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Use Head and Heart to Talk About Race

Only 10% of parents talk to their kids about race often. It’s only 6% of white parents. Let's be very clear with our kids - "different" isn't bad.

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Painful, heartbreaking and serious conversations are happening at dinner tables around the country. Why did they kill George Floyd? Why did Amy Cooper call the cops on Christian Cooper? In going for a simple run, wasn’t Ahmaud Arbery doing what we do every day? How is this fair? 

It’s not fair. It’s not right. And this isn’t new. Substitute George Floyd, Christian Cooper, Ahmed Arboury or Breonna Taylor’s names for all the others we do not know—racism is pervasive, systemic and occurs around us every day.

Bad things happen when we don’t speak up and act. We’ve been silent for too long. Do we want all kids to have a just future? Then it’s time to have the conversation about racial oppression, its history, and the impact it continues to have on people’s lives. Too few of our kids understand the history of our country’s structural and systemic racism. Let’s talk about what each of us needs to do, as part of our regular dinnertime conversation.

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Only 10% of parents talk to their kids about race often. It’s only 6% of white parents.

We know that as early as age two, kids begin to internalize racial bias and use it to select playmates. That means we need to start talking to them EARLY and OFTEN for the message to stick.

Talk to kids about race with head and heart: test our own unconscious bias, make it an ongoing conversation, be clear that "different" isn't bad, and step off the sidelines

How do we talk to them? With head and heart. Share our knowledge of the history of systemic, institutional racism, but also appeal to our kid’s innate sense of fairness and empathy to help them understand why this must change. Raise your hand if you speak up for your friends of color because “she is just like us” or “he is one of us”? It may be painful to hear, particularly if you see yourself as an ally, but you may have an unconscious bias problem.

  • Only 6% of white parents talk often to their kids about racial identity. This may come from a good place—for example, parents fear that talking about race may introduce a racial bias in their kids—but these good intentions are backfiring.
  • Starting at 3 months of age, children begin to show a preference for faces from their own racial group. Humans have a natural tendency to categorize based on traits to separate friend from foe as a survival mechanism.
  • Even minority children as young as 6 years old display an implicit pro-white bias. How long this bias persists as they grow older may depend on their social environment.
  • By ages 2 to 4, children can internalize racial bias.
  • By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs.

Parents have a decade to mold the learning process, so that it decreases racial bias and improves understanding.

So, the science is clear—we need to start the conversation early and keep it going often.

Let’s not wait for the next horrific event to have this conversation. Here are four things all of us can be doing every day:

  1. Be aware of our own subconscious biases (no one is immune).
  2. Have an ongoing conversation about race.
  3. Teach kids that difference isn’t bad.
  4. Step off the sidelines, and demand accountability.
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Be willing to test our own unconscious biases—and no one is immune

Do we think we live in a post-racial society? Do we say “I don’t even see color”? That may show our own bias. Are we unknowingly practicing passive racism? Every person has biases acquired through socialization, upbringing, education, and media. Humans have used the categorization of traits in people with whom we interact to identify friend or foe. Dr. Margaret Hagerman, author of White Kids: Growing up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, shares that “parents may not even be aware that they are conveying ideas about race through their behaviors.”

Take a look inside:

  • What choices are you making about where to live, what activities to participate in, and what to talk about?  
  • How about your reactions to news reports, what books you read, who comes to your house for dinner, and how do you respond to remarks made by others?

Every single one of these behaviors and actions influences our kid’s perspective on race.

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Have an ongoing conversation about race

None of us are doing this perfectly, but we need to be willing to remain teachable and look for ways to do it better. Look for help. Do this collaboratively. Talk to your kids about what’s happening in the country and the history that has shaped these events. Adults often teach the historical perspective pointing to heroes like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other civil rights activists. It’s easy to say, this is how it used to be. 

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“If we teach children that racism is simply a thing of the past, and that today we are all equal, children may mistakenly assume that the unequal racial patterns they see are earned or justified.”

Dr. Erin Winkler
Associate professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

A good place to start is by agreeing on a family value system based on fair treatment and respect for others. You might do this by writing a family mission statement together. Lean into the tough questions.


  • Be aware of how you and your kid speak. If they say something inappropriate or insensitive, check yourself first. Did they hear it from you? Ask why they chose a term, and talk about what it really means before helping them choose better words next time. If their comments point to stereotypes, find ways to disprove them. Keep the conversation civil, kind, and informative.
  • It’s not enough to say diversity is important. We need to model it with our friendships.  A study confirmed that kids’ attitudes towards race are more highly influenced by the racial makeup of their parents’ friend group, than by their parents’ messages around race. Develop authentic relationships that are true friendships. Don’t just curate an experience for your child.
  • If you are struggling with a place to start, use the concept of “fairness.” Author Erin Winker of Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children, tells us that young kids have a natural sense of justice and are attuned to seeing patterns in the world around them. Because of this, unfairness is the perfect way to explain and conceptualize racism to young children.
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Different isn’t bad

People are not the same; acknowledge and admire differences. Otherwise you may send the message that being different is bad. Expose your kids to diverse cultures but don’t be a cultural tourist. Instead, interact across cultural and racial lines to truly expand your kid’s world. This also builds self-awareness.

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Step off the sidelines, demand accountability

Developing racial awareness in kids is not enough. Consider ways your family can do something. Here are some activities for kids that promote social justice.

  • Teach your kid to be an advocate and stand up for friends and classmates who may feel the sting of racism, or really, any unfairness.
  • Sign, or start, a petition to encourage change.
  • Attend a peaceful protest together to show our kids how to use our voice for change.
  • Donate to an organization or group whose values and work you support. 
  • Vote! Make sure your voice is heard through both national and local elections. And take your kids along when you go to vote or sit beside them when filling in your mail-in ballot.
  • Have hard conversations and spread the word about injustice and racism with your friends, family, and community. Speak up. Show up. Include your kids.