Talking (or Balking) About Race with Kids

race+is+hardIn a recent episode of This American Life, producer Chana Joffe-Walt recalls how she didn’t know how to respond to her preschooler who, in a bath-time game of running a pretend restaurant, decreed certain items off limits to Jews.

“What am I supposed to say?” Joffe-Walt muses. “I should say something, right? . . . Or is the best approach not to say anything? He’s just having a bath!”

She continues, “It’s your job to teach them about stuff that matters, but . . . they’re little . . . so you have to be careful about saying, ‘Well, let me tell you a story about a man named Adolf Hitler. He would have liked the way you run your restaurant, by the way.”

Joffe-Walt’s story brought me back to how ill-equipped I felt twenty years ago when at a playground with my daughter, Ally, who is white, and her friend, Dory, who is black. They were four years old.

“OK, I’ll be the queen, and you be the slave,” I overheard Ally directing Dory.

I was horrified. And speechless.

Omigod! Where does she get this?” I thought to myself.

I was pretty sure it wasn’t Sesame Street indoctrinating my daughter about life on the plantation. What was Ally picking up from the culture at large or from us? And more to the point, how should I handle it? A lesson about the legacy of slavery and the power dynamics of white privilege hardly seemed appropriate, nor did shaming my daughter for saying something she probably didn’t intend and Dory probably didn’t hear as racist. Would I make things worse by calling attention to what could just be innocent play?

I was at a complete loss. So I punted:

“Why don’t you be the slave and let Dory be the Queen now?” I suggested lamely to my daughter.

Taking on race with preschoolers seemed beyond my abilities, but I could at least try to balance out Ally’s tendency toward the imperious.

Maybe they traded roles, maybe they didn’t. I can’t recall the outcome on the playground twenty years ago, though I can still feel my shame and my floundering. And also how easy it was to just let it drop, something I did not then recognize as part of my privilege as a white person.

Certainly now that Ferguson, NYC, and Baltimore have pricked the nation’s consciousness, and even conscience, we are far more encouraged to make race part of our national conversation. I like to think if I were raising young kids today, I’d be better equipped. But maybe I’d still feel just as flummoxed by a game of Queen (and Slave) for a Day as did Chana Joffe-Walt in the face of Anti-Semitic Restaurant.

As she points out, “These conversations are how we make our mark on the next generation. They’re also, very often, how we learn how much we do not know.”

It won’t get any easier if we don’t try.


What quandaries have you experienced in talking about race with kids? Moments of cluelessness and awkwardness? Fortitude and forthrightness? How did it go? What have you found helpful/unhelpful? 

If you want to delve into this more, keep scrolling. Please feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!


Kamau Bell’s segment on the same episode of This American Life describes the quandary– and a possible solution–beautifully.

And watch this page for other resources from SF-based writer and therapist Rhea St. Julien and her musician husband Joel St. Julien, parents and activists who walk the walk. (“Talking with Your Kids About Race,” the June 4 event their Stay Woke Parents Collective is hosting, is sold out.)

Benefit of the Doubt other night I walked out of CVS without paying for photos I’d just printed. By the time I realized my mistake, I was back home and too exhausted to return to the store.

I confessed my inadvertent shoplifting to my husband.

“If you were a black man, the police would be here hauling you in,” he remarked. “You might end up dead.”

This was the same day a grand jury failed to indict a white policeman for the choking death of an unarmed black man whose crime was selling individual cigarettes. Less than two weeks earlier, the Ferguson grand jury let another white officer off the hook for killing an unarmed black teenager who had recently stolen a pack of cigarillos. Two days before the Ferguson decision, a 12-year-old black boy playing with a toy gun was shot to death within seconds by the responding white police officer. Earlier this summer, a black man who was inspecting a toy gun while browsing in Walmart was shot to death after alarmed shoppers called the police.

Each situation is different, of course. But the key difference is that they were black, and I am white. I do not have to think about clerks tailing me in stores. I can come and go without arousing suspicion. Even if I were somehow caught in the act with my purloined photos, I would be given the benefit of the doubt. I could buy a toy gun for my child and count on not being killed.

But Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, and so many boys and men whose skin is darker than mine cannot. That’s the real crime.

I returned to CVS the next morning to pay for my photos.

“Thank you for your honesty,” said the clerk, smiling as he handed me the change.

I continued on with my day–another key difference between me and those whose days have been cut short.