Explaining systemic racism to kids

by / Feb 13, 2023



This interview is from A Kids Book About: The Podcast, with host Matthew Winner and author of A Kids Book About Systemic Racism, Jordan Thierry. It has been lightly adapted for clarity. 




What is systemic racism? 


Systemic racism is when racist ideas and notions are embedded into laws and rules of our government or major institutions that have a lot of influence in our society.


Systemic racism can hurt people in similar ways that individual racism can hurt people. The difference is that sometimes you're being hurt by systemic racism and you can't necessarily point your finger at a person to blame because it is a lot of different factors and rules that may have existed for a long time before you were even born.



These systems or institutions already have a great influence on your life. The education system, for example, is the institution that provides schooling for children from preschool through college. Does everyone in your city or state have access to the same quality education that you have? What factors might be keeping some people out while giving others an easier chance to attend? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are questions that you have a right to ask. And sometimes the answer to what is keeping some people out or giving some people less is an issue of systemic racism. 


I have been pulled over by police much more than my white friends have. Many police officers that I've interacted with I feel like had a bias against African-American Black people and were more likely to pull them over because they thought that they were committing a crime or were likely to go and commit a crime. 


Bias is when someone has an idea or a preference for one thing over another. And sometimes they have biases that are based on ideas that are unfair or untrue about other people.


And so that's one way systemic racism has impacted me in my many interactions with police in the past. 


Another way that has impacted me, and I've talked about this in the book as well, is just growing up there wasn't a lot of representation of African-American males on television and in film that was anything different than an athlete, a musician, or a dancer, or a comedian. Those were sort of the main roles that I saw represented in the media for an African or African-American male. And those were the things that I sort of aspired to because that's what I thought was possible for me.


I didn't necessarily think that I could be an astronaut or an architect or an engineer because I didn't necessarily see those representations of people that looked like me in the media. And systemic racism has unfortunately limited the type of people that are represented in the media in the past.


And so a lot of the people that were in those positions on TV and film were white men and I didn't see myself as a white man, and so I didn't see myself as being able to be an astronaut, engineer, or an architect.  



How is systemic racism the same or different from individual racism?


Individual racism might be, you know, me saying to you, “Hey, I don't like who you are because your skin is brown.” And I think that's ugly. And that's racism. And that's unfair. 


Systemic racism can make you feel ugly without anyone necessarily telling you that you're ugly. It can make you feel like you're worse than that because of all of the rules that may make it harder for you to be successful, that may put people who look different than you on a pedestal and say, “this is what beauty looks like.”


Right? And if you're the opposite of that, then what are you inferring about yourself? You think that you might be ugly? Do you understand? Systemic racism is hard to point the finger at any one person. It's invisible in many ways until you see it, and then you see it everywhere, unfortunately.  


When settlers came over from Europe, they had the idea that they were a superior group of people than people who already lived on that land, Indigineous people--- Native Americans and people from Africa that were brought over as slaves into the United States and to the rest of the Americas.


And so a lot of those rules and laws have been passed down and they've been changed a little bit over generations, but the idea that white people are superior still exists in a lot of people's minds.


Sometimes they're aware that they have that bias, but oftentimes they're not aware that they have that bias. And so both those rules and those laws that are still affecting our society as well as the people who live in our society, having that idea that they're better than others, is why systemic racism still exists. 





I asked Jordan how systemic racism affected him and his childhood.


So as a young person, um, I didn't believe that I was smart. I was not someone that took school seriously because I didn't see myself as being an academic achiever. I saw myself as being someone that was supposed to be good at basketball, someone that was supposed to be very entertaining to my classmates. And that's what I sort of embraced: that idea and that image of myself. 


That impacted my life in a way where, you know, I didn't necessarily go to the college where I wanted to go. I struggled when I got to college because I didn't take my middle school and high school classes very seriously because I didn't see myself as an academic achiever.

We received a number of questions about systemic racism and most of them came down to a question of “Why”... so, I asked Jordan if he had any suggestions on how we can help disrupt systemic racism.


You can help end systemic racism by speaking up when you see that something may be harder for a person of color than it is for a white person. When you see someone being treated unfairly because of the rules or because of the laws, speak up and speak out against those things and say, “this isn't fair.”


It's very helpful when white people speak up on some of these issues to call out the unfairness and the injustice, especially because sometimes if you're the only person of color in the room, it can be really difficult and scary to speak up on those issues. Supporting people and speaking up about those injustices and those unfair rules is going to be really helpful.

And I think that's one thing that people can do to help end systemic racism. 

Each week on A Kids Book About, The Podcast, we talk about the big things going on in your world with a different author from our A Kids Book About series. This week, we have Jordan Thierry, author of A Kids Book About Systemic Racism.