Article: How to Use Children’s Books to Talk About Race and Racism

PBS Kids, June 12, 2020

Storytime opens up new worlds for our children. They can learn new words, meet new people, and discover new ideas — all while cuddling with you at home. Dr. Aisha White, Director of the P.R.I.D.E Program at University of Pittsburgh says that makes picture books a safe place to start when talking to children about race and racism.

For babies and toddlers, parents can simply focus on buying books that show children and adults of many ethnicities and races in everyday life. As children begin talking, parents can use storytime as an opportunity to ask questions and find out what children might already think about race.

The goal is for children to learn that “it’s okay for me to point [race] out because mom or dad is pointing it out. And it’s okay for me to ask questions because mom or dad is asking questions,” says Dr. White. This gives us a way to ease into conversations, without telling or preaching, and helps us prepare for more discussions in the future.

Research suggests that “if a parent just reads the book and doesn’t have a conversation — doesn’t start to talk about racial disparities and racial discrimination and racism in America — then it won’t really affect a child’s attitudes toward race,” says Dr. White. “It comes back to parents having a background knowledge before speaking with their children, and being brave enough to have the tough conversations.”

Here are seven ways Dr. White recommends using picture books (with questions and conversation starters!) to talk about race and racism:

To show children diversity early

Try the book Shades of People. This easy read pairs candid photos with simple text to help children begin to recognize the beautiful diversity of people in our world — perfect for very young children, toddlers, and babies.

With babies and toddlers, you might narrate the pages by pointing out facial features, hair colors, and “shades” of skin color. (“This boy has brown eyes and curly hair.” or “Her skin looks like the color of sand at the beach.”)

With slightly older children, Dr. White suggests that you might begin to ask questions to see what children are picking up about race in their world. She shared that while reading this book with her 6-year-old grandson, she decided to ask “Can you show me a picture of a child who you like the way they look?” Her grandson pointed to a White girl with very pale skin, blue eyes, and dark hair. As they kept going through the book, she pointed to other children and asked, “Do you like the way they look?” When she pointed to a young Black girl with dimples and very dark skin, her grandson said “no, she’s too dark.”

Dr. White was shocked, but she recommends that parents try not to judge a child’s answers in the moment. Instead, think about how you might come back to that conversation and build on it.

A couple weeks later, Dr. White asked if her grandson remembered what he said when they read the book. Then, she called over her grandson’s older brother and asked him to put his arm next to the girl in the photo. She said “hm, she’s the same color as your brother.” A smile came across her grandson’s face, and she knew he was beginning to understand what she wanted to teach him.

To feature Black children and families in everyday life

Read books that are by Black authors or feature Black characters. Dr. White recommends The Snowy Day or Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. “It’s full of beautiful illustrations and language that sounds like poetry,” Dr. White says. “A parent can ask their child, ‘What do you think about the character in this book? What does his hair look like? Tell me about the people in the barber shop — what do you think about them?’” Then, parents might read a book with mostly White characters, for example, and ask similar questions.

To instill pride and confidence in Black children

In addition to books showing Black families in ordinary life, Dr. White suggests surrounding children with Black magazines, books about Black leaders, and immersing them in Black art and culture. This helps to support your child’s positive racial identity and can even lead to improved problem-solving skills, improved behavior in school, and a greater ability to remember facts and information.

Dr. White stresses that it’s important for Black children to hear from parents and others they love that their facial features, skin, and hair are beautiful. (“Your hair looks just like his in this magazine! It’s so beautiful.”)

To talk about “fairness” and discrimination

With school-aged children, try reading Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation. Dr. White read this with her 11-, 9-, and 6-year-old grandchildren. At the end, she asked “Do you think there are still people who do this? People who treat other people differently because of how they look?” The 11- and 9-year-old immediately answered yes, while the 6-year-old said no. “That showed me the 6-year-old had not gotten to the point where she realized this is something that happens globally, while the other two had already learned,” says Dr. White. “It gives you an understanding of where they are in terms of their knowledge and their experiences.”

To discuss racial bullying

Dr. White recommends Chocolate Me — and she’s quick to point out that parents should read it first themselves, get ready to answer tough questions about bullying, and make sure they can give important context about racism in America. “We don’t recommend that anyone start reading this book with a child unless they’ve had some practice and are prepared to have a useful and productive conversation,” says Dr. White.

To help children become an ally

Try reading IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All to begin a conversation about standing up for friends and classmates with school-aged children. Then try this activity created by a teacher in the P.R.I.D.E. Teacher Cohort:

Ask your child what they would do if they saw a character in the book being made fun of, or called names, or bullied. Have your child write out a sentence or draw a picture about how they can be an ally and who they can be an ally to. Dr. White says this can help children begin to understand that while they might sometimes feel like they don’t have a lot of power, they do!

To show children they can change the world

Try books like I Am Rosa Parks or Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. When reading about leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. White says parents can point out that while the leaders were not children, they were young people. And young people can do big things.

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