As my daughter Shyla said, “Black history should not be a month, it should be every day, just like we learn about everything else.” What a great point! But since Black history is unfortunately overlooked in the standard US history classes, a dedicated month is needed and so valuable to truly learn about US history.
I have friends of various races, ethnic backgrounds, and faiths, and hence my girls know that some of their friends are Jewish, some are Christian, some are from South America, some are from Europe, some are from Jamaica, some are Black, some are Egyptian, some are Indian, etc. And many friends ask me how I talk to my children about race, because it can make some parents uncomfortable.
I get it- it may not feel right commenting on someone’s race. However, not commenting on race also is not the approach and can lead to ignorance and misconceptions. I always look at this way- I want my kids to learn about everything from me first. They learned how to read from me, they learned the basic concepts of math from me, they learn about other races from me, etc. While educators are amazing and teach our kids so much, we need to recognize that certain teachings must come from the home, come from us as parents.
So, why start these discussions now? While children at young ages have started to be conditioned to racial bias, they are also especially capable of reprogramming and overcoming those biases. Sad to say that a lot of those biases start at home and hence can be stopped at home. Black parents and other people of color do not have the luxury of not talking about racism, because their children are likely to experience it every day. We should all be talking to our children about racism.
While there are many approaches to teaching your children about Black History, an important focus of those teachings is how to be anti-racist. A few notes: First, this is not something I am doing just this month for Black History Month, this is an ongoing discussion. Second, as my family is Indian-American, my children also experience racism. They understand what it feels like to be people of color, how to be proud of who you are, and be an ally to others. However, I still feel strongly about teaching them about the lived experiences of Black Americans in this country, which is different from our family’s experience. This may seem obvious, but I know many minority families who do not educate their children on the experiences of other minorities in America.
That said, here is how I approach Black History Month with my 5 and 4 year old daughters, through a lens of “seeing everyone’s color” (look out for a blog post on this topic soon).
1. Introduce Black History Month, but don’t leave out why it exists. First, I share with my girls that February is a month in which we celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of Black people in our country. I make sure to tell them that Black people are not treated the same as white people in this country. This is something my daughters can relate to being people of color. In addition, I share that we do not learn enough about Black History in school, so there's this special month to celebrate their work. I emphasize that this is not enough, and that we should discuss Black history as we do US History- all year long.
2. Introduce terms that children will hear in the world. Don't make these words taboo, and don't shy away from discussions that come from sharing them. It can be confusing when kids hear a lot of words they don’t understand, and that’s true for adults too. With antiracist work, it’s especially important to discuss terminology. When kids do not understand words, they may ask you OR they may ignore the word. You don’t want them to ignore the word, rather discuss them in a way they can comprehend. This glossary of antiracist terminology (LIINK) is extremely helpful in knowing the appropriate terminology to use and the best ways to discuss racism. Some of the terms I have chosen to discuss are:
3. Introduce important Black historical figures. (see Shyla’s video) A great factual way to discuss the words from the list above is to introduce one famous Black historical figure at a time and teach your children about that person's achievements. This enables you to explain the words in that context and then bring the word to life today. Stick to the historical facts of the past and how that translates to present times.
4. Be authentic and bring real examples to life. (see image from Nelson Mandela museum in South Africa) While you need to be intentional, you also need to be authentic in your discussions. Talking about the achievements of Black Americans cannot happen without talking about racism, and the subject generally makes even adults feel uncomfortable and hence the discussions also become uncomfortable. We want to teach our children to feel comfortable having these discussions. Hence, discuss these words in a way that your children will understand (e.g. racism, imagine if you were not allowed to play in a park because of your color. Well- that was the life of Black children and they still go through this today in neighborhoods.) In this way, children can connect with how others are treated and will feel, hence helping them gain an understanding and empathy towards others.
5. Diversify your bookshelf: Make sure your books have main characters who are Black. Here are a few great children’s books I like for the preschool/early elementary years that feature Black main characters and link to Black history and current events.
ColorFull: “Imani and Kayla are the best of friends who are learning to celebrate their different skin colors. As they look around them at the amazing colors in nature, they can see that their skin is another example of God's creativity! This joyful story takes a new approach to discussing race: instead of being colorblind, we can choose to celebrate each color God gave us and be colorFULL instead.”
"The Ellises & The Time Machine is a series created to empower young children to learn more about often untold American history. Why Do We Have To Say ‘Black Lives Matter’?
This is the story of 9-year-old Jackson, who has trouble reconciling the term ‘Black Lives Matter’ as he watches his favorite athletes wear shirts with the phrase while they play sports on a national stage. When Jackson asks his father, Devale, why the phrase is used, Devale decides to take the family on a journey through time to learn about over 400 years of Black history in America. Jackson and his brothers, Kairo and Kaz, are not excited about this history lesson at first, until Devale reveals that their closet has a hidden time machine!"
Dream Big, Little One: "Among these women, you'll find heroes, role models, and everyday women who did extraordinary things - bold women whose actions and beliefs contributed to making the world better for generations of girls and women to come. The leaders in this book may be little, but they all did something big and amazing, inspiring generations to come.
Featuring 18 trailblazing black women in American history, Dream Big, Little One is the irresistible board book adaptation of Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History."
Thanks for reading through all this. As I always say, “Even a sprinkle of knowledge can open up a world of curiosity.” As parents, let’s share more about Black History and leverage this month (and every other month) to teach our children about the world and all its people.
For additional resources, please visit Racial Equity Tools.