How to Talk to Your Kids About Racism

Racism has long been an issue in America. Throughout history, people have been bullied, persecuted, harassed, and killed because of the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage. But racism isn’t always overt. It affects the opportunities that marginalized people are offered; it affects how they are treated on a day-to-day basis, and it affects their mental health and physical well-being. While racism has been an issue in America for quite some time, it has truly come to the forefront of our national conversation in 2020. The murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed have brought the racial injustice experienced by Black Americans—and marginalized Americans of all races—center stage.


This is a good thing, because talking about these issues, and coming up with concrete ways to address them, is long overdue. If you are a parent, you are probably wondering how to talk to your children about racism. Let’s face it: some of these conversations can be uncomfortable, and you may feel unsure exactly how to approach them.

You may feel concerned that you will frighten your child, or say the wrong thing. That’s understandable, but now is not the time to shy away from these conversations.

Why Do We Need to Talk to Our Kids About Racism?

In this day and age, and in this pivotal moment in history, the “racism talk” is not something you can skip with your children, or sugarcoat. Discussing instances of racial injustices as they come up in the news—and addressing the systemic issues that perpetuate them in the first place—has become a vital part of our children’s education.

“Given the current political situation, it’s crucial that parents educate themselves first about how to discuss racially motivated police violence and the history of the criminal justice system, so they can talk with their children about these issues understanding the structural issues at stake,” says Anita Chari, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon and co-founder of Embodying Your Curriculum.

Making this a reality starts with the conversations we have with our children, from their very earliest ages.

Kids Know More Than You Think They Do

Even if we wanted to try to push the issues away, the fact is that our children have probably already heard about some of the divisive current events that have unfolded—so shielding them in some way may even not be possible.

Our kids’ access to social media, along with the fact that these topics are now part of the national conversation, means that our kids probably hear about these things before we even realize that they have. Even young children overhear what we listen to on the news or the conversations we may have with each other.

“Children are not oblivious to what’s happening in the world around them,” says 15-year-old Alejandra Stack, former NAACP Youth Council President and author of Activate Your Activism. “Kids get information from their phones and tablets, television stations, as well as overhearing conversations from adults.”

“This information then gets spread around their peers and turns into a ginormous game of telephone,” Stack says. “Wouldn’t you rather your children know the whole story rather than only knowing what Tommy’s friend’s cousin told him?”

How to Approach the Topic

When it comes to talking about racism, being clear and straightforward is your best bet. You may think that speaking in vague terms will make it easier for your children to understand or absorb the information, but children actually can understand these issues easier than you may think.

“These discussions are basic for all,” says Stack. “There are ‘softer’ approaches to speak with kids of younger ages about racism and police violence; however, don’t make it seem like it isn’t as large of a problem as it is. What works for a 14-year-old isn’t going to be the same thing you can tell your 4-year-old.

Don’t try to ‘dumb it down’—simply find other things similar to these real-life situations or use softer language.”

Like the “sex talk,” or other difficult conversations you may have with your children, the conversation about racism is one that should be ongoing, starting when your child is young, and increasing as time goes on. Having a clear, honest, and straightforward framework to work with will make each iteration of the conversation that much easier.

Deedee Cummings, MEd, LPCC, JD—teacher, therapist, lawyer, and author—explains it this way: “Be open with your children. Tell them the full history of our country and why we still have so much to resolve. Remember that it is OK to say, ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘Let’s learn about this together.’”

“As a parent, I understand the desire to let children be children,” Cummings says. “It would be lovely if they really could just play and not worry about the ills of this world, but this is not realistic. Talking about and figuring out problems is and should be a part of childhood.”

How to Address Racism With Children of Different Races

It’s important to note that the way you approach the race talk will vary considerably depending on your own family’s experiences with racial issues. If you are a family of color or of an ethnic minority, your “racism talk” will look much different from a family that doesn’t deal with those challenges.

Sonia Smith-Kang, an AfroLatina mom of four and President of Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC), shared her experience of “the racism talk” with her children:

“Black and brown parents don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not we need to talk to our kids about current events and racial violence,” says Smith-Kang. “From a young age, my job has been deliberate. I showed them a realistic picture of what is happening in our country, our state, and our community.”

That also meant arming them with information about how to stay safe from racial injustice, bullying, and harm.

“All my children receive a version of ‘the talk,’” explains Smith-Kang. “For us, it extends beyond ‘the birds and the bees,’ ‘say no to drugs,’ and ‘social media dos and don’ts.’ It includes driving/shopping while Black and brown. Being intentional in our discussions and educating them is an important aspect of what we have to do.

It can be the difference that saves their life.”

How to Talk About Difficult Current Events

Some of the current events surrounding racism and racial injustice can feel difficult to discuss because they are full of unsetting and scary facts and images. Again, though, these are not topics we should shield our kids from, especially because they will likely hear about them on their own, and having a grown-up to talk to about them is vital. Cummings has a few steps she recommends you take as you begin to broach the subject of current racial events with your children.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Ask your children what they already know about subjects like police brutality, or why people are protesting in the name of Black Lives Matter.

Clarify Terms for Them

For example, your child may not know what “police brutality” is, but they may have heard about the fact that some Black people are afraid of being pulled over by the police.

Admit That You Don’t Have All the Answers

If you don’t know something, you can show your child how you go about learning—what resources you look to, and how to educate yourself.

Reinforce the Concept of Racial Justice

All of the current events—no matter how difficult they are to talk about—highlight the need for us all to come together and to care for and respect each other.

Make a Plan of Action

Maybe your child wants to write their congressperson a letter. Maybe your child wants to attend a protest. Maybe your child wants to educate themselves further on the event or topic.

Use this as a teachable moment.