The day after reading Let’s Talk about Race, my three-year old was looking at a (different) book about trains during a church service. He was looking at a page with mostly White, and a few Black, characters waiting for a train. He looked down and then looked up. Then looked down and looked up again, and said:

Three-year old: “Hey! These people in church are all White just like the people in the book!” See mom! That person (in the book) is Black, but everyone here is White, like our skin.”

Me: “You are right. It does seem like everyone today here is White. There are people who are Black that go to church here too, but they aren’t here today. Sometimes it happens that in certain places more White people go to church together and in other places more Black people go to church together, but would it be ok if we all, people who are Black and people who are White, went to a church or synagogue (we’re an interfaith family) together?”

Three-year old: “Yes!”

Me: “Yes, I think so too.”

Let’s Talk about Race had given him the words (and permission) to talk about what he noticed in his world and because he talked about it, I could help him interpret his observation. I could acknowledge that the racial differences he noticed exist but help communicate that it’s ok for communities to come together, too.

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song by Debbie Levy (2013)

On my way out to a March this past year, I wanted to explain to my oldest son (then a five-year-old), why I felt it was important to march, but I didn’t know how to talk about racial injustice in an age appropriate way. So, I turned to books.

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song is a historical look at the use and meaning of the song over time. Although the history ends with the presidential election of Barack Obama and does have a hopeful message, the book doesn’t end by saying that injustice is a thing of the past. It acknowledges that there is more work to do. I watched the wheels turning on my then Kindergartner’s face as we read the book:

Five-year old: “Mommy, wait, there are people at the (Million Man) March that don’t have brown skin like the others. How come?”

Me: “Well, because the White people at the March knew it wasn’t right the way that Black people were being treated. Even if something doesn’t hurt us, if we know it isn’t right and it is hurting someone else, we should stand up and say, ‘that’s not right!’”

Five-year old: (Long pause). Sometimes on the playground, there are two kids that like to play with me, so I feel good, but sometimes they aren’t nice to other kids. I tell them that isn’t right and that they should play with everybody. I play with everybody.

Me: That’s the right thing to do.

This conversation gave me hope, that maybe in his own schoolyard way, he was beginning to understand that standing up for what is right sometimes requires risk.

My hope is that sharing these conversations will help White parents reach for books and begin talking about race with young children. We may not get it quite right initially, but we need to keep trying because our children are reading their world, whether our books and conversation reflect it or not.

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Sarah Bender Miller, M.Ed. is a White and Jewish parent raising two interfaith children (currently ages six and three) with her husband in the Midwest. She is the founder of Baby Toddler Book Club, an early childhood (0-5 years) book club where parents with their children come together to read, play, eat, and give. Follow Baby Toddler Book Club on Facebook.