Module 21: Talking about Race

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Module 20: Student Voice & Agency
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Module 21: Talking About Race with Youth
Module 22: Assessing Your Current Practice

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain how youth develop racial biases.
  • Develop confidence to talk about race with youth.
  • Engage in conversations with your colleagues who are resistant to talk about race.


How many of these statements have you heard before?

  • “Children don’t see color – they just see people.”
  • “I’m not racist, so my children can’t possibly be.”
  • “If we stopped pointing out race, then everyone would be equal.”
  • “Race is a social construct. What we should really be talking about is ethnicity.”
  • “We live in a post-racial society. After all, we had a Black president.”

While these statements are likely uttered with the best of intentions, they ignore the reality of life in the United States. Whether we want to admit it or not, race and racism exist and affect people every day. Not talking about race does not make racism go away. In fact, by pretending racism doesn’t exist, by being silent, by teaching children race and racism are taboo topics, and by not acknowledging the negative impacts of systemic racism on communities of color, we reinforce the very structures that allow racism to thrive and grow.

If we want to create equitable and inclusive libraries and classrooms, we must first understand how youth develop their racial biases. We must then commit to talking about race and racism with children and teens. We will make mistakes—that’s a part of the process – but making mistakes is better than shushing children or pretending “it didn’t come up.”

Part 1: Why and how do youth form racial biases?

The research is clear: young children, even infants, notice race (Katz & Kofkin, 1997). By the ages of three to five, children develop racial biases (Katz, 2003; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001). “How is that possible?” you may be asking. The short answer is that children are socialized through interactions with their peers, adults, the media, and institutions. As Debra Van Ausdale & Joe R. Feagin explain in their book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism:

Racist thought and practice remains strong in the United States, and young children cannot avoid participating in and perpetuating them. Racism surrounds us, permeates our ideas and conversations, focuses our relationships with one another, shapes our practices, and drives much of our personal, social, and political lives. There are few social forces so strong. Children are neither immune to it nor unaware of its power. (2001, p. 198).

Youths’ understanding of race and racial concepts are not inconsequential. It informs how youth see themselves, their interactions with others (i.e. how they select their friends, which adults they admire and trust, etc.), how they negotiate their social and academic lives, and how they develop their understandings of power and privilege (Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001).

The resources and activities below will help you gain a better understanding of how youth are socialized to understand race and racism.


Think about your earliest race-related memory. How old were you? What emotions are attached to the memory? Did you talk to anyone about what happened? Did you tell anyone how you felt? Why or why not? Free write on these questions in your journal.


Watch this two-minute video “The Talk” that explores racial bias by depicting some of the burdens placed on parents of Black children, who are challenged with having necessary but difficult discussions with their children about their survival and self-esteem. As you watch the video, released by My Black Is Beautiful, a beauty brand owned by Procter & Gamble, think about what it says about socialization and the development of racial biases.



For one week, be an observer in your school. Notice how and when students, teachers, and other adults in the school talk about race. What is the context for those discussions? Who is present? Who is missing? What messages are communicated? What opportunities are missed? Take notes about your experience in your journal.


The next time one of your colleagues, a friend, or a caregiver says, “children don’t see color,” how will you respond? Make a note of your reflections in your journal.

Part 2: Talking about Race and Racism with Youth

Parents typically shush their children when they mention race. Educators and librarians often ignore racial comments, change the subject, or even shut students down. While doing so may make adults feel more at ease or in control, it can give children and teens the impression that talking about race is unacceptable, even forbidden. The truth is, whether or not we draw attention to race, all of us, including children, automatically notice race. Discussing it won’t increase the likelihood of children or teens discriminating against people of color or Indigenous people. In fact, just the opposite is true. Talking about race can challenge prevalent stereotypes, decrease prejudice, make BIPOC feel more comfortable and accepted, and help youth develop positive racial identities (see Module 9). On the other hand, not discussing race can leave youth to draw their own conclusions (often negative) about race, perpetuate discriminatory attitudes and behaviors, and cause BIPOC who are often the targets of racism to feel unaccepted and unwelcome, even unsafe.

Bree Ervin offers the following 5 reasons it is important to talk to youth about race and racism:

  1. If you don’t, someone else will. And what they learn from their peers, a neighbor, textbooks, the classroom curriculum, or the media might not be accurate and might reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes.
  2. Talking to kids about race actually helps them see beyond race and look deeper for common interests, similar likes and dislikes, complimentary values, beliefs, and attitudes. It also helps them challenge the stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated in our society.
  3. Not talking about race can lead to complicit racism.
  4. Racial ignorance erases racial history and denies lived experience.
  5. Educating youth about race helps them fight racism and create change.

As adults, we avoid talking about race and racism for a variety of reasons. It might be because we don’t really understand it ourselves. We might believe it’s better to be “colorblind” (see Module 11). We might be afraid that if we do try to talk about race, we’ll say the wrong thing or we’ll lose control of the situation/classroom. We might even think that by talking about race and racism, we might be accused of being a racist.

In this section of the module, you will gain ideas for how to talk with youth about race. You will hear from Jotham White, a graduate of North Carolina A&T University, as he shares what it feels like to be in a classroom when racist remarks are made and the teacher ignores them. You will also hear from parents, educators, and librarians who are tackling the subject in their practice. Finally, you will have the opportunity to practice strategies to proactively talk about race and racism with youth.


A group of high school students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina worked together to develop the Students’ Six, a professional development program to improve instruction for students of color by identifying and promoting the use of research-based and student-validated teaching strategies. In the video below, one of the Students’ Six participants, Jotham White, shares some of his experiences with race and racism in the classroom – specifically, how two of his teachers addressed or failed to address race with students.



The ALSC Early Childhood Programs and Services Committee created Talking with Young Children (0-5) about Race, a resource for librarians serving youth. It contains 3 concrete steps adults can take to talk to young children about race, as well as links to additional resources.

The Anti-Defamation League provides concrete tips for talking about race and racism with youth in the classroom. The ideas presented in the following three short articles are transferable to library settings:

The guide “Let’s Talk!: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics with Students”  [PDF] provides strategies educators can use to facilitate conversations about race and racism with youth. Developed by Learning for Justice, it also contains a list of professional development resources and lesson plans to use with youth.

Erin N. Winkler, associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, provides seven ways adults can talk with children about complex things like systemic racism and societal inequity in the article Here’s How To Raise Race-Conscious Children.


The purpose of the “Raising Race Conscious Children” blog is to support parents and teachers who want to talk about race and diversity with youth. On the blog, you’ll find strategies for talking with youth, including 100 race-conscious things you can say to your child to advance racial justice. There is also a place for you to share your story about talking with youth about race (or diversity).


Listen to this segment of This American Life entitled If You See Racism Say Racism in which comedian and writer W. Kamau Bell tries to figure out just how much about the violent history of racism and oppression his four-year-old can handle. As you listen to the segment think about these questions: What stuck out to you most in this segment? Was your thinking challenged in any way? How do you feel about the different approaches to discussing race and racism with children that are represented in this segment?


Can We Talk: Talking to White Kids About Race & Racism is an hour-long show from Safe Space Radio that focuses specifically on how white parents, families, and teachers can engage white youth in conversations about race. The show includes the perspectives and stories of parents, racial justice experts, and teens.  As you listen, think about how you might incorporate their suggestions into your work with youth.

Images of Practice - Icon by Adrien Coquet from Noun ProjectImages of Practice

It’s never too early to begin talking about race with children in the library. Jessica Anne Bratt, formerly the Youth Services Manager at Grand Rapids Public Library, has created a set of resources that can help librarians engage even their youngest users in discussions about race. Watch the video below, in which Jessica makes the case for talking about race in storytimes and introduces her online toolkit. Then use the links below the video to access the toolkit resources.


Implement this lesson plan titled “First Encounters with Race and Racism: Teaching Ideas for Classroom Conversations” with youth in your school or library. The lesson plan, developed by Jinnie Spiegler, the director of curriculum at the Anti-Defamation League, can be used to begin a conversation or supplement one already underway.

Implement this lesson plan from Learning for Justice titled “Teaching ‘The New Jim Crow’ Lesson 1: Talking About Race and Racism.” The lesson is designed for Grades 9-12.

Implement this 11 lesson unit from Facing History titled Facing Ferguson: News Literacy in a Digital Age. Make sure to begin with lesson 1 since it prepares students to have difficult conversations about potentially controversial topics.

New events are happening and new resources are being released all the time. For example, in 2019, Netflix released When They See Us, a mini-series that chronicles the story of the Exonerated Five, referred to at the time as the Central Park Five, young men of color who were wrongly imprisoned for the rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park. Watch part or all of the series with your students and use lesson plans in the learning companion created by ARRAY 101. These events and resources can provide excellent opportunities to develop lesson plans or programs that address racial equity.

Part 3: Engaging in conversations with your colleagues who are resistant to talking about race

Having conversations about race and inequity with colleagues, especially when they are resistant, may be difficult but is necessary. While it may feel more comfortable to be silent, to not engage,  it is important to remember that for those impacted by racism, silence = acceptance.  As Dr. King said, “In the end, we will be remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Marceline Dubose and Tess Ormseth, members of the Due East Educational Equity Collaborative,  have written a number of blog posts offering concrete strategies for talking to our colleagues (and others) about race and inequity. Explore the following entries from their Blog Due East to learn more:


In this video, blogger and radio host Jay Smooth provides advice on how to tell someone they sound racist.

But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

I teach in a conservative area. I'm afraid that if I have this conversation with my students, it will result in a community firestorm.
While it can be difficult to talk about race and racialized incidents in conservative communities, it is precisely in these communities that these conversations need to occur in order to 1) show support for BIYOC and their families who live in the community, and 2) broaden all students’ worldviews.  For BIYOC, not discussing these topics and not having their experiences acknowledged can be dehumanizing. For white youth, having these conversations may be the first time they have been asked to envision the struggles and desires of marginalized people or of people whose lives were vastly different from theirs.

If you feel that you can’t address these topics due to parental pressure, it is important to communicate with families to determine if your concerns are warranted. If they are, gain the support of your administrator (principal, library director, etc.). Ask them to help remove the barriers that prevent you from discussing these topics with youth just like you would any other topic that you feel is critical.

Many of the resources we’ve highlighted in this module provide strategies for engaging youth in conversations about race. Usable Knowledge has created a resource guide specifically designed to support educators in mostly white communities who want to talk about race.


Additional Resources

Ausdale, D. V. and Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Derman-Sparks, L. and Edward, J. O. (2009). Anti-bias education for young children and ourselves. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2009.

Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. New York: Seal Press.

Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Winkler, E. N. (2015, October 13).  Children are not colorblind.

References and Image Credits

Ausdale, D. V., & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first R: How children learn race and racism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Bree, E. (2014, August 23). 5 reasons we all need to talk to kids about race in America. Everyday Feminism. Retrieved from

Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin? American Psychologist 58(11), 897-909.

Katz, P. A., and Kofkin, J. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S. S. Luthar and J. A. Burack (Eds.), Developmental Psychopathology: Perspectives on Adjustment, Risk, and Disorder (pp. 51-73). New York: Cambridge University Press.


Go Back:
Module 20: Student Voice & Agency
You Are Here:
Module 21: Talking About Race with Youth
Module 22: Assessing Your Current Practice