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How do we talk to kids about race in the wake of Martin, Brown, and Garner?

Dec 4, 2014

Credit user Valery Kenski / flickr

Last year, my colleague Dustin Dwyer did a story about How to Talk to Kids About Race. It's a great piece, and one that's particularly relevant today given this and this and this.

Here's the gist of his piece: If we don't talk to our kids about race, they're going to come up with their own ideas, and "those ideas will usually be wrong, sometimes be harmful, and occasionally they'll be ridiculous." 

So we know we need to talk about race with our kids, but how do you actually go about it? Well, Dwyer called up a psychology professor for some advice.

“I’m not sure that question is different than any other parenting question," says Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton,  a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, and co-author of the book, Are We Born Racist? He says figuring out a child’s developmental stages is always ambiguous: "In the sense that, you know 'Oh my gosh, is my child ready for potty training?' Well, you know sometimes … "

Sometimes you have no idea. Mendoza-Denton says knowing when or even how to talk about race is the same as with potty training or reading or math. Just try it out, and see what they’re ready for.

"So, my general advice would be to remember that it’s a long-term process and that any one phrase or thought that’s expressed is not going to make or break a child’s attitude,” Mendoza-Denton says.

Now, this whole conversation with Mendoza-Denton happened after the death of Trayvon Martin, but before an unarmed, black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, was shot and killed by a white police officer, and before a black man from New York died after being placed in a chokehold by a white police officer. I wonder if how we talk about race is different now in the wake of all this? Should it be different? 

That's the question I'll be tackling in a couple weeks for a State of Opportunity radio story.

If you're a teacher who's been talking about race in the classroom, I'd love to hear from you. Or maybe you're a parent whose kids have been asking you what Ferguson is all about? Or why there are police in riot gear on TV?

Send me an email – jennifer@michiganradio.org – or write in the comment section below. Your voices will make the piece that much richer.