Talking to Your Kids About Racism

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Talking to Your Kids About Racism

Dear Common Sense Media: My thirteen-year-old saw a video clip of Barack Obama’s one-time pastor Reverend Wright on the news. In trying to make sense of Wright’s anger at the black/white imbalances in the United States, my son asked whether the pastor was racist. This is so complicated. How do I talk to my kids about race—both in this country and in the media?

Common Sense Media: This election has put questions of race front and center. No matter which candidate a family supports, we have a teachable moment on our hands.

What Is It?
Racism, simply defined, means believing that a person’s race determines their traits and abilities, and that racial differences lead to superiority of one race over another. It’s one of the most complex discussions we can have with kids, who have innate senses of fairness but acute understandings of differences. From the earliest age, kids understand discrimination based on how someone looks; what church, mosque, or synagogue they attend; the athletic prowess someone has; even how many toys they have. So they’re very capable of understanding differences in skin colors and ethnicities. It’s the value judgments made based on those differences that can lead to racism. What kids don’t understand is how bias plays into such “authoritative” mediums like the news or Internet sites.

Why It Matters
We live in a multicultural society, and our kids are growing up—thanks to television and the Internet—in a tiny global village. They’ll confront racial differences throughout their lives and will need skills to negotiate many different economic, ethnic, and racial situations. The media world in which our kids are immersed is full of racial, sexual, and ethnic stereotypes that reinforce values we may not agree with. As parents, we need to help our kids understand what they see and hear in the world and in the media and help them interpret these impressions based on our own values, whatever they may be. The world is full of inequalities. Understanding how people are portrayed—and how some people have had advantages over others—is critical for our children’s ability to make informed, educated decisions in their lives.

Some Facts You Should Know

  • One in three US citizens is a minority, according to the 2006 US Census. The media portrays races differently: Almost twice as many nonwhite males as white males are portrayed as physically violent or aggressive in G-rated movies.
  • 87 percent of video game heroes were white, according to a report by the nonprofit group Children Now. 

    Common Sense Says:

For Young Kids

  • Talk about differences. Can they think of people who look different or who come from different countries? Explain that people can be different on the outside, but we’re all human on the inside.
  • Find age-appropriate books that show multiple cultures and role models. Your school librarian should be able to help you.

For Middle School Kids

  • Talk to your kids about what they see in the media.What gender are the heroes? What race? Do bad guys have accents in cartoons? In movies or games?
  • Explain how the news works. Editors make decisions about what images to use. These editors often have a point of view and select images that are consistent with it. Some are conservative, some liberal. But there’s no such thing as completely neutral. Watch the news with your kids and see what they think.
  • Talk about the history of the Civil Rights movement. Young kids know about Rev. Martin Luther King, and they know about slavery. Make sure they understand that it wasn’t very long ago and that there are still inequalities in this country.

For Older Kids

  • Go on YouTube and watch Barack Obama’s speech. Listen to it with your older middle school kids and highschoolers. Ask them what they think about what he has to say. Did he help explain Reverend Wright’s comments? What points made them think?
  • Explain how the news works—that programs are in the business of getting ratings, and the best way to get the highest ratings often depends on sensational material. Ask your kids how they think that affects what gets coverage.
  • Geraldine Ferraro resigned from Hillary Clinton’s campaign after saying that Ferraro wouldn’t have been a candidate for vice president in the 1980s if her name had been Gerry, and Barack Obama wouldn’t be a presidential candidate now if he weren’t black. Ask your kids what they think that means.
  • Equal opportunity, welfare, and affirmative action are all hot points in the racial conversation in this country. Do your kids know what they mean? Do they know your feelings about these difficult subjects?