Why & How to Talk to Young Kids About Race
Contrary to the common belief that young children “don’t see race," a mountain of research evidence confirms that racial awareness starts early. We know that within a few months of birth, babies prefer own-race faces, and that by roughly age 3 kids start to form judgments about others based on racial differences. And by kindergarten, kids perceive that different racial groups have different social status.
As caregivers, we teach our kids about race whether we do so intentionally or not. But we’re not the only ones teaching them. Kids learn about race every day and from everywhere - in their neighborhoods and schools; from media, books and toys; and from everyone they interact with, including in their homes.
Given the pervasiveness of the racial messages kids are exposed to and the damage many of those messages can cause, the question for caregivers is not whether we should communicate - thoughtfully and deliberately - with even the youngest children about race. Of course we should. The question really is: how can we do that work well?
Watch the conversation with Dr. Nicol Russell and the EmbraceRace community. Also check out the related resources.
EmbraceRace: We've had this conversation in different ways before but it's still a really popular conversation and we can always use new tips and tricks for how to have this conversation about race. Particularly, we're focusing tonight on young children, so zero to eight years old.
EmbraceRace: And we’re so glad that Dr. Nicol Russell is joining us tonight. Nicol currently serves as a Vice President of Implementation Research for Teaching Strategies, LLC. She has been a teacher, a school administrator, a Head Start State Collaboration Director and a State-level administrator for the Arizona Department of Education. She currently serves as an at-large board member for the National Association For The Education of Young Children (NAEYC), and as a member of the ReadOn Arizona State Advisory Board. Nicol's research interests include the inequities in education for young, Indigenous, and Black children. Nicol, it's great to have you. Thank you so much for joining us.
Dr. Nicol Russell: Thank you for having me this evening.
EmbraceRace: And we're going to start with you in the way that we often start.
Why do you do the work that you do now? Tell us about that. In particular, why your interest in working with Indigenous and Black children? What explains that?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah, I think me, who I am explains that. When I think about why I do this work, it's sort of twofold. One part is like a retrospect of me looking back at who I was as a child and my own experiences in education especially, being a young child, who's Indigenous and Black and living in a small rural community, remembering those feelings of what it was like to be overlooked, to be discounted, to be relegated to a position that felt less than my entire life. So that feeling, I always think about that and think, I don't want that for any other children. And if I have some influence, some power, some privilege that I can use to disrupt that, to change the systems so that children don't have to experience that kind of negative feeling about themselves and about where they're from and about the people that they come from, I want to do that work.
But it's also forward-looking because I think about right now and in my life personally, I have a six year old, and I think about what kind of future world do I want for her? What do I want those experiences to be right now? And then as she grows older, I want her to be a person who also champions people who are from marginalized groups, from groups that aren't often included. How can we actively work to make the world more inclusive for people? So those are the things that get me up every morning, and as I'm laying down and going to bed at night, I think about those things and ask myself often, am I making the world a better place for children who aren't often considered when that question is asked?
EmbraceRace: Why have conversations about race with children early? Why have conversations about race at all with young children?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah. I think it's like any other conversation we're having with children. When they're important conversations, the longer you wait, the more difficult they become. And it becomes difficult, not necessarily because the topic changes, but really, the angst that builds up in you as a person, I know about my own experience when I'm getting ready or thinking about, oh, I should talk about this now. And the longer that's delayed, the more fear develops, the more opportunity for other things to come in and change my mind. And I think about when you talked about this conversation with very young children especially, people often feel nervous. "How do I do this? I can't do it?" And there's that angst, and the longer you wait, the harder that becomes. And so I think getting down to it is how you get down to it. You have to start somewhere.
And when I think about the age of children, this is when they're forming their identity, their own ideas about the world, so this is when you want to begin. You want that from the beginning to be shaped by as best influences as you can provide for them, and having direct, honest conversations about race can really help them develop a good sense of what it's like to talk about race, to form their own racial identity, and then how does that relate to the rest of the world around me? So doing that with young children I think should be second nature to all of us. We should make it so that it becomes a comfortable part of what we discuss with young children.
EmbraceRace: Nicol, you said you do this work because you're Indigenous and Black yourself and because you felt less than for much of your life. Can you take us back and tell us, when did you become aware? When do you remember starting to feel that and what did that look like, if you don't mind sharing?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Sure. I go all the way back to being in kindergarten, and I'm going to take a second here and I'm going to put my stuff off video just so everyone can see this picture. So here I am, I'm five years old, I was in kindergarten. And I think about this kid because this kid cried every single day of kindergarten. I remember that so vividly. I cried because it was such a different place than anything I've ever seen in my life. I didn't go to preschool, I didn't have the privilege of having care outside of my home. I was in the house with my parents and I had a mother who had a very specific view about the world. And when I went to this school, it was like I was introduced to something completely opposite from that.
It was teaching me to be a way that wasn't natural for me. It was contrary to what I was being taught about at home. The care for one another, the importance of familial relationships and togetherness. And now, I was in a place where I was by myself and expected to take care of myself and be responsible for my things and be responsible for who I was there, and I just remember no one taking the time to acknowledge that kid to say, "Oh, maybe we should learn a little bit more about that family. What language do they speak at home?" Here I was, a person who was navigating a multi-language household. We spoke English. We spoke Hawaiian. That was my mom's chosen language to speak first. And then we also spoke Pidgin, which is a combination of various languages. Those things were natural to me and here I was in a place where they only spoke English. So a lot of the terms they used and phrases, they made no sense to me.
And I remember feeling lost, and that was part of why I would cry often, just feeling completely out of place. So you asked me that question about when did that begin? I think all the way back to that child. And I tell people, I keep a picture of me on graduation. Here's my kindergarten graduation photo. And even on this day, I was crying. If you could see up close, my face is red and I've got these tears, and I was crying even on that day because on that day, my mom and my dad weren't there. My mom was actually giving birth to my youngest brother so they weren't there, and I remember being upset about that and the teacher sort of scolding me for not singing in the song and standing up and dancing with the other children when I'm supposed to, but I was so distraught that they weren't there. And no one stopped to say, "Maybe we should check in with this girl and see what's wrong? Why is she so sad today?"
And I feel like that was part of that dismissal of my feelings, the validation of who this child was. And so those memories are just etched into my brain and I think about that all the time in the work that I'm doing with young children, and I share that often with teachers and administrators. If folks on here have worked with me before, they know I share that story and I share those because I say, look at me, I'm 43 years old, still thinking about the five-year-old me. But that's how impactful that was on my life.
EmbraceRace: What we hear you saying is that the embrace or the, really, rejection of personal identity, of the child's sense of self of course can happen at very, very early ages and can be experienced by the child at a very, very early age. So as you were saying, the stakes in play there make it really important to try to do more embracing. Again, whether it's a witting or unwitting rejection, it happens and the child knows, and that has consequences such that yes, decades later, that memory, that feeling is still lodged with you.
And Nicol, you were saying that before kindergarten, you weren't in school outside the home or didn't have caregivers outside of your family. Some might say in today's lens, "Oh, kindergarten, of course you should be more aware of people feeling left out, possibly your class being inequitable." But of course we know that kids sort of recognize difference and can feel these things very early.
So I wonder what you say to teachers who say, "Oh gosh, but my kids! It's preschool, they're toddlers. We don't need to talk about difference. That'll just create differences." What do you say to those folks?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah. I've actually had that question quite a bit and I tell them, "If you spend time with those children, they let you know, justice and fairness are top of mind for them." I don't know if you've ever been in a room of toddlers, they will tell you what is fair and not fair. I taught two year old's and they don't miss a beat. If you have one more than I have, I'm going to notice that. And they know when, "Why did she get to go in that area and I'm still over here?" They'll come and ask you those things.
So children very early on have a sense of what is fair in the world and what is just and how do you make things right. So for folks who shy away from that conversation, I say, "Yes, but if you listen to the children, they're telling you they're ready for these kinds of conversations." They may not know the word "race," but they do know differences. They do know justice. They have a sense of that.
When it comes to race, if you want to be explicit in that, talk about race with young children, part of that is being prepared for that conversation. I remember getting ready to be, when I was a classroom teacher, getting ready for children to ask me why my skin was darker than theirs. Getting ready for children who said, "Why is your skin not as dark as mine?" Sort of prepping yourself for, there are questions that come up for children. I want to be ready to have that conversation with them, not shy away and say, "Oh no, we're all the same. We all have skin and mine's just a little Brown." And then you gloss over that conversation because that presents itself in their own curiosity. They're almost opening the door for you saying, "Come on, come on in. And let's talk about what makes us different."
That conversation about the question of skin color or whatever the difference might be, that's when you start to make inroads on, "Oh, I'm going to come here and I'm going to talk about this with them." Gauge how they're responding to what you're sharing with them and you say, "Was that too much?" Or can they take a little more? So you do the dance of really following the children's lead when it comes to those conversations.
Now, when it comes to babies, I know folks who say "They're babies, they don't know anything about that!" Yes, but this is what we know about babies: they're so brilliant that even though they can't tell you, they can show you that they're noticing differences between people. So even then, we shouldn't dismiss what babies are capable of. We embrace that and we expose them to all sorts of people and languages, just like we would do on any other content area that we're working on because that's their formation of the foundation of what's to come for them.
Children very early on have a sense of what is fair in the world and what is just and how do you make things right. So for folks who shy away from that conversation, I say, "Yes, but if you listen to the children, they're telling you they're ready for these kinds of conversations." They may not know the word "race," but they do know differences. They do know justice.
Dr. Nicol Russell
EmbraceRace: Nicol, on one hand race means those phenotypical differences; the skin color differences, hair texture differences, and so on. And we know that really in a more profound way, it means the value we attach to those things. It's thinking that because skin color/hair means how bright someone is, how hard they work, that sort of thing. You referred, just a moment ago, to you have this sort of this dance of, "Are they ready for this? Do I go a little bit further?" I know that you have a six year old child at home.
What are some of the ways in which when your child at five, six years old, perhaps even four, that you started to bridge that space between how people look and what it means and doesn't mean, which is really where, as they say, "The rubber hits the road on race?"
And keeping in mind that race as a concept is hard for kids to grasp before maybe seven or eight, but all of those different attributes, they can understand.
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah. In our house, that was pretty easy to start to have the conversation because she noticed that right away. "You are not the same color as me and my dad. You are darker." She noticed that. And I expected that. And we never shied away from that conversation. "Yeah. Why is that? What's in the skin that makes mine darker than yours?" Asking those really simple questions and letting her provide some feedback about that. "What are you thinking?" Talking about what melanin is. Like, "How did you get darker skin?" And we did these little investigations, nothing difficult. She asked the question. "Hmm. I don't know. Let's go looking." Pick up our phone. We go on Google, look up some information. But doing all these really intentionally things saying, "I don't want to not talk about this."
One of the things that resonates in my head is thinking about a resource that has been around for a long time, the book on Anti-Bias Education for Young Children from NAEYC and thinking about the way it talks about how silence holds power. That in silence, you hold the power. You, the adult who refrains from having the conversation, you hold all the power. And the signals you send to children is one, to be fearful. You send the message that you're going to have to figure this out on your own. They're going to be relying on whoever- their friends, the TV, other people to tell them what that is, so you robbed them up that ability to be empowered by the language. So when she started to talk about that, we do talk about, we did at that time and still to this day, talk about race.
We used books to define the terms. There's some really great children's books that define things like racism. "What is that?" She's six now and she was asking me, she said, "What is *says racism like raaaaa-cism*?" I said, "It's racism." And we talked about that. "How does this book define racism? And what does that mean? How might that show up?" She's my daughter. I know her. She's ready for that kind of conversation, but not all children will be. So if she weren't ready for that, I'd scaled that back some and say, "Well, what is race? What's that?" It's difficult for adults to understand that that's this construct. Then how do I translate that for a young child?
But it starts with knowing the children. Getting to know them and then starting to say, "Oh, so they need a level one sort of introduction to this." Or you have children who will sit with you for 30 minutes and you can have a really in-depth conversation that involves some investigation online, reading through books or asking more questions. So it really is about getting to know those children.
EmbraceRace: I'm interested in this idea of readiness. So on one hand, you're saying, "Let's start early for sure. Even toddlers and even babies in so far as they're recognizing difference." But there's a question of what the content is that you're talking to them about. So you said one thing around readiness is really that you're introducing the idea of scaffolding. That there are places to start and then building blocks, so you build on those things. If you find a child who maybe hasn't had some of the earliest building blocks, let's say around skin color, maybe we start talking about that first before we get onto some of the more complicated, harder things.
I wonder beyond scaffolding, what are some of the other things that might signal to you that your child is ready or isn't ready to have a more difficult conversation than you've had before?
Dr. Nicol Russell: I think it is in their questioning. I think it's in the things that they're interested in. If you spend time observing children and what they're drawn to. Oftentimes when my daughter's on YouTube, that's what she likes, she's on YouTube and I'll hear something. I'm paying attention to what she's doing and I'll hear something, I'll say, "What did they mean when they said that? What do you think they meant when they said that?" Or I'll look over her shoulders, "Who's that? What are they doing?"
She did have one that came up, particularly, that was about these two groups and all the Brown people were in one group and all the White people were in one group. And I asked her, "Why are they doing that? What's happening there? Who made that decision?" Prompting her to think about, "Wait, I'm not..." Instead of just being a passive consumer of what's in front of her, prompting with questions, because I also want to model that for her.
I'm going to question "What happened there?? And so she had to go back on the video, because she didn't know. She didn't even notice that. But here I was co-watching with her and saying, "Wait a minute, that doesn't look right." So it's participating in the thing she's already doing is another way of doing that. So it's not just, what do I intentionally introduce? But it's in her everyday activities, things she's already engaging in, maybe even friends that she has. Talking about those choices, talking about those activities as a way for me to naturally engage in what's already interesting to her, because what I don't want to happen is, it becomes "a thing." When you introduce "a thing" to children, that's when they're often turned off, because now it's, "You've interrupted what I wanted to do to introduce this thing you care about." But when I can be part of the play, part of the activity or part of the work, now we're just co-learners. We're investigating together, participating in understanding something new or something in a new way and that's important when you're talking about young children.
When you introduce 'a thing' to children, that's when they're often turned off, because now it's, 'You've interrupted what I wanted to do to introduce this thing you care about.' But when I can [make conversations about race] be part of the play, part of the activity or part of the work, now we're just co-learners. We're investigating together, participating in understanding something new or something in a new way and that's important when you're talking about young children.
Dr. Nicol Russell
EmbraceRace: Yeah. So active rather than passive engagement. I love it. That's great. We have a lot of our conversations just when twisting hair, just in front of the TV, twisting hair and watching what they want to watch and stuff comes up, let me tell you. But that's great to just kind of be there and, "Huh, that was weird. Why'd they say that?" Yeah. I love that. You mentioned the book with your daughter, we're getting a lot of questions about "What book? What book?" And people are naming some great books to talk about race, All the Colors We Are.
Dr. Nicol Russell: And I saw Keisha said, Our Skin and that's what I was talking about, that book in particular because it's so dynamic.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Right. I love that book. Yeah.
Dr. Nicol Russell: It starts out really simple. And then you get into this really deep, rich kind of conversation and what that elicits. And now we've read it, I can't even count how many times we've read it now and each time there's a different question. She noticed something different on the cover, I have it right here. Because I said, "What do you notice about those children?" And she said, "Oh, one of them has a backwards L for a nose." I'm like, "Oh, of all the things here to notice that was so..."
EmbraceRace, Melissa: I can't NOT see that now.
Dr. Nicol Russell: It gave me a signal about the things she's seeing. So then I had to point out, "Oh, do you notice they have different hair? And she was looking and she said, "Oh yeah, one has curly hair like me and one has this kind of hair." And then I said, "Do you notice some of them are whiter and some of them are darker?" So then I intentionally introduced that to her because we were then engaged in this conversation. But I knew from what she said, she wasn't noticing what I wanted her to notice. So that's part of that dance of clueing into, what is it that they're interested in and where are their eyes drawn or their ears drawn? And following that and then saying, "Let me offer a little bit more for you."
EmbraceRace: I do love the point also about just knowing your own child and the analogy people use of you don't just throw your kid in the deep end to teach them how to swim. You know that they already know, you've taught them before and all that.
In terms of listening and doing that dance, how is it different when you're a teacher? Because you don't know all the kids as well at first? You get to know them, but they're at such different places with the conversation that of course there's some letting them bring it up. How do you advise teachers around these conversations?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah. I always tell teachers, "Start here. Start at home, right here. What's in front of you, start with that." And so if it's not already coming up, a really good way is to ask children to share about their families. You extend that into the families and, "Share with us about you, your culture, your background." That invitation to make our community whole, by bringing all of you into this space. For me, that's a really natural way for introducing that in the classroom. And teachers are often drawn to that, they like that because they're doing that at first anyway. When children, especially if it's the start of the year or the start of a new term with children coming in, they start there. Establishing community in the classroom. And if they're not starting there, that's my first encouragement.
Before you can get to content, before you can get to all the lesson plans you have about what you want to cover related to whatever it is, reading or getting into early math skills. Starting with building community first is essential. So that means I've got to get to know them and they've got to get to know me because these conversations can't happen if you don't trust the community. And so establishing community at first is so critical to having the kind of space it takes to have conversations where we can talk about race. We can talk about differences. We can talk about those things openly and comfortably because now we trust one another and we know one another.
For teachers, part of the reminder that I have to give them is to bring themselves into the community. A lot of times I see teachers who do this really well. I'll go and I'll observe and you've got these wonderful representations of the children, you've got photos of their families, you know their languages. And then I ask, "Where are you? Where's your stuff? I see you. Who are you? And do the children know that?" Sometimes they need that reminder, "Oh yeah, me too. I'm part of this. I've got to let them know what my background is, let them know what's important to my family." And that's especially important if the race of the teacher is different from that of the children, right? Having them see like, "This teacher who's unlike me in some ways, is also like me in these ways. And this is the endless space we share together. Here's how we get along and here's how this works." But that's a really good way to model for them what we're wanting children to learn about the world out there. Which is yes, we are all different. We see our differences, we acknowledge it. We embrace that. And now, we figure out, "How do we all get along in the world?"
EmbraceRace: Someone asked, it doesn't say how old their children are, but, "My kids haven't really paid attention to race. Should I encourage them to identify people by how they look?" And so there are at least a couple of things this raises here. One, is simply the question that this person asks, they think that their kids just haven't paid attention and don't notice. Again, I'm sure you do, as we do, get a lot of that, right? It's sort of this interesting kind of puzzle. Which is, we have tons of research and tons of sort of individual observations that say, "No. Actually, if your child is certainly three, four, or five years old, your child does notice race." We know this is true, but a lot of people, including even people who come to EmbraceRace, and this is our work. So by and large, we attract people who agree that yes, children from very early ages, notice race.
But still, among them are people who think, "Well, no, my child doesn't notice race. I see no evidence that my child does." So what do you say to that question? And to the question of "should I teach my children to identify people by how they look?"
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah. And I would say, it's not about identifying people by how they look, but acknowledging differences. Like, there's a way to do that and to say, "Hmm, did you notice?" And I love to use that phrase. I use that with children, I use it with adults. "Did you notice? Have you noticed? Did you see? Do you see?" Like those kinds of questions to prompt them into thinking. So it's not accusatory, there is no sense of, "Hmm. Is there a right or wrong answer here?" You know, "Mom's asking me, Dad's asking me that, Grandma's asking me did I notice?" And then they can say, yes or no. And either way, you have a response. If they say no, then I can say, "Oh, but I noticed. I noticed that that person wasn't as Brown as I am. Why do you think that is?" That's a natural thing to say.
Or if they say, "Yes, I noticed." And then you go into a deeper conversation, "Well, what did you notice? Why do you think that is?" It prompts you into these other lines of questioning that helps you engage in a conversation that feels really natural. It doesn't feel staged, it doesn't feel forced. Again, we haven't made it a thing to be done, this is part of how we are. And so in our engagement in conversation becomes more free-flowing. Now, when folks say, "I don't notice color." Or, "I say everybody is the same." That's when I often give pause. And I've had that actually, just recently. I don't know if you all remember a few months ago, there were some talk about Dr. Seuss, and whether or not some of what Dr. Seuss had written had stereotypical images in them. Was that racist?
And I remember a teacher friend saying to me, "I don't think that's right that they want to take the books out of our center." She said, "I don't see color. And I teach the children not to see that, we're all the same. I just want them to see we're all the same." And I have to pause and think about that, what she said and hear her. And I said, "Why is it that you don't see color?" I said, "Doesn't that seem sort of silly? Did the kids say that's silly?" And she said, "No, they didn't say that was silly." I said, "Well, if I were a six year old, I'd be thinking that's pretty silly. Because I see differences all over here. We look different." And we went into this whole conversation talking about what happens when we don't acknowledge that there is differences.
When we choose colorblindness over actually acknowledging and embracing differences. And we had to have this long conversation. I don't say we had to have it, but we did have a long conversation. And she asked me, "Can you send me some sources about that? Can you give me resources on how to change the way that I think about that?" And I'm not going to say that, "Oh, that worked. And she changed her mind overnight." But it opened up the conversation for, "How do we learn more so that we can have a more informed approach to this?" So sometimes, that's what it takes, is sharing information with other people.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Nicol, yeah, this interesting thing of adults who claim not to see color. So here's a little exercise I like to do sometimes. Which is to say, "Okay, think of the last stranger you had some kind of casual encounter with." So you are at the Target, Walmart, or whatever, and you had an exchange with someone at the cash register. Like, you were checking out your things and you had this exchange, probably someone you've never seen before, won't ever see you again. Perceived race, perceived gender, estimate of age. We always in a split second of meeting someone, make some assessment on all the grounds. Now, there may be ambiguity. Like, "Gosh, I'm not sure what racial identity that person was," but you noticed.
You said an interesting thing, which is, so you might say to your child, "Oh, you didn't notice? I noticed." And I imagine that there are people who heard you say that and would hesitate to do that: "Yes, I noticed. But I'm going to hesitate to point that out to my child because somehow, that feels problematic." How would you respond to the person who is questioning that?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yes. And that will feel awkward. If you're not in the habit of doing that, it will feel awkward. I saw someone ask a question in the chat box earlier on about, "How do you do this with White children who may not see the world like children of color do?" I talk about my own experiences. This is a sort of automatic for me, because it's been my lived experience. So my frame always goes to, and I see that. You've got to get comfortable with that. Especially if you're a White person and you say, "I want to get comfortable talking about race." Well, it doesn't happen unless you do it. So when you start to do that and when you say, "Oh, I notice." And back to that idea about the way that silence holds power, you don't want it to become an awkward thing that you never talk about. Because then, it's sort of like, "Well, do we never talk about how someone's different?"
Because when they do start to notice, they'll say, "Oh, but my mom never noticed that. Grandma never noticed that. So am I supposed to notice that or not?" It leaves questions. And now, they've got to go figure that out with other five year old's or four year old's. And, "They're not talking about it. So maybe I won't." Or maybe they see things on television, maybe they're hearing things from other people in their family talking, and that's what shapes their opinion or that's what shapes their view. And so I think getting comfortable with saying, "I noticed," is something that we have to work on. And that's not to say only White teachers or White caregivers have to work on that, all of us can work on that if you're not in the habit of doing that. But be comfortable acknowledging differences. And if you're not, go get yourself some resources to build up that courage. Part of what we haven't mentioned yet, is how some of this takes courage, and being brave, and being risky. You might feel like you're taking a risk, but that's what these conversations entail. It's courage and bravery.
EmbraceRace: There's a great question here from Denise, who asks, "Since race is a social construct and created to separate people, should we just talk about how skin colors are different and leave it at that? Should we just talk positively about how we are all people, in all different sizes, shapes, have different skin colors, hair, et cetera, instead of race with young children?"
Dr. Nicol Russell: I think about that, and have thought about that. And I think part of what we haven't mentioned yet, is that we're really talking about identity. Like, how do we help inform identity formation for young children? And part of that, yes, it's acknowledging skin color differences and the physical aesthetic parts of being a human being, what makes us different. But then, there's also this other part we haven't talked about. And that's about, the way that folks see themselves. That that's also a way that you can talk to children about identity formation. One of the other books that I had pulled for sharing because as a former teacher, I know teachers always want to know, "What are the books that I can be using with children?" I pulled this one, it's called, We Are Water Protectors.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Love that book.
Dr. Nicol Russell: I love this book! Because while this isn't about race, this is about how Indigenous folks see themselves and talk about themselves. And I related to this. This was about protecting water source and calling yourself a protector rather than a "protester." When folks are arguing for, and in defense of, land. And people say LANDBACK, Indigenous folks. And I speak from personal experience. We don't see ourselves as protesters of something coming in. We see ourselves as protectors of an extension of who we are. We see ourselves in connection with the land and the world around us. And we feel like there are times when we must protect that from things that would poison that, that would harm that, that would destroy it. And so when you call yourself a protector... Like imagine having this conversation with children, right? That you can have this conversation about how an Indigenous person sees themself, that's really powerful. We had an experience two years ago, my own daughter. We're from Hawaii.
And I was able to take her to Mauna Kea, where our people are protecting Mauna Kea from folks building the 30 meter telescope on top. We call ourselves Kia'i, or protectors. "Ku Kia'i Mauna!" became this chant, this call to action for Indigenous folks. And thousands showed up there in defense of that mountain, and it was important for me to have her see herself as a protector. We care for the earth. We care this Mauna, because it's an extension of us. And I had to have her share that with her class. When she came back from that trip, we shared it with her classmates. They were preschoolers, but talked about that. She wore a shirt that said, "Ku Kia'i Mauna!" on it. She was able to tell them what that meant, but that's part of what we're getting at here. Is how do folks see themselves and define who they are? And part of our responsibility, is to give them the best information to shape that identity and worldview. So I think it's beyond race, yes.
EmbraceRace: We have a good question here from Juliet that really gets to moving from talking about the sort of physical differences to the really hard stuff. Juliet says, "Hi, I have a three-year-old and we recently witnessed a very racist act at the playground. We spoke about it and his repeated question ever since is, 'Why was that White person treating that Black person that way? Why are people racist?' Juliet says, "I'm having a hard time answering that." Nicol, how would you respond to Juliet?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yeah, I think that's when you can start to move. That child sounds like they're ready for that deeper conversation. Really moving into racism being a way of exerting power over people. And when you start to move into that territory, you talk about racism as a form of power. Who gets power, who keeps power, and how do they get power and keep power? This child sounds like they may be ready for moving into that kind of conversation. "Some people are racist because they want to keep power they've had for a very long time." You can start to talk about that and the child might understand power. And when they don't understand power, you can break down what that means. "I get to say what you can or cannot do." It doesn't take big fancy language. You start breaking this down into language that children of a certain age can understand.
And if they don't understand, they'll tell you, "But why?" Or, "What does that mean?" But you start moving yourself into, "Oh my gosh, they really want to know the answer." And you deepen your own knowledge so that you can have that kind of conversation. But that's where I would go with that child and just start to talk about the exertion of power. "And that's another reason why racism is so dangerous, because that power can cause really bad things to happen to people. We saw that, oh my gosh." You acknowledge the thing that you saw, you don't pretend you didn't see that. You acknowledge it and you give them language to make sense of it.
EmbraceRace: And part of what I love about what you said there, Nicol, is that young children can be conceptually, quite sophisticated, and the language you use to bring up to convey that concept. And sometimes for sure, it's work to find the right language. But once you find the language, you can definitely convey some sophisticated ideas that children can grasp. There are a lot of questions about kids correcting kids when they say something unkind about difference. Like, "Chopsticks are weird. Why would you eat with those?" Or a mother has a child who is lighter than she is. And the child's insisting that, "Brown is bad." And the mother's Brown.
This question in particular is, "What are effective, clear messages or mantras to teach young children when correcting them sort of gently?"
Dr. Nicol Russell: I don't know what mantras would be. But I know that the way I would recommend approaching every time that something like that comes up is to assume positive and ask the child, "What do you mean by that? When you say chopsticks are weird, what does that mean?" Invite them into a conversation that lets them tell you what they meant. Because the other thing that could happen is you react really strongly to something and they just really meant different. Or whatever it is, right? You want to make sure that you've heard them right. That they've expressed to you what this means so that you can address that, what they really meant.
And in the case of the child saying Brown is bad, again, asking that. "Why do you think that? Where did you hear that Brown is bad?" And you invite into the conversation the child to tell you their thinking. It's really hard when you don't know their thinking, right? You just assume. You're making assumptions and you assign your adult lens to the child's lens, and sometimes we're off the mark. So ask them to tell you more so that you have more information. And then with that information is how you proceed. And if that child is telling you they heard that somewhere, they watched that somewhere, or whatever that is, then you go investigating down that line with them, right?
But if they don't have any answer and they're not sure, they just think that or they just feel that, that gives you opportunity to then assert, "Well, I think Brown is beautiful. I think Brown means this and that." And you empower yourself to be able to talk about what it's like to be Brown, and you empower them to also have that same language. They get power because you're now giving them language to start thinking differently than they had before they asked you those questions.
EmbraceRace: I love that. Philip here writes, "My mantra is things aren't weird, they're different, and different is good." I love the idea of redirecting or just thinking differently about what the actual language means. Does weird mean weird to you or different for you?
And actually related to this use of the word different, Nadine has a question, which is, "Can you address colorism? And how the word 'different' can be problematic?" How would you speak to colorism with a young child?
Dr. Nicol Russell: I don't know. I haven't considered that. How to talk to children about colorism. And I don't know if this person's asking because they have thoughts about that or if they really don't have thoughts about that? And I also wonder why that question? What do you mean when you say "talk about colorism with young children?" Would I use those terms exactly? Maybe Nadine could clarify that?
EmbraceRace, Andrew: I wonder if Nadine might be concerned at the word "different" for a child, may feel itself like a value judgment, right? May convey an idea that children may think that different is bad. And certainly and of course, colorism, to me, one of the things it raises is whether or not and when we might start talking about color and association with color as being different, though related to, associations with racial identity. Certainly, we know that there are lots of families with color distinctions that become meaningful even within the family, though they're in the same racial group.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: I feel like in some ways, we spoke about this pretty early with the kids. Just as being a White presenting multiracial person, it's just something that comes up a lot. Why and why would you identify one way or another?
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Well, and we're four people in the family with four different skin colors.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: And so I think it maybe came up with when we were getting dolls, people were giving us dolls. And a lot of the hand me down dolls were White. And when the kids wanted a White doll, I would say, "We have enough White dolls." And "Why? Why do we have enough White dolls?" "Well, a lot of the dolls that are made are White. And if you have too many White dolls, if you don't have a diverse array, it can make us think that White is better. That gets into our mind. And in fact, there's these longstanding ideas that White is better and Black is bad, and that the closer you are to White, the better."
And they were able to understand pretty early. Again, we'd been having these conversations pretty early. But I think that that anti-Blackness is really a thing to address, because just knowing that there are those ideas, that there are these pulls. And if you discredit that, then you go, oh, well, in that case, I'm doing the same thing even if I'm talking about (and privileging) shades of brown in between.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: It came up, actually, very powerfully a few years ago in the context of Donald Trump as a candidate saying that he's going to erect a wall. And our then seven year old saying, "This wall will split our family in half with two of us on this side and two of us on the other on the basis of skin color." So we definitely had to have a conversation.
Dr. Nicol Russell: One of the things I wanted to say was that, I've had time to reflect on what you are talking about and really listening to that question. And I think about when you talk about anti-Blackness and how someone said, "That's real," right? Colorism is real. That that's also real in our own communities. When you think about how dark are you? And you talk about this idea about passing for not quite being Black. I've got that my whole life. Like, "What are you?" People don't even know what I...
And then they see me in the context of my five siblings. And we are along this continuum of every shade from light to dark. And I remember being a child not getting what other people were getting. And as an adult, I look back and think, oh yes. Because I remember folks saying, "Oh, don't go outside. It's too hot in the summer. You're going to get more Black." And I remember thinking, "And?" That reaction was like, "What?" It didn't make sense to me. But when I see folks commenting about that and you hear that... I've heard from some of my Latina friends who said they were told that too. "Don't go out. You're going to get too dark." And we had this conversation about what does that mean to be too dark? Too dark for what?
And that opens up the conversations to, well, again, it always comes back to power, right? Who's treated differently because they're darker? And how much power do I get because I'm lighter? And so having those conversations about really understanding racism not just being about color of skin, but the power that comes with the color of skin. And so I appreciate that that person raised that question because I saw so much happening in the chat related to that. But it also prompted me to think about that, right? To talk about the acknowledgement that racism, in the context that that question was asked, is not just about outsiders viewing us differently. It's also how do we perceive ourselves? And then how do we affirm ourselves? Particularly when we're working with Black children and Brown children, how do we help them affirm who they are?
And I'm still puzzled by that question about differences. And it'll come back. That'll keep coming up in my mind about, is that word, using the word different, is that a bad thing? And how do we prevent it from being a bad thing? It's like using the word Black. I tell folks I use that and I use that openly and often, because to me, that's power. That's affirming when I can say Black without saying *whispers "Black."* Or, "I'm not sure, can we say Black?" To say, "Yes, I am Black." And I can say, "Oh yes, I see these beautiful Black children." There's power in that. And part of how we reclaim our power is in the language that we choose to use.
Having those conversations about really understanding racism not just being about color of skin, but the power that comes with the color of skin... [Race is] also how do we perceive ourselves? And then how do we affirm ourselves? Particularly when we're working with Black children and Brown children, how do we help them affirm who they are?
Dr. Nicol Russell
EmbraceRace: Nicol, is there anything that we haven't asked or that we haven't touched on that you think is crucial for our listeners to take away from this conversation?
Dr. Nicol Russell: Yes. I love that this question just came up because that was perfect timing. This person said, "What about when White people are told that they're too White or they need to get sun?" So acknowledging that these conversations don't only happen in one direction, they happen in all these different ways. And that part of the way that we provide clarity about what we're talking about is when we start to move into that. Yes, we have differences, and yes, we're going to talk about different skin color, we're going to talk about different cultures. But then when we have that conversation about power is when we really get into understanding why racism is such a negative thing.
And to the person who asked that question about hearing those messages, I would also affirm that. In the classroom, you might hear this too. "Oh, you need to get out and get some sun on your legs. Oh, you need to get out and whatever." And so you open up the door for everyone to participate in that conversation so there's no feeling of, "Oh, I'm being excluded because I don't fit with that particular narrative. Now it's open for us as a community to talk about all the ways that we are talked about."
EmbraceRace: Someone's asking, "We'd like to learn more about combating the negative messages. My seven year old Black son is already noticing. Recently, he asked, 'Mom, why do Black people live in such sad places?' And 'Mom, why are the bad guys in the movies always Black?'"
I love the question because of course kids are noticing, right? Hats off to the mom who's having the conversation whose kid feels comfortable talking about and asking the questions and is ready for the conversation.
Dr. Nicol Russell: In that book Our Skin, there's a section in that book that talks about that, when you notice that. Why is the Brown person always the bad guy? They're being made to wear a mask like they're a bad guy. And in the next page, they're taking that mask off and saying, "Yeah, no. No more. I'm not the bad guy." And really conveying to them, actually, we got to reclaim that and say, "No. Black is beautiful." And mean that and say, "No. I'm a good person and I see lots of good people around me."
When they ask that question about why do Black people live in such sad places? "Let me show you Black people who live in really great places, and actually look at these people who are not Black and they live in what would be sad places," right? So you show them that there is this state of the world. But then you also can go into conversations about, "My gosh, there's something unfair about that, right? That people can live in such sad places, whether they're Black or White or Brown." And then you get into these really in depth conversations. But I love that there's an invitation to conversation that that mom has established for her seven year old to even ask that question. And that's really what I'd be encouraging here.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: Part of what feels so important to me about that question is we notice, right? We are pattern recognizing machines, even when the pattern isn't there. Certainly when the pattern is there, we recognize it. Our children will recognize it. We often, too many of us, frankly, want to insist or pretend or believe that children aren't noticing racial patterns. They do notice racial patterns. The question is, what is the explanation that they come up with? How do they explain what they see? And that's where we, as adults, if we are thoughtful and informed ourselves, and as we learn, can help our children understand the patterns that they're seeing. Because it's the explanation that they come up with that can be more or less helpful, more or less harmful.
We often, too many of us, frankly, want to insist or pretend or believe that children aren't noticing racial patterns. They do notice racial patterns. The question is, what is the explanation that they come up with? How do they explain what they see? And that's where we, as adults, if we are thoughtful and informed ourselves, and as we learn, can help our children understand the patterns that they're seeing. Because it's the explanation that they come up with that can be more or less helpful, more or less harmful.
Dr. Nicol Russell: Absolutely.
EmbraceRace: In having that conversation about why you always see the same bad guys or why there's so many blonde dolls, for example, in a store. Just that conversation that you referred to earlier about power and about, "Well, there are people creating these things or creating this program who think that's what we want to see or who have these beliefs." And I think just recruiting your kid to be like, "Wow, that's amazing that they believe that." That your kids see something important about the world and value something that maybe these creators don't see or value. And isn't that too bad for them? I think that's really important.
Nicol, I hope you're seeing all the love coming your way in the chat. We want to add our love and appreciation and our thanks for your knowledge, for your openness about your own experience, for opening up your life with your daughter and your experience in the classroom to us. Super helpful. This is the heart of our work. So thank you.
We really appreciate your take. Thank you to everyone out there as well.
Dr. Nicol Russell: Good night. Thank you.
Resources (return to the top)
- You can do it! Talking to Young Children About Race by Nicol Russell, Ed.D