Teaching Kids about Racial Diversity
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Our dog, Jazzy, barks at snowmen. She’s a ninety pound yellow Lab and each winter there’s a standoff between her and some snow person created by a cute little kid. Every day I take her on the same route, and if there’s a snowman on someone’s yard, she spots it before I do, tugs the leash and barks the most ferocious bark she can muster. One day when she was off-leash, she found the courage to attack the snowman, toppling all its parts, and then she proceeded to eat its carrot nose.
She also tries to intimidate garbage. She’s accustom to dumpsters on garbage day, but if someone throws out an old sofa or chair or anything else big, she sees it as a potential threat and wakes up the neighborhood with her tirade.
Our dog attacks anything different and our cat avoids anything different.
When we put a new area rug in our living room, Oreo the cat avoided the room for days. Then she finally realized she could skirt the rug and stealthily make it to the couch. After about four days, she finally deemed the rug safe and walked across it.
Animals instinctually notice when there’s something unusual. It helps them to survive. What’s different about the landscape? Am I in danger?
Humans are no different. If you walk into your house and see the kitchen window wide open, and you’re sure you closed it, you tense and wonder if you’re in danger. If you see someone in your neighborhood whom you haven’t seen before, you instantly try to size him up: is he friend or foe?
We are programmed to notice the different and to be leery of it, and we see this in its most primitive form in kids.
When my youngest son was three, we took him to a birthday party. Since we live in the suburbs, it is not uncommon for our sons to be the only black kids at gatherings and this was no exception. When it was time to play duck-duck-goose, all the kids but one sat in a circle and the kid who was “it” went around tapping heads: “Duck-duck- duck.” When she came to my son, she passed over his head, refusing to touch it, and then tapped the next kid’s head continuing around the circle.
This child was like my cat; she avoided different.
Last year on the school bus, a white child rushed up to this same son, got into his face, nose to nose, and said, “Your skin looks like POOP!”
This child was like my dog; he attacked different.
This is the tragedy of the suburbs. White children who grow up here may never have a black friend. And then they go to college and gravitate towards the familiar, and then they get a job and move back into the suburbs, where they may live the rest of their days never having known a black person on a deep level. Stereotypes and fears just get passed down from generation to generation. Black people remain other, different and negative assumptions persist.
Of course, this is not just a problem in the suburbs. You can live in a major city and never have a black person in your social circle. America is still largely socially segregated.
Let’s go back to Jazzy and Oreo.
One attacks. One avoids, but there is a third option which we can teach our children, and that is respect. We can teach them to respect other people, simply because they are human beings, and we can teach them to notice and appreciate difference, rather than being afraid of it.
So here are five steps towards teaching your children about racial diversity.
Step 1 Examine your own assumptions. Do you think black people are inherently dangerous or less intelligent? Do you think white culture is superior? Do you think black culture is all rap music, gangs and crime? How limited is your view of black people? Do you believe that “all men [and women] are created equal”? Certainly one individual may be smarter than another, but is there such a thing as racial superiority? Do you know that scientifically (and Biblically if you are a Christian), there is no such thing as race, except the human race, and genetically, we are more alike than different?
If we believe this then we know that the problems we see in any given community are caused by a complex array of issues converging to create a perfect storm. The crime rate in inner city black neighborhoods cannot be explained away by stigmatizing black people as dangerous any more than the opioid crisis in the white community can be explained away by stigmatizing white people as addicts. We can’t write off poor, white farmers as a bunch of drunks, even though these communities are rife with alcoholism. All of these problems stem from many complicated factors, including, but not limited to, poor choices.
We have to realize that our children will be shaped not only by what we say but also by the contents of our hearts. What we believe will come out and it will help form their worldview.
Step 2 We teach our children to respect all people whether they have the same skin color or not.
Step 3. We teach our children to acknowledge difference and to appreciate difference, rather than being afraid of it or attacking it.
Step 4 We read books and articles about different people, and then we read age appropriate ones to our children. We watch racially themed movies and then watch age appropriate ones with our children. We go to African American museums and Native American museums and any other museum we can get to. We go to cultural musical performances and other events, all the while teaching our kids to appreciate the beauty of the different.
Step 5. We intentionally seek out friendships with different people. We invite that family from India over for dinner. We include the black family down the block in our backyard barbecue. We join the YMCA in the area which is less homogeneous and we even drive a little farther and join the church which has a more diverse membership.
As we build these friendships, we discipline ourselves to listen more than we speak: to hear their stories and viewpoints and opinions. We reserve judgement and we allow our assumptions to crumble. We observe different ways of raising children and dealing with age. We notice different values and we perceive different beliefs — and we allow these differences to expand our hearts and increase our understanding. We change in small and great ways as we learn from others. We become better people and we raise better children.
Here are three lists of children's books about black people to get you started: