How to Talk about Race in America with Children, Teenagers, and Adults

It is never too early to talk to children about race. Some adults falsely believe that children do not notice race but at 3-months-old babies look at faces of their own racial group more than they gaze at faces of less familiar races (Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People, p. 128).
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Image credit: The Children’s Community School, 2018

 

By preschool children can observe and articulate differences in peoples’ physical appearances, such as skin and hair color, and facial attributes. Some parents fear that by talking about race with children they will somehow encourage bias, but the opposite is true; without conversation children can make inaccurate conclusions about race and develop bias. For example, imagine a white parent with their white child in a store. The child exclaims, “Look! That man’s skin is black!” causing several people, including the man, to turn and look. How would you respond? Many white parents would feel embarrassed and tense, and shush the child. The child may draw the conclusion that “black” equals “bad” or “shameful” since the parent’s shushing — as well as the tension from onlookers — implies “black” is taboo. Contrast this with if the child said, “Look! That man is handsome!” or, “Look! That man is strong!” These latter statements would likely elicit smiles and maybe a laugh from the parent and nearby adults, which may cause the child to equate “handsome” and “strong” with “good” and “positive.” (White Fragility, pgs. 37-38)Having conversations with children at home about race will help them have a better understanding about racial differences between people, and books are a great vehicle for opening up conversation. Below are a list of books, fiction and nonfiction, for children and teens that address the topic of race. These books are great starting places for discussing race with your children and teens.

There is also a list of books for adults because the first step is to make sure we as adults are comfortable and knowledgeable when talking about race. Many people, especially white people, in the US were raised like the child in the example above where we learned from a young age that talking about race is taboo, which makes it difficult to have conversations about racism. Recalling the discomfort she felt during one of the times she needed to confront her white mother about racism, Ijeoma Oluo, an author of mixed black and white ancestry, wrote of the experience, “Aaannnd we’ve now officially entered the worst conversation in the world. I’m talking with my white mother about race. Why can’t we be talking about, I don’t know — her sex life, or my sex life, or my period, or why I’m an atheist — anything but this” (So You Want to Talk About Race, pg. 41).

Oluo is not the only writer/speaker to mix humor into the discussion of race. In Jay Smooth’s 2011 TEDx Talk “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race,” Smooth reminds listeners that rising against racism is an ongoing process, not an end goal, and humorously compares this ongoing maintenance to hygiene. During Ta-Nehisi Coates’s  We Were Eight Years in Power book tour, he humorously explains words that do not belong to everyone.

I hope the above examples show that talking and learning about race does not have to be a daunting task; there can be humor in our experiences with race and the ability to share these experiences, as well as understand the experiences of others, can bring us closer as a community with our neighbors, our coworkers, and if your family is like mine, closer with your family. I hope you enjoy this book list, which is by no means exhaustive, and like Jay Smooth learn to stop worrying and love discussing race.

Adult

Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin R. Banaji & Anthony G. Greenwald

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir by Eddie Huang

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

March (graphic novel trilogy) by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Stamped from the Beginning  by Ibram X. Kendi

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis


Picture Books

28 days : Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi

Don’t Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford

Malaika’s Winter Carnival by Nadia L. Hohn

New Year by Rich Lo

Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh

This is the rope : a story from the Great Migration by Woodson, Jacqueline

The Ugly Vegetables by Grace Lin

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander

Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago

Underground by Evans, Shane

We March by Evans, Shane

We Came to America by Faith Ringgold (Storytime Video)


Middle Grade & Illustrated Titles


Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Cilla Lee-Jenkins–Future Author Extraordinaire by Susan Tan

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhhà Lai

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang

Paper Son by Helen Foster James & Virginia Shin-Mui Loh

Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist by Julie Leung

One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia

Same Sun Here by Neela Vaswani & Silas House

Stamped–Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices edited by Wade Hudson & Cheryl Willis Hudson

 

Teen

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Dear America, Young Readers’ Edition: The Story of an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas

A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America For Young People by Ronald Takaki & Rebecca Stefoff

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People: ReVisioning History for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz & Jean Mendoza

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

The New Kid by Jerry Craft

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei

A Time to Break Silence: The Essential Works of Martin Luther King, Jr., for Students by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Walter Dean Myers

Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin

~Anna, Head of Youth Services

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