Using media to talk with kids about race

By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Woman and boy looking and each other

There have been many calls for conversations about race. Book lists and resource lists abound. For many Black parents and other parents of color, “conversations about race” are a natural and necessary part of the fabric of our lives. For a number of white families, this might be new; or might become another moment of talking about needing to talk about race — without ever taking the steps to honestly do so.

Research and the evidence before our eyes have shown that it’s not enough to be (or think of oneself as) “not racist.” To be anti-racist and confront bias requires active, honest, and yes, sometimes uncomfortable living. But engaging young children on the topics of race and racism doesn’t need to be forced or A Very Special Moment. Parents can create opportunities through regular media use. Some questions to ask think about:

  • How does your family address issues of race in the course of daily life?
  • What does your child hear you say?
  • Who does your family interact with?
  • What races are represented in the books and media in your home?

“With so much media around us… it’s critical that we, as consumers, do our own due diligence to find high-quality shows that will support our kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual development,” writes Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood creator Angela Santomero in Preschool Blues.

Here are a few ways to make these everyday media moments even more meaningful:

Books

When you’re selecting or reading books with your child, do you point out stereotypes or reinforce them? How do you talk about what’s “normal”? Storytime is a great opportunity to talk with your child about race — and that might start with bringing new books into your home.

  • Just Us Books. Just Us Books is a Black-owned company that offers stories, nonfiction, workbooks, and more — centering on Black voices and Black children.
  • The Brown Bookshelf. This site (I’m a member!) seeks to amplify Black voices in children’s literature and other children’s media. It can be a helpful resource for titles beyond the bestsellers, and it also offers sneak peeks into the lives, process, and inspiration of creators.
  • 28 Days Later. This annual campaign from The Brown Bookshelf celebrates “under the radar” children’s literature. It also regularly spotlights other media, like the animated films of Sweet Blackberry, a nonprofit organization founded by Karyn Parsons to “bring little known stories of African American achievement to children everywhere.”

Podcasts

Podcasts can often be a great way to spark small, regular conversations about big topics. Try putting one on while you cook dinner as a family or in the car on the way to the grocery store. Listen to these suggested podcasts for tips on talking to your child about race.

  • MindShift. In this episode from KQED, listen to how white teacher Bret Turner engages first-graders on the ideas of power dynamics and privilege.
  • In My Skin. From the P.R.I.D.E. program in Pittsburgh, In My Skin is “a podcast about race and childhood.” The series includes episodes like “There’s No Universal Character of a Black Kid” and “Representing African Countries in Illustrations,” which can be both a guide for responsible media selection and an opportunity to enrich and inform family conversations.
  • Therapy for Black Girls. On Dr. Joy Harden Bradford’s Therapy for Black Girls’ episode, “Talking To Kids About Race”, Dr. Bedford Palmer points out that it’s important to avoid carrying our own “baggage” and possible bias into conversations with young children about race. Palmer advises that parents think about how they wished they’d been introduced to the topic of race. (Think about how you have addressed or introduced the topic in the past. With a heavy sigh and a sad expression? Do you express surprise at the sight or mention of a “successful” Black person?)

News (And More Books!)

Children see and hear more than we say — and we say more than we realize with our choices and actions. It may sometimes feel like we are protecting our children from painful news by avoiding conversations, but that avoidance can also be dangerous.

Right now, so many of us are living through a prolonged quarantine, and we’re surrounded by a constant news cycle that includes stories about a national protest movement. Children are seeing marches, hearing chants of “Black Lives Matter!,” and are experiencing the reality of racism online, on their streets, and in their neighborhoods. Parents can help children process the news and promote critical thinking skills by using media to encourage conversations about challenging topics:

  • Something Happened in Our Town. This book, written by a team of psychologists, can help guide you and your family through discussions about police violence.
  • We March or One Million Men and Me. Books like We March by Shane Evans or One Million Men and Me by Kelly Starling Lyons can help spark conversation about the reasons for protest and help children understand who protesters are.
  • Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins. “This a movement, not a moment,” is a popular slogan, and it’s important to help kids see the historical context for the news of today. In Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins, it was important to me to show that children as young as 6 years old made decisions and organized over a long period of time in partnership with adults to fight for justice.
  • If You Were a Kid During the Civil Rights Movement. This picture book by Gwendolyn Hooks takes readers into the action of a demonstration and introduces them to the movement that changed history.

TV

Do your media selections reflect only a limited view of “Blackness?” Seek out programming that depicts Black children in a variety of contexts and environments living their lives, using their imaginations, and experiencing the emotional highs and lows that other children experience. When my 15-year-old daughter first saw Esme and Roy, her delighted squeal of “She’s like me!” was just as big as it would have been when she was only 5 or 6. When you’re watching or listening to a program, ask yourself and your children questions like “Where do Black characters live? How do they feel about their homes? What messages does this show send about how Black people live?”

  • Bino and Fino. Bino and Fino, available in ten languages and on a number of streaming outlets, is about a Nigerian brother and sister and their magic butterfly friend. It offers joyful and educational content about the African continent and the rest of the world on topics ranging from science to language to food to music.
  • Doc McStuffins and Molly of Denali. Other preschool programs like Doc McStuffins and Molly of Denali feature multidimensional Black characters and children of color with their own identities — which can be rare on television. When watching programs, ask yourself if your child is seeing Black characters primarily as sidekicks, comic relief, the sassy Black neighbor, the victim, or as a vehicle for a “lesson.” I still cringe at the memories of childhood programs that promoted a “special” episode about racism — and then never included Black characters at any other time. A steady diet of problem or savior narratives reinforce ideas that Black people need to be saved. And we should also be aware of the fact that continuous narratives of “excellence” or “exceptional” Black figures can also marginalize, and imply that Black people only have worth or can only be celebrated when they are superhuman. Black people just being Black is a powerful and important thing!

Social Media

Even when you only have a few moments while checking your phone, you can help foster healthy attitudes about race. Scrolling through your Instagram feed? Check out short, fun kid-friendly videos like this one from Pierre Bennu at Exit the Apple.

  • @theconsciouskid. The Conscious Kid offers a world of resources on its page, including a Racial Literacy Book Club for parents and children, and a specially-created Instagram guide on How to Talk to Kids About Race.
  • Mission Unstoppable. There are wonderful, short and sweet, mini-profiles of Black women in STEM in the CBS web series “Mission Unstoppable.” The series features correspondent Danni Washington, the “first Black Woman Science TV Host,” and spotlights roboticist Ayanna Howard, aquarium biologist Amanda Hodo, and other Black scientists and engineers
  • YouTube. I admit, YouTube can sometimes feel like a swamp full of unpleasant surprises. But it can also be an incredible tool with a little bit of searching, research, and planning! For example, you might enjoy a healthy dose of nostalgia if you hit up YouTube for classic videos of Ella Jenkins, LeVar Burton on Reading Rainbow or Sweet Honey in the Rock in action.
  • Read-Along with PBS KIDS. This PBS KIDS YouTube series aims to “encourage family engagement and a love of reading at home” while reading along with fan-favorite role models. Multiple episodes are hosted by former First Lady Michelle Obama.

By engaging with our children on important issues through the media that we use every day, we have a wonderful opportunity to nurture creative, productive, justice-oriented children who can work together to create change in this world. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood creator Angela Santomero points out that all media is teaching our children something. It’s up to us to make that something meaningful and healthy — particularly when it comes to race. Because if we want to help our children find their way in this world and work to create a better one where racial justice is a reality, helping them understand the very real impact that race has on real lives is essential.

Using media to talk with kids about race was originally featured on PBS Kids, and is being reposted to provide insight into popular tech for families.