Teaching Race to Instill Confidence in your Black Toddler
If you start out by making discussions about race a normal part of your child’s nurturing while they are still in infancy and toddlerhood, you’ll have an easier time as the child grows and the lessons become more difficult. This is a fun time in your child’s life, though it can be challenging with temper tantrums and all the milestones your child is reaching.
Normalize and celebrate differences every day
Infants and toddlers learn from repetition and observation. At this age, you can begin teaching kids that differences in skin tone, and other differences like disabilities and different sizes, are normal. Even if it’s unlikely that your child is understanding everything you say to them, you can practice acknowledging the differences so that your child grows to see people as unique and equal. Stay positive about the differences your toddler sees. If your child points out a difference in someone’s skin tone, tell them how wonderful you think it is that people come in a variety of shades. As they grow older, it’ll be easier for them to recognize instances of microaggression and racism directed at them, if they’ve learned to acknowledge and celebrate differences.
Yes, even Black parents are guilty of this: “I don’t see color,” they say, wishing the world could be so simple. “I don’t see color” must sound ridiculous to a young child who is processing all the different shades of skin surrounding them. Your child is already noticing differences in race and culture; go ahead and embrace these differences. Teaching a Black kid to be color-blind can be dangerous for their physical and emotional safety when they grow up; in addition, it will not lead to anti-racist action in their future because color-blindness implies that acknowledging race is a bad thing. Let them do what comes naturally, but be ready to teach them that differences don’t mean someone is superior or inferior. It is okay to say, “Wow, Abby’s hair is purple” if Abby has purple hair. Abby’s hair can be just as beautiful as everyone else’s. If another parent says, “I don’t see color,” correct them. You don’t want your child to buy any of that nonsense.
It is okay to start explaining to your child that they are Black. Your child will grow up appreciating their own beauty if they can see that they are unique, and yet fit into a group. They might get confused or not understand what you’re trying to teach them at first, particularly if they’re mixed-race and defy what some would consider “easy labeling.” Ask lots of questions about what they see in the course of the day. Be patient, start with small steps, and have fun!
Make actively anti-racist choices as a consumer
It can be hard to teach a child that Black is beautiful if they see no representations of Blackness in their environment. Books with strong, positive, and diverse characters are great tools for encouraging your child’s recognition and celebration of differences, but go even further. Your child is picking up cues from even just the packaging on his or her cereal box. Look for packaging that reflects a diversity in order to prevent your child from thinking that the world should celebrate only one skin color. It might seem like a small step, but every little bit counts. Do some research! If you’re looking for Black dolls that really represent your child, know that Essence Magazine recently published “We Found the Black Dolls Your Little Ones Will Love Forever.” Looking for skin care products for your teenager? Google Blackowned brands dedicated to Black skin.
Practice talking about race, even if you’re not confident
Now is the time to start practicing the process of posing questions to your child about race; it will lead you to more fruitful conversations as they grow, and help them establish a foundational level of trust with you. Ask them what they saw today or what they are feeling. Kids in this age group are so focused on having their needs met that you must prompt them for other topics of discussion. You may not have a lot to talk about in regard to race specifically at this age, but using race-conscious language with them will help prepare them for a future as an anti-racist who can stand on their own and advocate for themselves.
Chicago Parent19 shared a list of creative activities that can be used to start the conversation early with your kids. These hands-on learning activities and crafts, which focus on diversity and anti-racism, include the M&M Experiment, M is for Melanin, Brown =♥, Paper Doll Dress Up, Wooden Rainbow People, The Colors of Me, Matching Hearts, Diversity Princess Activity, and Self-Portrait.
Model the world you want your child to see
Many parents plan play dates and other activities for their children. Try as best you can to find diverse playmates for your kid—playmates who are of color, but also playmates who are non-Black. This is also a good time for you to check your own prejudice, and consider your own peer group: Expand it so that your own circle of friends is filled with vibrant, diverse people who can support you as you learn to parent, and teach you new things. Remember you’re modeling the world for your child, so make it a world of inclusivity. If you only have Black or white friends, your child will notice. If you’re AfroCaribbean and you only mingle with light-skinned people, your child will notice. If you’re Afro-Latinx and live in a bubble that doesn’t include other Black individuals, yeah…your child will notice!
Model the values you want your child to have
During this early stage of development, the main challenge is to lay positive groundwork for later stages when your child has developed language skills and can more easily interact with you. Practice modeling compassion and tolerance, even when it is difficult. Racial tensions are almost palpable these days, and it can be so easy to see non-Black people as a monolith (and the source of all Black people’s problems) and simply exclude them from your child’s life. Be mindful of your own biases and behaviors and refrain from saying or doing things you would not want your child to mimic, including making racist comments about other minority groups and telling jokes that disparage other races.
At this stage, you should spend a lot of time playing with your child and showing them the world you’d like them to ideally inhabit, one that is rich with diversity and celebrates their Blackness. You can help them build a foundation for their tween and teenage years in terms of coping with racism and educating them about the concept.
A creator of safe spaces, and an initiator of difficult conversations, M.J. Fievre, B.S. Ed, spent much time building up her Black students, helping them feel comfortable in their skin, and affirming their identities. Her close relationships with parents and students led her to look more closely at how we can balance protecting our child’s innocence with preparing them for the realities of Black life. When―and how―do you approach racism with your children? How do you protect their physical and mental health while also preparing them for a country full of systemic racism? She began to research the issue and speak to school counselors and psychologists to find (and apply!) strategies parents and teachers can use with their children to broach uncomfortable but necessary topics.
M.J. is the author of Badass Black Girl, a daily dose of affirmations for Black Girls
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