How to Talk to Children about Race and Diversity
Recent events in Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY have underscored this country’s ongoing struggle to confront issues of race and justice. Opinions are strong and divergent, and debates are heated. For many adults, discussing race, racism or even race-related events can be difficult and uncomfortable. The topic is a sensitive one that parents may be tempted to avoid when talking to their children. However, experts agree that it’s an important subject for every family to address. As adults, we don’t have to have all the right answers, but we do need to start the conversation.
“I think one of the things we tend to do is when a conversation makes us uncomfortable, then we just won’t have that conversation,” notes Kelli McLoud-Schingen, president of the Tulsa-based KMS Intercultural Consulting. A facilitator/trainer who specializes in Cross-Cultural Communication and Healing Racism, McLoud-Schingen has facilitated numerous workshops and training sessions both in the US and internationally.
“I have a mentor who would say, ‘the cure for the pain is to get in the pain.’ Sometimes, in order to begin to heal a wound, you have to clean it out, and sometimes that’s more painful than just letting it be,” she comments. “These conversations are really difficult for us to have, but they’re important ones to have.”
McLoud-Schingen emphasizes the importance of simply acknowledging that a problem does exist. “We’re seeing it on the news. We’re hearing about it in the classrooms. We’re hearing about it in our places of worship. We’re hearing so many different perspectives and stories and so many people have been impacted in different ways.”
In talking with children, McLoud-Schingen recommends, “trying to have conversation where the parent isn’t necessarily guiding or giving the child an opinion.”
Instead, she suggests parents try to discover what the child is feeling or thinking. “I think the best thing a parent can do is ask the children questions about what they have heard and what it has made them feel like.”
She believes these conversations should be ongoing. “We don’t have them enough when there are good times, and then we always feel we have to be reactionary in the bad times. I believe that the conversations, particularly the ones around issues of race or racial injustice, need to be ongoing conversations, even when things are going well, so that when things are going poorly, we’ve already got a strong foundation on how to have that conversation.”
With two children of her own, McLoud-Schingen has had many of these conversations in her own home. “We’ve been talking about stuff like this since the kids were really young,” she said.
Exposing her children to different cultures, languages and people helps. “I think another valuable tool for a family is to make sure they diversify their circle,” she said. Listening to and hearing about other people’s personal stories and experiences is useful for adults and kids alike.
“If everybody we surround ourselves with those who have similar experiences to us…then we don’t tend to have a different perspective. Our worldview isn’t challenged or even broadened. For parents, I think it is incredibly valuable to give our children experiences with people of different cultures as early as possible, so that they can learn those stories earlier. Then they realize that sometimes people simply do things differently, and it doesn’t mean deficient…When you have greater access to difference and diversity, it really strengthens your worldview and your ability to critically assess situations and impact your circle in a positive way.”
For parents looking for resources, McLoud-Schingen has a number of recommendations right here in Tulsa. The Oklahoma Center for Community and Justice (OCCJ) has age-specific programs on cultural diversity and tolerance: www.occjok.org; Tulsa’s YWCA promotes racial equality through workshops and discussion groups: www.ywcatulsa.org; and The John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation hosts an annual national symposium on racial reconciliation: www.jhfcenter.org. For online resources for parents and teachers, McLoud-Schingen suggests Teaching for Change, www.teachingforchange.org and Teaching Tolerance, www.tolerance.org.
Asking questions and listening closely to the answers will go a long way toward creating an ongoing dialogue with our children about race and justice. Just getting that conversation started is what is important.
As McLoud-Schingen puts it, “It’s not so that when the conversation is done everybody feels as if the problem has been fixed, but rather simply that we’ve engaged in the conversation and are on our way in the journey.”
For more information on McLoud-Schingen and KMS Consulting, visit www.treasureculture.biz.
Julie Wenger Watson is a freelance writer who’s worked in all aspects of music promotion. She’s also Co-Director of “Live From Cain’s,” a public radio show pilot.