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How parents can talk to their children about race

Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Sonia Smith-Kang
Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Brandi Jordan (left) and her husband who is French caucasian raise their biracial son in Los Angeles.
Brandi Jordan
Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Sebastien Elkouby raises two biracial children with his African-American wife in Los Angeles.
Sebastien Elkouby
Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Host Alex Cohen hosted a roundtable of three parents focused on talking to their children about race and diversity. (From L-R) Sebastien Elkouby, Brandi Jordan, Alex Cohen and Sonia Smith Kang.

The recent officer involved deaths of African American men like Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Ezell Ford  has sparked heated debate throughout the country. 

Talking about the injustices people of color still face in the US today is tough enough to do among grown adults. But what about with kids? 

How do you explain to your children why people are violently protesting in the streets or why the phrase "black lives matter" is splashed all over the Internet?

That conversation gets even more complex when one day, those parents have to think about how their own children will be viewed by other because of the color of their skin. 

Three parents joined Take Two to share their own stories, the lessons they've learned and the advice they share with their kids.



How aware are your children about their own race?

Brandi:  "My son is at the age (7) where race is just starting to come up in his consciousness. On my last birthday he said, 'Mom, you're African American. Did you know that?' For him, we're just getting to that point where he even understands what race is.

What are some examples of racism that your own children might not be aware of?

Sebastien: "We talk about the hot button issues, but we also talk about things like  micro-aggressions: those subtle manifestations of racism. For example,  somebody might ask about your name because it doesn't sound like a European name. 'Oh, your name is Malik. That's interesting.' Why is it interesting? It's almost hard to define on a subtle level. You have to catch it as it happens." 

Brandi: "There's a restaurant that we often go to -- sometimes I go with my husband, sometimes without. I notice when I don't go with him and I'm with a girlfriend who happens to be African American or I'm with my son,  I never get the specials. It drives me insane. I see the same waiter go to another table and I see him giving them the whole spiel. It seems like something minor, but when it happens to you over and over you see there's a difference.  For other people, it may not seem like a big deal. But, why not me? It's those tiny things that happen where you don't want to even think it's about race, but I have to question it. It's something our kids need to be aware of. It happens and those things that happen all day, everyday add up to be a big thing."

How often do you talk about race in your own households?

Sonia: "Race is on the forefront in our household. I am mixed Mexican and Black, raised in Hawaii before moving to California and marrying my husband who is Korean. My children have a look to them that is more Asian, but they're in a Korean immersion program.  Some of the kids will ask, 'Is that your mom? Or is that your baby sitter?' 

At first it was very hurtful, I had to check myself and say maybe they just weren't exposed to being multicultural, multiracial. It's an opportunity for me to teach. I tell them, 'Of course I'm her mom. We all have the same skin color, skin tone, skin, hair, but it just comes in different ways-mine's curlier, her's is straighter.' So they kind of get it. She's half me and half her dad and that's all she needs to know." 

Sebastien: "The conversations started way before Trayvon, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford. These have been going on as far back as I can remember. When we have these things we hear about in the news, for us, it's more a continuation of the conversation. If anything, the latest news actually confirmed everything we've been talking about since the beginning. I think having those conversations early on is much better than having to throw these ideas, these concepts when kids don't have a foundation for it, to understand where all of this comes from. I've had conversations with parents of teenagers who say, 'My 16-year-old daughter or my 15-year-old son, now we're starting to talk about race and they just don't get it.' My thing is: you have to talk about it before."  

Are there certain conversations where either you or your spouse have an easier time talking about race because of your own background?

Sonia: "Because of my mixed background, I have the insight. I've lived it and I can tell my kids. My husband who is Asian came with his own privilege.  I'm the go-to for all things race and he kinda sits there going, 'Wow. I didn't know.'"

Brandi: "I would say I still have to educate my husband sometimes about what the experience is like to have it in your head 24 hours a day. It's different to think how my day will be based on race. Am I going to go inside the bank? Or am I going to go to the ATM because it might be easier for me that way based on race? Things like that, that no one else has to think about. So sometimes it has to be that he takes a back seat just because he's not going to experience it in the way that I do."

What do you hope to teach your child about  race?

Brandi: "I think it's more important for me to impart to him that he gets to decide what it means for him. I think because people do want to put you in a box,  'Are you black or are you white? You gotta choose one.'  I want him to feel for himself that he doesn't have to choose.  

In both cultures, there is a pressure to choose. Growing up in an African-American family, I can say in a lot of the culture, they believe if you have one drop of black, then you're black and that's it. There's no conversation to have. It has to do with our history, how the Constitution was written. If you were three-fifths black then you were black.  I know where that comes from, but I don't want him to feel like he has to do that.  That's more of my fear -- that he feels he has to cut off from that heritage because it's not the choice of color that is the one you'd want to be right now. I want him to appreciate my heritage as well as his dad's heritage.  I don't want him to feel that he has to answer questions for other people." 

What advice do they have for white parents talking with children race?

Sonia: "It's as simple as having books. We support the We Need Diverse Books campaign. In L.A., we are so lucky. We have Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia -- take a day trip. Ask questions and expose kids to another culture." 

Brandi: "Your kids are watching what you value. You can say that we love everyone, but if your kids have never seen you interact with someone of a color, your actions are saying something different. It's about setting up your lifestyle in such a way that you show to your kids that you value diversity." 

Sebastien: "White people really need to be educated. This is probably going to come off a little extreme, but if your white children are not educated, they might grow up to be the people that we are now protesting against. Some people, in this case white people, white parents, feel it has nothing to do with them. It's actually a great handicap to their kids because in the long run, they're also going to have to pay for it." 

What have you learned about race from your own children that surprised you?

Brandi: "When you have your own child and realizing what it means for them in their life and their future, it taught me I had to be a lot more deliberate in the plan about race than I thought I would have to be. I thought that with the next generation, things get easier because that’s what I’ve been taught. I now see, because of social media, what young people are saying online. My husband posted something about the transgender kid who committed suicide, and a cousin of mine posted ‘I understand why the parents didn’t agree with his lifestyle.’ And so it was kinda my husband educating him about choice in the matter and that there is no choice.  I thought, ‘Wow. If someone who is 20 years old is saying this, there is a lot of work that needs to be done and that scares me.'" 

Sebastien: "As perceptive and aware as I think I am, my kids always have a one-up on me. For example, the news came on -- I don't remember what the story was -- but it was a group of politicians and my son said, 'They always have white presidents in the world. When are they going to have a black president?' That was before Obama. He was 5. He was speaking as if he’d lived an entire lifetime tired of this reality.  Again, he’s much more perceptive than I gave him credit for."

Sonia: "The one thing I did get from them is that they're listening and it gives me hope. When I hear my daughter speaking in Korean explaining to another kid what it means for her to be Korean, Mexican and Black , I think, 'Thank goodness she's listening  and she's okay with who she is.'"