What to Say in the Face of Bigotry?

Say Something.

White supremacy, racism, anti-semitism. Ugly words that lead to ugly actions, even death. Like many of you, I am having trouble making sense of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. Yesterday, I wanted to write about the hate rally, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to write about it, how to add to the cacophony of voices already out there. I thought that maybe it would help if I called an expert to get some tips about what to say to children, but I don’t need an expert to tell me what to say. Bigotry and racism are wrong.

Is there anything that can really combat the kind of hate exhibited by the white supremacists’ groups, the KKK and the neo-Nazis? (Someone I was talking to on Monday commented to me that she didn’t realize that the KKK still existed!) First, say something. It’s a myth that children, even very young children, are “colorblind.” An article entitled “Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race” by Erin N. Winkler, Ph.D., cites current research, which shows that  “children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages three to five.”

It stands to reason that if children are forming attitudes based on what they see and hear, then the hate rally images and words that they may see and hear should be filtered in some way through kind, caring, and reasonable adults who can help children make sense of some people’s ignorance and bigotry.

“Blood and soil” was one of the chants used by the white supremacist group at the Friday night “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. If your child or adolescent asks what that means, explain the connection of the words to Nazi propaganda and that it is a hate slogan meant to fuel hostility against Jews. Another, more pointed, “Unite the Right” chant was “Jews will not replace us.” Historically, the KKK and white supremacists saw Jews, black Americans, and Catholics as taking away white American jobs.

Tulsa has two unique places to help children and teens understand something about Jewish history and black history. Visit The Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art located at 2021 E. 71st and the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, located at 321 N. Detroit. Both places will spark conversations.

Studies on racial bias show that children as young as 3, 4 and 5 have beliefs about race that are not necessarily related to their parents’ beliefs or values. Young children are actually forming their own understanding of others based upon their limited, simplistic life experience – call it “toddler logic.” For example, if 3- to 5-year-olds see only white people with certain jobs, they may assume that those jobs can only be held by white people. Unless you tell them otherwise. Explain the unfairness to your children.

I know that I’m guilty of not talking about race when my children were young. I didn’t really think about it, but that’s because I’m white. Black parents are much more likely to talk to their children about race. We were fortunate to live in a neighborhood where my children played with children who were black, but I don’t recall having a conversation about race.

The research does show that “…silence about race does not keep children from noticing race and developing racial biases and prejudices, it just keeps them from talking about it.” Consider the following example from psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997):

A White mother and preschool child are shopping at the grocery store. They pass a Black woman and child, and the White child says loudly, “Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so dirty?” (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among White preschool children.) The White mother, embarrassed by her child’s comment, responds quickly with a “Ssh!”

An appropriate response might have been: “Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors.”

If the child still seemed interested, the explanation of melanin could be added. Perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, however, many parents don’t offer an explanation. They stop at “Ssh,” silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked. (p. 36)

Winkler writes, “The lesson for caregivers of young children is: Do not shush children or shut down the conversation. Instead, engage in open, honest, frequent, and age-appropriate conversation about race, racial differences, and even racial inequity and racism. Research has shown that such conversations are associated with lower levels of bias in young children (Katz, 2003). Let go of the notion that you are ‘putting ideas in their heads’ by talking about race; as we have seen, research shows that young children notice race and draw conclusions about difference on their own.”

Researchers found that, as Winkler writes, “even very young children develop what psychologists call in-group bias, or favoritism towards the groups in which they are members.”

As parents, we can talk to our kids about racial and ethnic inequities, and that the unfairness is not something that just happened in the past. We can talk about what being fair means regarding people who look different from us or who may have different beliefs than us. This is especially important if your children are never around anyone who looks or thinks differently from them. Get children out into community with a variety of people.

We can talk to our children about how to treat other people in very specific ways. Be alert to this. If you hear a child making discriminatory statements or actions, talk about those things specifically and why they’re wrong. Don’t just say, “be nice.”

Winkler writes, “children pick up ideas about race from our broader popular culture – remember the ‘smog in the air,’ and the less actual, meaningful contact they have with people from other racial groups besides their own, the more likely they are to retain higher levels of prejudice.”

I hate to think about what the “Unite the Right” rally said about our broader culture to children and youth who were watching and listening. “Smog in the air” is a good way to describe it.

Speak to children in ways that they can understand, but don’t shy away from speaking. Give children of all ages the cognitive and rhetorical tools to fight bigotry and inequality. The positive message from Charlottesville is that people are speaking out against white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK. They are talking about how those values are not American values.

Show your children what they can do. Maybe they can stand up to bullies and tell an adult if they hear someone using racist language against a classmate. As they get older, talk about what they think the world would be like if Hitler had won or if the South had conquered the North in the Civil War. Listen to what your children believe and correct biased views about people that they may have developed. Watch TV and movies with them to discuss racism and cultural stereotypes. And, with the plethora of hate-filled websites and social media outlets, it’s more important than ever to teach children and adolescents about how to find good sources of information.

Obviously, deep-seated fear and hatred exists in America today, but so does the deep desire to be rid of it. Since bigotry, divisive anger, and racism are in front of our children every day, it’s critical to understand how to see these ugly parts, even in ourselves, and make a commitment to combat them.

Resources to Help Facilitate Civil Discourse from the Tulsa City-County Library*:

As a community entity, Tulsa City-County Library serves as a great equalizer. A place where all people are welcomed and have equal access to information and technology. A place where collaboration is key and knowledge is power. We believe that informed, engaged individuals are the backbone of our democracy and stand for a society built on mutual respect and understanding.

In light of the national events in Charlottesville, VA, our library team has compiled a list of resources to aid in civil discourse:


List of books for adults and children focused on ways to have constructive conversations with people with differing viewpoints. For additional resources, visit our online catalog at TulsaLibrary.org.

TCCL Cultural Resource Centers:

African-American Resource Center

Hispanic Resource Center

Native American Resource Center


African-American Experience: Full-text resource explores the history and culture of African Americans, and provides a wealth of primary sources.

American Indian Experience: Full-text resource exploring the histories and contemporary cultures of the indigenous peoples of the United States.

Pew Research Center:

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank dedicated to informing the public about the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping America and the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis, and other empirical social science research. Pew Research center does not take policy positions.

We hope you will find these resources useful and will share with others. Our librarians are always ready to connect our customers and our community with vetted sources for learning more.

For more information, call the AskUs Hotline, 918-549-7323, or visit the library’s website, www.tulsalibrary.org.

*content provided by TCCL

Additional resources:



Categories: Editor’s Blog