‘See also our preceding section: Teaching children about race, which lays a foundation for the following information.
So how do you explain racism to kids? Here are some simple concepts to teach your children:
1) People are prone to notice differences
It’s perfectly natural for people to notice physical differences between people. You notice whether someone is tailor short. You notice whether someone is male or female. You notice what others are wearing. You notice the difference between your mom and a stranger. We likewise notice whether someone’s skin is I ighter or darker, or whether their hair is blonde or black.
Topic for discussion: Have kids brainstorm all the different ways there are to distinguish be/Ween people.
2) Our brains have a tendency to label people & stereotype the world
Noticing differences is fine. The problem is that humans have a tendency to make judgments about others based on their appearance. Our brains, by nature, stereotype both people and things. This can help us predict our world-for instance, knowing that an animal with sharp teeth probably isn’t friendly and shouldn’t be trifled with. But it can also lead to prejudice when we develop assumptions based on superficial things, like assuming a Black person is more dangerous, or assuming a girl can’t throw a ball just because she’s a girl. Or being afraid of all snakes even though most snakes are rather tame and harmless.
Topic for discussion: Come up with a list of all the stereotypes your group can think of, and all the different ways we label or categorize people. Here are some hints to get you started: male vs. female, blonde hair, old versus young, teens, wardrobe, and so forth.
This tendency to stereotype our world, unfortunately, means prejudice comes quite naturally, even when people aren’t trying to be racist or discriminatory. Making matters worse is the fact that humans are also tribal creatures. We assume that those who look like us are safe, whereas those who look different might be dangerous. For as much as we say we value diversity and want to be unique, differences make us nervous. We like to predict our world, and we want others to think and act like us. When others are different in a way we’re not familiar with, this leads to fear, and fear can lead to all sorts of ugly behavior.
The bottom line: it’s quite easy for our brains to steer us toward racism and prejudice. Black people, white people, Asian people, men, women, old, young – everyone carries these hidden biases and learned associations they’re not even aware of. This is only human. Yet the fact that it’s natural to form these associations does not mean it can’t be helped, nor does it give people an excuse to be prejudiced and racist. We can change the way we consciously think and work to form new associations. It’s our job to be aware of this tendency to stereotype others, and make sure we don’t allow these natural tendencies to lead us into ugly behavior or snap judgments about others
Related activity: For a powerful demonstration of how learned associations lead us into assumptions about others, utilize the implicit bias discussion pictures with your kids, a free educational resource we offer.
3) The two types of racism
When people aren’t careful to monitor this tendency to stereotype others, it can lead to racism: viewing others in a negative way solely based on the color of their skin or other physical characteristics. There are two distinct types of racism:
A) Conscious racism
Conscious racism occurs when people are aware of the disdain they feel toward people of different races or ethnicities, and simply don’t care. They feel no need to change these beliefs or even believe such ideas are righteous and enlightened., The Ku Klux Klan or white supremacists are examples of conscious racism. White supremacists believe that white people are superior to those with darker skin. So they view all minorities as second-class citizens who aren’t as good, competent and deserving as they are.
Other people may not think of themselves as white supremacists, yet they nonetheless harbor openly racist views. They might use derogatory terrns like the n-word or poke fun at those of a different race. They think badly of people of other ethnicities, assuming that most Black people are criminals, those forrn the Middle East are terrorists, or that Mexicans are dirty and dumb. This is the ugly type of racism. It is conscious, confrontational, and out in the open.
B) Subtle or hidden racism
Not all racism is intentional. More often than not it’s accidental; a result of the subconscious biases people have formed. Subtle racism may not be mean-spirited or malicious, but it can still have a significant impact on those who experience it:
- Teachers may expect less of minority students and are surprised when they do well in school.
- People with foreign-sounding names are more likely to be turned down on job applications.
- A family walks to the other side of the street to avoid a young black man in a hoodie.
- A store clerk follows around a black teen because he assumes he’s going to shoplift, but not a white girl.
- Black people are harassed more often by police because it’s assumed minorities are more likely to commit crimes
Usually people aren’t even aware of the subtle racism they exhibit. They don’t look at someone and think, “( need to harass him because he’s Black” or “I don’t trust her because she’s Asian.” It’s that over the years the environment they inhabit-everything from the type of personal experiences they’ve had to the news people watch and the things they see on TV-has created subconscious bias that alters their behavior without them even realizing it.
Topic for discussion: What are some of the ways subtle racism is created, and how might we tackle the problem?
4) Racism comes from all directions
Here in America, we tend to think of racism as something coming from white people and directed at Blacks or other minorities-in no small part because the US has a history of both slavery and racist policies implemented by white European settlers against those with darker skin. Yet racism can come from all directions. All people are prone to develop subconscious biases, and all people can be tribal and hold disparaging views toward those who are different. Racism knows no color boundaries, and it can come from Blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and others.
Some of the strongest racism I’ve seen has come from one minority group to another. Many Blacks also hold racist, disparaging views toward white folk. While this might be understandable if they’ve been mistreated by certain white folk for most of their life, it’s no different from racism going in the other direction. Anytime you’re treating someone differently because of their race, that’s racism.
Topic for discussion: If you have minority students among your group, ask them to think of racist views they might hold toward white people. Do you expect a white person to help you if you need it? If not, why not? Are there stereotypes that go in the other direction, such as white men can’t jump, or white people can’t dance? Would you feel as comfortable around a whitc person as another Black person?
5) Hate racism, love the racist
It doesn’t feel good to be treated badly, and those of us who aren’t racist don’t like to see others mistreated because of their skin color, either. So when we see others act in racist ways, it’s easy to want to hate them back, especially if you’re a member of the hated group. But this is absolutely the wrong approach, and only makes things worse.
That’s because racism isn’t really about race. It’s about fear, insecurity, and a lack of knowledge, experience and perspective. Race is merely the thing this fear and insecurity latch onto. People aren’t racist because they truly hate darker skin or slanted eyes. They’re racist because they fear people who are different, or because they’re insecure and need someone to look down upon so that they can feel better about themselves in comparison.
When we respond to ugly behavior with more ugly behavior ourselves, it only reinforces the core ingredients that fuel the cycle of racism and prejudice. Tell me: If someone is racist because they’re insecure, and we then turn around and treat them Iike a horrible person for harboring such thoughts, won’t that only make them more insecure, and thus more racist? I f someone is racist because they fear African Americans, and then Black people respond by being angry, aggressive, and hostile in return, is that going to make them fear Black people less, or is it only going to reinforce their racist beliefs?
If someone is racist because they lack familiarity or positive experiences with other racial groups, will it fix the problem if we shun them and treat them poorly? Or will it only help if we show them compassion and
respect, being the bigger person and giving them experiences that are going to challenge this negative template they have in their mind? We need to follow the advice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and respond to hate with love and compassion while working to make the world a better, more inclusive place for everyone. So hate the prejudice, but love the imperfect people it comes from, because hatred only breeds more hatred in return.