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U of U Professor Discusses How To Talk About Race With Children

Children playing; U of U professor discusses how to talk about race with children.

A recent article published by the University of Utah features 10 tips for talking with children about race. UPR’s Matilyn Mortensen visited with author Karen Tao about her research and her recommendations for talking to children about differences.

Tao: What I study is how children think about and talk about things like race and topics related to identity. About a couple years ago I collaborated with some folks at an elementary school, working in the fourth and fifth-grade classrooms, doing some in classroom projects related to identity and culture.

Mortensen: What do some of the things that you do in that in classroom program look like as you’re studying race and social interactions with children?

Tao: We do a variety of things. A lot of them are art based. So for example, one of our earliest activities was a self-portrait and asking children to draw their face and we start off by teaching them about the basics of a self-portrait. But from there we go into choosing pastels that match their skin color and having conversations about how they're selecting the different colors, how it matches their skin tone, which really opens up some conversation about the way kids think about skin color.

Mortensen: So as you’ve studied children’s perceptions of race and social interactions, what are some of the most interesting things you’ve observed?

Tao: I think one of the things that sticks out to me most is how complexly children are thinking about identity and race. And maybe not in the same terms that we in academia or in college or graduate school are thinking about it, but they are thinking about what it means to be who they are in their communities and in relation to others and who they see on television and in the media.

Tao: Kids are at a very young age making comparisons, and maybe not with judgment, but just looking at similarities and differences. The other thing is how much of these messages, whether visual, or verbal or nonverbal become internalized and shapes the way they think about who they are and who they can be.

Mortensen: So in the article that I read it had ten tips from you about talking to children about race. Can you summarize some of those tips, or maybe talk about what the overarching theme of them might be?

Tao: The thread running through all of the 10 tips is to have the dialogue with kids as early as they are ready to talk about. As soon as kids start noticing things about a difference that they are pointing out, or why does that kid on the playground have different skin color than me, for parents or adults to start engaging in those conversations. And that can happen in the classroom, that can happen anywhere.

And the next main theme is for adults to become more comfortable talking about issues of race. To begin understanding our own early messages that we received about race and how it was talked about. That gives us a little bit more of preparation to be able to talk about it with our kids.

Mortensen: Why is starting that dialogue with children so important?

Tao: We are living in a society in which issues of difference, particularly around race, I would say in our country is just out there all the time. And lots of information through social media and through television is being thrown at children all the time. And for us as adults, parents, teachers, relatives, it’s really an important thing for us to be able to help filter some of those messages.

Mortensen: Are there ways that having these conversations about race and thinking about how to talk about with your children, or with children you interact with might help adults with their perspective of race and how they interact with others in their community?

Tao: Absolutely. So that’s a great question. One of the things I as a parent grapple with all of the time is how to follow up with children when they ask questions or bring somethings up around difference and race. One of the tips that I suggested and others do as well is to keep the conversation going. And to not be afraid of not knowing something. And saying to your child “Um, you know, I don’t know. But let’s go look it up together. Let’s find out.”

Another piece of this is recognizing that there may be some discomfort around talking to children around race because it’s not something that many of us grew up doing in our households. And so being okay with that discomfort.

The other thing is letting kids take the lead. And so depending on the age of the child that you are speaking, if they are three, their attention span for sticking to one conversation span may be a little bit shorter, than someone who let's say is ten. So being okay with having the conversation stop after a couple of minutes pick up at a different point is important to highlight.

You can read the article with the rest of Tao's ten tips here.