THE BLOG
12/29/2014 04:57 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Making Race Elementary: 5 Ways to Talk to your Kids About Race and Other Tough Topics

Sam Edwards via Getty Images

Talking about race in America to a 5-year-old is tough. Anything beyond Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a Dream" speech seems like a conversation for another day or something they will learn later. The problem is that later never comes, and when they ship off to college, all they have learned about Native Americans is related to Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving. This is not good.

A couple of years ago, I was invited to weigh in on the development of the new Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. A small group of us were treated to a virtual tour of a mini-replica of the museum as we were asked what should or should not be included. It was exciting, but I also felt pressure to go along with the narrative that racism in the U.S. had largely been defeated through gritty protests, black-white unity and a set of progressive legislation.

At certain points during the meeting, the conversations grew contentious, particularly around how to handle slavery and the treatment of Native Americans in the U.S. in the exhibits. As one of only two people of color in the group, I felt the urgency for the museum to "get it right," and tell the complicated and messy story of race and racialization in America.

Admittedly, talking about race can cause both grown men and women to cry. I have seen it happen. As we were filing out of the meeting, a woman approached me and said, "You know, talking about race is hard. I rather talk to my kids about sex than about race." I hear you, lady. It is hard, so here's some help. Below, please find five ways to talk to your kids about race and other tough topics.

1. Teach your children to see differences, rather than to ignore them. Racial, ethnic, gender, ability, religious and sexuality differences are natural and normal. Forcing people to think, act, dress and behave according to dominant cultural standards is not. Discuss differences matter-of-factly and without judgment; children sense when you do not approve of something and will respond accordingly.

2. Visit local exhibits, museums and cultural celebrations to jumpstart discussions on race and to teach children about the values and contributions of other cultures to our society. Television and movies cannot serve as stand-ins for cultural interactions and experiences. In fact, television distorts our view of other races and ethnicities because the stories and representation of groups in the media are often laced with stereotypes and misperceptions. Local exhibits and cultural celebrations are usually authentic expressions created by groups to honor traditions, explore their history and to lift up their communities.

3. Teach them the distinction between race, gender, ethnicity and sexuality and racism, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia. Being black, gay or a woman is not the problem in our society. However, being black, gay or woman in a society that does not value or treat blacks, gays or women equally is a problem. The ISM, or the use of power and privilege to gain advantage or treat people unfairly because of their race, sex, gender or sexuality is the real barrier to racial and social progress.

4. Tell them the hard stuff in small, digestible chunks. Use age-appropriate books, national holidays and anniversaries of major events to talk about topics like slavery, the Holocaust, the battle at Wounded Knee Creek or Japanese Internment camps in the U.S. Don't leave these important history lessons for your child's social studies teacher. A parent-led discussion lets your children know that you value the history, contributions and experiences of other groups and cultures in our society as well.

5. Stay away from binaries and generalizations. In teaching your children about race, stay away from binaries such as "good people/bad people" or generalizations like "all Asians are smart, all Latinos are undocumented immigrants, or all blacks are poor and all whites are well off." No one group is inherently better than others. And this is confusing to children and reinforces dominant narratives about the powerful and powerless in our society. It also leaves little room for them to imagine brilliant African-Americans, low-income whites or Latinos who are born and raised in the U.S.

My last piece of advice is less about our children and more about us, the parents. In teaching our children about race, it is also important for us to go internal and grapple with our own "race stuff," and the blinders we can all wear when it comes to thinking and talking about race.

We all belong to a tribe or race and some of us belong to many. Our perspectives, racial attitudes and preferences are informed by our experiences and our membership in these groups. We have to do our own work to build bridges, learn what we don't know about other groups and cultures and ensure that our children do the same.

One of the many lessons I've learned from recent events -- from Ferguson to New York -- is that I cannot leave the important work of teaching my children about race, difference and inequalities to others. It didn't work for my parent's generation and it won't work for theirs.