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6 tips to help parents talk to kids about racism

Racism continues to exist across America, and with the election of President Barack Obama energizing a new generation, racial conflict can be more confusing than ever for minority kids. Here are tips to help parents talk with their children.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stephanie Ward drives her two biracial children to a black school an hour away to give them a break from their predominantly white neighborhood in suburban Dallas. Yet, it's hardly enough to eliminate racism from their lives.

Some of her neighbors in Plano won't allow their kids to speak to her 4- and 6-year-olds. "They act as if we're from Mars," she said.

While the rebuff can be stressful — on the kids and mom — Ward was outraged when she learned that a private swim club in suburban Philadelphia revoked a summer membership for 65 mostly black and Hispanic campers. Several campers reported hearing racial comments the first time they showed up at the club and some members pulled their children out of the pool. The camp's $1,950 was refunded a few days later.

"The Philly situation angers me and reminds me that I'm still black in America," said Ward. "I won't tell my children about this. I refuse to pass on the legacy of paranoia and the sense that they're not good enough."

In the Detroit suburb of Canton, Kim Crouch was also angered about the treatment of the camp group June 29 at The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, even though the club's president said overcrowding — not racism — was the reason the kids of color were turned away. The club has since invited the campers back.

The explanation sounds like business as usual to Crouch, who has been educating her 7- and 10-year-olds about handling racism since preschool. In third grade, her oldest son was told by a classmate "she wasn't allowed to talk to him because he was a brown kid."

With the election of President Barack Obama energizing a new generation, racial conflict can be even more confusing for minority kids. Some tips for parents:

Talk to them before it happensCrouch, who wrote a book called "Mother to Son: Words of Wisdom, Inspiration and Hope for Today's Young African-American Men," said jumbled signals from peers and the world at large can be hard for children to interpret, but she and her husband feel facing racism head on at a young age makes sense.

"What we've learned is that you can't wait until your child is the victim of racism to teach them about it," she said. "It's important to teach them that even though life is unfair, the unfairness is not irrevocable and they can't allow themselves to become jaded or subjugate themselves to the victim mentality."

Get involvedOne of the first things Shelly Cadamy did when she became a mother of three black children is sign on as PTA president at her oldest child's school.

"One of the programs we instituted via the PTA last year was to have men of color read to the kids on Friday mornings, because we really wanted the kids to see that dads of color are willing to be involved with their kids," said Cadamy, who is white, single and fostering to adopt the three, ages 10, 7 and 4, in Oklahoma City, Okla.

Parents can also encourage schools to hold regular assemblies about racial tolerance and organize families to share information and tackle race-fueled conflict together.

Be aware of your own biasesSharon Thomas, a child and family counselor in Westmont, N.J., suggests parents stick to the facts when engaging their children in conversation about racism.

"Share age-appropriate examples of race relations in America and-or their local town that gives some honest examples of how some people ... think and behave based on fear, cultural conditioning and other social, political and economic factors."

If a child is confronted by a racial remark or incident, offer reassurance "that it's OK to feel whatever he/she may feel," then let the young person decide how to respond after talking it over, Thomas said. "The child doesn't have to think and feel the way the parents do; they are not you and haven't experienced what you have experienced, so their thoughts and feelings are going to be different."

Explain differences
Faith Ayers, a black mother in Atlanta, believes in noting differences between races early so they are not negatively internalized.

As her 2-year-old daughter grows up, she plans to "inform her that she is a black person" descended from Africa, while "many of her friends are descended from Europe, Asia and South America. I'll let her know that culturally we are different but we are all people who should be respected."

Instill prideStrive to provide activities and attend events where children can meet and befriend others who look like them in a meaningful way.

Cadamy said her 10-year-old daughter "expresses a desire to look more like Barbie than herself," so she has encouraged her to learn more about black history and the civil rights movement as a way to foster racial pride.

"I've finally convinced her to wear her beautiful hair naturally, in a short afro, with a headband rather than trying to straighten it or wrangle it in some way. So, hopefully, we're making progress."

Address racism when it happensReinforce in children that racism "is wrong and should not be tolerated by anyone," Thomas said. Encourage them to inform you, teachers or other supervising adults when situations arise that make them feel uncomfortable, she said.

Make sure they know "it is the other person's problem, not theirs," said Ayers.

She said parents and kids should actively work to erase vestiges of racism.

"Write letters, contact elected officials, run for office or vote. Overt racism is slowly disappearing. The next step is to make sure that subtle racism follows," she said. "Those children affected at the pool should be able to protest at the site peacefully. It may prove cathartic."