How do I explain racism to my 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 Racism, Jelani Memory. It has been lightly edited for clarity. 




What is racism?


Racism is a way of looking down on someone or treating them as less than. Of thinking poorly about them or excluding them because of the color of their skin.


And one more thing: this usually, and almost always happens to people of color or people with Black and brown skin.

Talking about racism doesn't have to be hard, and finding the right words to talk about racism is something we all can work on every day. But first, we need to be able to name racism when we see it. I asked Jelani about his experience with racism.


I've experienced racism a lot throughout my life. The thing about racism is it doesn't always seem like racism when it happens. It's not as obvious as somebody calling you a really ugly, bad name based on the color of your skin. Sometimes it's the way somebody looks at you, or what somebody expects of you or doesn't expect of you. Or thinking maybe you can't do something because of your skin color. 


And so for me, I can think of moments as far back as when I was four and five and kids calling me names in class. And I can think of moments as soon as yesterday. People and the workspace who say things that are hurtful, but they don't know are hurtful. And racism, again, it's tricky.


It's tricky sometimes to know when it's happening, but you often know racism. And when you experience it by how it makes you feel when somebody does something or says something or shows you something; or believes something that makes you feel, as a person of color, like you're not as good as them or you're not like them. 


How does racism make you feel?


The fact that racism exists makes me feel sad. It's a really ugly and terrible truth, especially in our American society. And yet for Black and brown individuals. It's like the water we swim in. It's something that we experience often on a daily basis.


And many of the things that we do, um, whether that's going to the grocery store or getting hired for a new job or joining a new classroom or meeting a new friend, it's so common and so prevalent that in some ways it's normal. And when I say racism is normal, what I mean is that it's frequent and it happens all the time. 


It's terrible. It's bad. It's no good, but it is a normal, everyday occurrence.


Kids are ready. That's our slogan here at A Kids Book About, and it's one that's going to come up over and over again on this show.


I wanted to make sure my kids would feel comfortable talking about racism. And little did I know that the only ones in the equation between me and my kids who are uncomfortable talking about racism was me.


It wasn't my kids, my kids were totally fine with it. And that's the remarkable, amazing thing about kids. They're ready. They're ready to talk about just about anything. If only the adults in their life would have the courage to do it. So kudos to every kid out there listening.


This amazing thing happened with my kids. When I gave them the book that I wrote for them, they were freely talking about racism, which they were already ready to do. But they were also talking about other big, important, difficult topics to talk about with me they hadn't talked about with me before. And I think it's because my book somehow gave them the permission to talk about it with me. Mostly me sort of raising my hand and saying it's okay to talk about hard stuff. And I think oftentimes kids just need that permission. And oftentimes for us grownups, we need that courage to raise our hand and say, it's okay for you to talk to me. I'm ready too. 


Why do people treat people of color differently instead of white people? Because they are pretty much the same, just with a different skin tone. Different skin tone doesn't mean you should bully someone or make them feel bad.


That's a really important question and a tough question to answer because in some ways, we aren't different from each other at all. And just having different skin color doesn't mean that somebody's good or bad, or wrong or right. 


And so racism is a thing that just shouldn't happen. And yet it does. And there are long complicated answers that go back, back into history and the realities of slavery in America. Or segregation, which is when Black people were not allowed to live in the same neighborhoods as white people, or go to the same shops or restaurants or drink from the same water fountains.


But I think the reality is that racism happens today because some people believe, and many people believe, that Black and brown people just simply aren't as good as people who aren't Black and brown—white individuals. That they aren't as capable as white individuals. That they aren't as smart as white individuals. That what they can achieve isn't as big as what white individuals can. 


And very few people would say that outright. They wouldn't say that as specifically as that. And yet somewhere in the back of their mind sits very small, little beliefs that guide a lot of their thinking and their actions.   



What can you do when you see racism happening in your neighborhood, at your school, or in your world?


When you see racism happening in your neighborhood, at your school, in your zoom class, oftentimes, it's hard to know what to do or what to say. And I'd love to tell you to stand up and fight for what's right.


Push back and say, that's not right, or that's mean. And I think that's a really good thing to do, but sometimes it's not as obvious when racism is happening and there's this moment where you feel unsure. You know, that icky feeling that you feel when somebody says something that doesn't feel quite right, but you don't know what to do about it. 


And I often find myself in that situation where I go back and I reflect on that moment and I realize that that feeling was me experiencing racism. And so I think the really important thing to do is to be able to identify racism. Maybe not in the moment, cause you won't always be able to do that. But maybe later on and be able to mark it and call it what it is, to use that name—racism—and let that inform interactions and moments. When you enter back into your class, when you talk with your friends again, when you go back to school, that helps you identify those moments better. And then when you have the courage and the ability and the clarity to see racism for what it is, then stand up and say something.


And if that's standing up and saying something for yourself because you're experiencing it as a Black or brown kid, or if it's standing up for somebody else, or stepping in the way and saying, "Hey, that's not cool. That's not right to say. That's mean," or "That's racist."  

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 spoke with Jelani, the founder of A Kids Book About, who also wrote the first book in the series, A Kids Book About Racism