Ask Kids & Race: Uncomfortable History

Got a question about race, racism, or privilege? You’ve come to the right place. We’re here to answer questions and help you figure it out. Email us at askme@talkingrace.org Questions can be asked anonymously.

Dear Kids & Race,

How do I talk about slavery and MLK with my kids in an informative and respectful way?

—H.M.

Dear H.M.,

That’s a great question! Many times, we as white parents have a difficult time discussing the negative parts of America’s history. We have this notion that our kids can’t handle it, or that we’re protecting their innocence. The truth is, we’re not doing our kids any favors by pretending this history didn’t happen. As our executive director, Jasen Frelot, often says, when we speak to our kids, we shouldn’t be afraid to complicate the story, presenting it in all its nuance. Our kids can handle a lot more than we think.

First off, you’ll want to discuss these topics in an age-appropriate way. When my preschooler asked “what is slavery?” while we were listening to NPR one day, I told him the basic facts: that white Americans took African people from their homes and made them work without pay. They hit them, treated them unfairly, and even killed them. Slavery is over now, but some of that unfairness continues today, and we need to work to change that.

If you have young children, you’ll notice that their attention spans will wander pretty quickly, so keep it short.

With older kids, you can talk more in-depth about these topics. You might start by checking out a picture book like Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt or I Have a Dream and discussing it with them. Listen to their questions patiently and don’t shy away from hard facts. One thing I’ve noticed is that when white children learn about Dr. King, it tends to be the big speeches and a “we’re all friends now” kind of vibe. Black kids are often taught earlier about Dr. King much and they learn about his assassination and imprisonment as much as his speeches and demonstrations.

Another tip is that we shouldn’t wait for our kids to ask us, we can bring up these topics. It might feel uncomfortable, but we owe it to our kids to be honest. Speaking about these topics is better than being silent, even if you don’t speak about it perfectly. Make it a regular conversation: tie events in the news into their place in history. If you’re feeling stuck, attending a Kids and Race workshop with your kids can help you get the ball rolling.

If we want to raise the next generation to be better, they need to know ALL of their history. Let’s be a good example for our kids on how to talk about race and privilege.

—Katharine Strange