Parent Orientation to Racism

1. Getting Yourself Oriented

{ This is Part 1 of a 6-part series on talking to young white children about racism.

Find the Table of Contents here. } Before you start talking to your kids about racism, you'll probably find it helpful to re-orient yourself. Whether you’re new to conversations on racism, or just need a refresher, here are 3 key things want to keep in mind as you begin helping your kids along the path to dismantling racism:

1) The difference between

Individual and Systemic racism

2) How early is too early to talk about race?

3) The danger of teaching kids to be colorblind

4) Optional: Implicit bias check

So, let's dive in. Keep in mind that the resources on this page are primarily for parents. These are concepts and resources to help you get oriented before you begin. The other pages in this guide will have exclusively kid-friendly resources.

Individual vs. Systemic Racism

Before we dive in, it’s important for us as parents to be aware that there are two forms of racism. As parents we need to understand both forms so we can help ourselves and our kids dismantle them in our own lives:

  1. Individual Racism

  1. Systemic Racism

When we hear the word “racism” we often immediately think of the first form: Individual racism refers to individuals who act as if they are superior to others based on the color of their skin. By that definition, racism consists of individual acts of racial prejudice. This form of racism still exists. We don't even have to be overtly racist to carry out racist actions. That's partly because despite our best intentions, we all develop implicit racial bias.

However, that's not the whole story. There is a deeper, invisible type of racism that underlies the fabric of every institution in America. Systemic racism refers to the policies and procedures in our government, workplaces, and other systems which disproportionately disadvantage people of color.

A mountain with a steep "Black" side and stairs up the "white" side is built out of layers of "Impoverished Neighborhoods, Underfunded Schools, School-to-Prison-Pipeline, Discriminatory Policing, Mass Incarceration, Hiring Barriers, Wage Gaps, Housing Inequity, Healthcare Disparities, and Voter Supression"

Also known as structural or institutional racism, systemic racism is built into our policies, our housing segregation, our school funding systems, the school-to-prison-pipeline, our tradition of over-policing and under-hiring people from black communities, wage inequities, and inequities in access to affordable healthcare, food, housing, a quality education, and a decent paying job.

Whether intentional or not, many of our individual behaviors and our current systems result in a racist and uneven playing field which benefits whites and disadvantages people of color.

Dismantling racism means we have to think about two fronts. One, we need to work to
dismantle our individual racial biases, and second, we need to root out and transform the policies and procedures in our government and workplaces so that they no longer have racist impacts and outcomes.

Here are some other great resources where you can learn more:

Articles for parents: Racism 101 - SURJ || What is Systemic Racism - USA Today || Terminology: Systemic Racism, Microaggressions || White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack || Redlining is Not a Thing of the Past || Overt and Covert White Supremacy

Videos for parents: Systemic Racism Explained - Act TV || Instiutional Racism || The Creator of Veggie Tales Outlines the History of Systemic Racism in America || What is Systemic Racism - Race Forward  || The Unequal Opportunity Race || Students Learn a Powerful Lesson About Privilege - BuzzFeed || Marley Dias talks Institutional Racism || Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: White Privilege || Deconstructing White Privilege with Dr. Robin DiAngelo || Sometimes You’re a Caterpillar (White privilege) || Why Color Blindness will NOT end Racism (MTV) || Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man || Cracking the Codes - A Trip to the Grocery Store || An Interview with Beverly Tatum

Books (Adult Non-fiction): So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo || The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander || When they Call You A Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors || White Like Me by Tim Wise || White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo || Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva || White Rage by Carol Anderson || Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson || Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates || We Are not Yet Equal by Carol Anderson
    **Remember to support BIPOC Owned Bookstores! Links above are to black or native-owned <3
      (Also check out lists of black bookstores by state and also herehere, and here and here)!

Books (Adult and YA Fiction): The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas || The Round House by Louise Erdrich || How it Went Down by Kekla Magoon || Monster by Walter Dean Myers || All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds || Dear Martin by Nic Stone || Slay by Brittney Morris || On The Come Up by Angie Thomas || Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson || The Latte Rebellion by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
    **Remember to support BIPOC Owned Bookstores! Links above are to black or native-owned <3
      (Also check out lists of black bookstores by state and also herehere, and here and here)!

Movies for parents:

(as of this writing, several of these are available to rent free on Netflix)

13th || Just Mercy || The Hate U Give

More resources for parents:  Anti-Racism Resource List || Anti-Racism Resources for White People || Anti-Racism Book Guide || Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources ||

Is It Too Early to Talk To

My Kids About Race?

As a parent of two small children (3 and 6), my knee-jerk reaction as a protective parent is to “wait until they’re older” ... but I know that would be a grievous mistake, for a few reasons.

First: it’s simply not fair. Children of color don’t have the privilege of remaining carefree and innocent to the issues of race and racism. They don’t get to “wait until they’re older” to be confronted by it. They are confronted by racial disparities every day, and must be taught at a very young age that they can’t behave young and carefree around certain white people, and especially around police -- their very lives depend on it.

If we don’t teach our white children about race and racism, we are perpetuating yet another racial inequity.

Furthermore, studies show that racial biases? They start early.

At as young as 3 months, infants begin to be aware of racial differences. By 6 months, they display racial bias. By preschool, white children start to demonstrate preference to people of their own race, and self-segregate along racial lines. By 4 or 5, kids will start to voice stereotypes about racial groups. 

As Beverly Tatum explains in her book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” due in part to our highly racially segregated lives, the white-lens of the media we consume, and our fear of the unfamiliar, racial-bias has become ubiquitous. Just as people who live in smog ridden cities cannot help but breathe in pollution, as we go about our daily lives we cannot help but breathe in racial-bias and stereotypes. 

This is why we have to pro-actively work with our kids to dismantle racism. We must teach them to identify and challenge racism wherever they see it, in their own lives and in every system where they find racial inequity occurring. These will not be one-time conversations. We’ll need to have them repeatedly. And unfortunately, we cannot count on our schools to provide an anti-racist education, so we will need to do this work.

The worst conversation you can have with your kids about race is no conversation.

We can’t be silent.

Our kids are never too young to talk about race.

More Resources for parents: Children Are Not Born Racist || Kids Aren’t Colorblind || How to Talk Honestly About Racism with Children || What White Children Need to Know About Race || A Culturally Responsive Classroom || Talking Race with Young Children || Your 5 year old is already racially biased. Here’s What You Can Do || 8 Tips for Talking To Your Child About Racial Injustice || Activities that Promote Racial and Cultural Awareness - PBS || How to Wipe Out Prejudices Before They Start || Starting To Talk About Race With Kids || Video: Talking to Your Kids About Race - Tips

The Danger of Teaching Kids

to Be ‘Colorblind’

One common reflex we white parents may have when confronted with the immense task of raising non-racist kids is to say:

“It’s okay! I’ll just teach my kids to be colorblind!”


While well-meaning, teaching our children to ignore skin color sets them up to ignore the fact that race and racism exist. But as we all know, racism DOES exist, so we absolutely must teach our children about it.

Don’t be silent and assume they’ll “pick up good habits later”

Our current society is racist in structure (if you need a refresher, review Systemic Racism at the top of this page). There is no way to dismantle it aside from directly addressing racism. If we don’t teach our little ones to see color, if we don’t teach them that systemic racism exists, they will come to the erroneous conclusion that any inequities they see in the world are earned or deserved.

This is EXACTLY how racism and racial inequities have survived for hundreds to years, despite the fact that almost none of us *think* of ourselves as racist individuals.

Videos for parents: Colorblind: ReThinking Race - Michelle Alexander || Why Color Blindness will NOT end Racism (MTV) || Why Colorblindness is Toxic ||

More resources for parents: What White Children Need to Know About Race || Children Aren’t Born Racist: Here’s how to Stop Them Becoming So  || Talking to Kids About Discrimination || Parents Need to Have Honest Conversations Very Early ||

Optional: Do a Bias Check

We all have racial biases. Even small children can begin to develop in-group or white bias. While not necessary, you may find it enlightening to do a bias-check before you begin talking to your kids about race, just to see where they are at. 

Remember: this is a non-judgmental activity.

This activity is just to assess where your kiddo is at so you know what you need to spend more time on. Don't punish them for any bias they’ve picked up -- because honestly? We all have bias. You can even test yourself with a the full Implicit Bias Test here. But you probably don't even need to go that far. Just read the words "thug" and "terrorist" -- what race is the person who jumps to mind?


Inentionally or not, we've been socially conditioned to associate darker skin colors with negative associations such as laziness and criminality, and lighter skin colors with positive associations such as goodness and family.

It's really hard to break down implicit bias once we've been infected with it. The good news? We don't have to act on these split-second biases. The even better news? We can help make sure we don't pass these biases on to our children.

How to do a racial bias-check with your kids:

Who would you be friends with?

Grab a book with two characters who are very similar, but have different skin colors (or click the image to the right to enlarge) and ask your child:

“Which one do you think you’d be friends with?” 

Don’t be shocked if your kiddo shows a preference for the child with the light skin. Be gentle in your response. Unless you live in a very racially diverse neighborhood, or have done a lot of work in this space already, your child will likely choose the child with lighter skin. Which means that like nearly all of us living in racially segregated communities, you’ll have to work to help expose your child to more racial diversity, and help them dismantle their implicit biases. This will be an ongoing process throughout their lives, not something that takes moments or days. 

Use this as a gentle teaching moment:

If your child responds that they want to be friends with a darker-skinned character, they may not have developed white-bias yet, which is great! Be sure they have ongoing exposure to a lot of racial diversity in their daily lives and media to help keep racial biases at bay.

If your child responds that they want to be friends with a lighter-skinned character, try to probe why. Here’s a conversation you might have:

“Why is that?”

If they reply “I don’t know” you might try to probe deeper. If they say it’s because the character isn't like them, or because the character’s skin is darker, you can respond with the following:

“Hmm. So should I not be friends with you because my eyes/hair are a different color than yours? …. No! That’s silly isn’t it?”

“You can’t tell from the way somebody looks, but what if … they really like dinosaurs like you do? What if they really love playing cafe just like you? That would be so cool!

Maybe you should ask them what they like to do! You might have a lot in common!

Let’s think of some questions to ask kids we don’t know to notice if they like any of the same things you do! You could ask:

Do you like to play …”

Doing an anti-bias check and having this conversation is only a first step, and one you may want to revisit periodically as they get older. But now the real work to dismantle that bias begins.

More resources for parents:
Who Me? Biased? (Video Series) || Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man: Chip & Joanna Gaines || How to Talk Honestly with Children About Racism - PBS || My 6yo Thought a Character was too Dark || For Adults: Test yourself for Hidden Bias || Study - White and black children biased toward lighter skin || How to Combat Racial Bias: Start in Childhood || Implicit Bias in the Classroom ||

Learned Enough? You're ready to move on to:

Part 2: Exploring Racial Diversity with Your Kids >>

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