The 2016 presidential election, high-profile police shootings of black men and women and conversations around diversity in Hollywood have put race, racism and identity center stage in the American public space. While these topics are nothing new, for many parents, meaningful conversations with children about race are. On Tuesday, April 4, journalist Joanne Griffith moderated a conversation with educators, parents and experts on how parents can talk about race with their children. Director of talent development and inclusion at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Edgar Aguirre, World City Center cofounder Rebecca Bernard, parent coach and owner of Evolving Parents Angela Sanders and chair and associate professor of sociology at Biola University Nancy Wang Yuen joined Griffith to offer their professional and personal advice for parents trying to thoughtfully engage with children on the topics of race, racism, beauty and identity.
“Race is something that we really can’t get around,” host Joanne Griffith said at the start of the event. She played a video clip for the audience of an 8-year-old girl, who is black, rehearsing a script of what she would say in a police encounter, with her hands up. Talking about race, said Edgar Aguirre of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is something that is “uncomfortable, but it’s something that has to happen.”
At home and in school
For Rebecca Bernard, teaching children about different people and culture starts with exposure. Bernard said that at World City Center – the West Adams preschool and enrichment center she cofounded – teachers focus on defining global cultures in meaningful ways. As part of their cultural curriculum, she said, they rely on community members and experts to share aspects of their culture with the school’s kids. “We lead from the families that are a part of our community,” Bernard said.
Bernard said her own world travels have taught her exposure builds empathy and compassion and erases fear. “Experiencing something, even if it’s just a small thing like food, can completely blow a child’s awareness out,” said Bernard. “It’s easier to be afraid of something that you don’t know.”
Parent coach Angela Sanders said that she teaches parents to foster empathy at home. When parents focus on being present, listening and allowing their children to feel the emotions they experience, they teach their children empathy and emotional regulation, she said. “You have to feel it to heal it” and “connection before correction,” Sanders said, are the mantras she teaches. Once a child feels an emotion, he may then learn how to get through it, she added. This type of emotional regulation, she said, is what teaches empathy for others and critical thinking – essential tools for relating to people of different races and backgrounds.
Sanders said that she also recommends choosing books for children that expose them to different cultures and races. With her own son, who is biracial, Sanders said she likes to read nonfiction books that deal with race and culture: One book explains how melanin levels determine race and skin tone, while another discusses what different cultures around the world do when when a child loses a tooth (spoiler: Not every country has a tooth fairy!).
Nancy Wang Yuen, who is chair and associate professor of sociology at Biola University and a mother of two, urged parents to stay away from the idea of colorblindness: The idea that we’re living in a post-racial society. “Sociologists and race scholars think that colorblind racism is kind of where we’re at,” Yuen said. “Colorblindness – that idea that we don’t see race – is used to dismiss racism. I’ve been accused of being racist for bringing up racism,” she said. Yuen added that parents should teach their children that race does exist. “Colorblindness is actually counter to progress,” she said.
Yuen, who is Asian American, has directly addressed racism with her daughters. When children in her older daughter’s class were making racist gestures about Asian people’s eye shape, Yuen said that she addressed it head on. “It’s a racist act,” Yuen said she told her daughter – one that makes fun of Chinese people and Asians. The conversation ended up being proactive: When her younger daughter, who had been listening, saw someone do the same thing in her class, she named the act as racist. “Hey, you’re making fun of Asians!” Yuen said her daughter told the classmate. Parents should not be afraid to name racist acts as racist, Yuen said.
In the media
The panel discussed not only teaching children to understand race and racism and to empathize with others who are not like them but also the sometimes more difficult challenge of teaching children – particularly children of color – to value their own beauty.
Yuen, who researches and writes about race and ethnicity in media, discussed how she deals with homogeneous representations of beauty in the media with her children. “There’s psychological research that shows that for every additional hour of television that is watched, black girls and boys and white girls, their self-esteem actually goes down and white boys’ self-esteem actually goes up.”
When Yuen is watching television with her children, she said, she doesn’t censor, but she does discuss different representations of beauty. “I’ve thought of it as counterprogramming,” she said, “because the socially constructed programming [prefers] the blond hair, light eyes. I wanted to ensure [my kids] wouldn’t grow up thinking that their dark hair and dark hair were less attractive.”
When she’s talking with her daughters about Disney princesses, Yuen said, something that she called “unavoidable,” she’ll show her appreciation for the features of the princesses of color.
Aguirre said both at home and in his job at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences he’s also trying to redefine portrayals of beauty. “We’re trying in our own little way to empower more Moanas to be produced,” Aguirre said. “It’s really about having more people that look like this panel in the rooms where things are greenlit.”
At home, Aguirre said he tries to instill in his daughter a positive affiliation with her skin tone – something that has required some “reprogramming.” “There’s a perception and a projection of beauty that doesn’t look like you,” Aguirre said of mass media in Mexico and Latin America. He said he tells his daughter that her skin tone is beautiful and that people pay to get it at the tanning booth.
Bernard, on the other hand, shared an example from her home of counterprogramming gone awry. Combatting yellow hair and blue eyes, Bernard said, has been “a consistent struggle” with her and her daughter. When her daughter wanted an American Girl doll that didn’t look like her and her father subsequently got rid of all of the white dolls in their home, Bernard said her daughter, upset, told a white stranger “my daddy doesn’t like peach people.” They have to have the conversation around race and beauty in different ways each year, Bernard said.
Sanders encouraged white families to consider the representations they have in their home. “If you’re a white family…does your child have only white toys? What if they had books and toys and dolls that represented what the world looks like?” she said. “That’s more the way to go.”