Talking to kids about race & racism

The nation's top pediatricians are warning of the harmful effects racism can have on children's health. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics released its first policy on the dangers of racism this summer. Exposure to racism in adults has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, depression and other illnesses. And now, researchers have identified dangers that racism presents to children, such as difficulty sleeping, higher rates of doctor visits and lower self-esteem. 

Talking about racism and race with your family may not be easy, but the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice from Ann Arbor knows its importance and is helping make that talk easier for parents. 

La'Ron Williams and Chuck Warpehoski from the IFCPJ joined us on The Nine to talk about the importance of discussion diversity and inclusion, and to give us tips on how to have those conversations with children. 

Chuck Warpehoski helped create a workshop that gives parents the tools to have these conversations. He says it's something he wishes he had when he was a new dad. 

"We get a manual for how to deal with a fever; we don't get a manual for how to deal with these issues of difference," he said. 

Like many, he says growing up his parents taught him to ignore racial differences. He says that doesn't work, and that we need to give kids the tools to navigate the world. 

"The first thing parents need to do is feel comfortable talking about [race]. Every parent knows kids are tuned in to fairness and unfairness; one kid gets a bigger cookie. So they start to notice some of these issues about fairness an unfairness around race. So, it can be as simple as the books you're reading and asking, 'Okay, here's this picture of scientists,'" he tells us, holding up a children's book with an illustration of a room full of white, male scientists. "It's a chance to talk about colors and shapes. 'What do they all look like?' But then also be able to say, 'Is this what scientists actually look like? What other kinds of scientists are there?' And be able to notice some of the ways you may have fair or unfair things in the world, and have conversations like that starting at an early age."

Williams is a professional storyteller and uses his medium to have these conversations with kids at all age levels. He speaks with elementary, middle and high schoolers. 

"I talk about not only opening up our hearts to being kind or fair, but also opening up our minds to an understanding again of the history, how it got put in place, et cetera," he told us. "So, when I'm talking with older audiences, I always use examples like images in textbooks or images in different places. But I also talk about the ways in - the very, very subtle ways - in which we perpetuate whiteness to be normal. 

"White supremacy doesn't depend on the ill will of individuals anymore - it once, when I was a young boy, I was surrounded by legal, Jim Crow segregation, it was legal when I was a kid, it was everywhere. Today it doesn't exist in the law in the same way - there are some of our laws that are very discriminatory; we have to look at them with a fine tooth comb to be able to pick those out. Now it's gone. It's more undercover. It's more subtle and, again, it doesn't require ill will. 

"The example I often use is I go into schools all the time and I see what I call "sidebar inclusion." This just happened just a couple weeks ago. I was at a high school. They had a segment in their history book about the settlement of the west. There were stories after stories after stories about settlers moving, moving, moving, and then there was a side bar that said, The Black Settlers. The subtle message, is that there are "The Settlers," who are normal, normalized; I use the term "insiders/outsiders." So there are the insiders in this situation and then there are the exceptions. So the subtle message that that sends, is that to be white is to be normal."

He says there are thousands of ways we've ingrained that way of thinking into our society. You can hear more from Williams and Warpehoski in the video player above. 

The Talking to Kids about Race and Racism workshop is September 29 in Ypsilanti. You can get more information on the workshop and get tickets online here