How to Talk to Multiracial Kids About Race

Eva Lourdes, 7 Stella Marèsol, 3, at a table in their garage filled with art and books on June 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

June 12 is celebrated as “Loving Day,” a day commemorating Loving v. Virginia — the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that declared laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional in the United States. With this in mind, we spoke with a few Bay Area families and experts on the importance of talking about race in multiracial families.

Sarah Baltazar-Pinheiro identifies as Filipino American and works in the education field. She lives in Walnut Creek with her husband, who is Afro-Brazilian, and their two daughters, ages 7 and 3-years-old.

“What is the right way to educate a 7-year-old who's, like, half farts, half losing her teeth? And also 10% attention span?” she said.

At home, they are doing history lessons she calls “American heroes are Black women.” Baltazar-Pinheiro calls to her daughter to see if she remembers who they talked about the last few days — Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells and Shirley Chisholm. Her daughter recounts the names, with a few small hints.

Baltazar-Pinheiro recommends others in mixed race families educate themselves, especially since there are so many ways to do it now.

“If you think your whiteness will protect your mixed kids from this country as it currently stands, you’re misguided,” she said. “We have words and we have language to talk about … race and class and gender — and gender fluidity and how we all want to live in this world. I just want to teach her the words that she needs so that she can always express herself.”

For Baltazar-Pinheiro, it’s also important for families to talk to extended family. “Talk to your brother who doesn't really like your husband, but has decided that he's a pretty good guy,” she said.

With a 16-year-old boy and 4-year-old girl, Melanie Carvalho is balancing how to talk in an age-appropriate way with both of her children. Carvalho is white, and is a former educator who taught for 20 years in the Bay Area. She now lives in Orange County with her husband who is originally from Cape Verde, West Africa.

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Carvalho said her older son is not really interested in talking, but she still tries to prompt him with questions. With her daughter, she's focusing on honoring her skin, hair and body for now.

“We haven't taken it to that next level that some people are treated unfairly — it's scary because you talk about the psychological impact of them internalizing that. And I guess I want to build up her self-confidence first,” Carvalho said.

For her son, one of his first experiences facing race came in nursery school when a white student said, “You can’t play with me because you’re black.” Her son’s response at the time was to put black marker on his leg to show that clearly he was not that color.

Carvalho said she fears for her son on a more external level. “Part of that is that he is pretty solid on who he is,” but she said the world may see him as something else. For her daughter, Carvalho views her identity as being more about her self concept. “I worry that she will fall into these habits of wanting lighter skin, straighter hair. ... So I guess that's why I focus on helping her loving her hair, her skin, loving herself.”

Sarah Baltazar-Pinheiro, Fabiano Pinheiro, Eva Lourdes, 7, and Stella Marèsol, 3, at their home in Walnut Creek on June 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

What the Experts Say: 'It's Not a One-Time Conversation'

In order to get deeper into these complex questions and offer practical advice, KQED consulted a few experts. This advice is intentionally specific to multiracial families since resources are more widely available for white families, and many Black families are often already familiar with these conversations.

Dr. Christia Spears Brown is an author, researcher and professor of developmental psychology.

She says that kids, and even siblings in multiracial families may view race in different ways. “They all come at it from a really different perspective,” she said.

She emphasizes the importance of talking about race because kids are already noticing differences from a very early age.

Spears Brown acknowledges that all situations are different, but overall, “All of this is about parents — in the context of multiracial kids — recognizing that their kids may have experiences that are very different than their own.”

We also spoke with Mark and Kelley Kenney, who are both counselors teaching and working in academic settings. They co-authored the book Counseling Multiracial Families and led the writing of Competencies for Counseling the Multiracial Population.

“It's kind of interesting to me that, on some level, things have shifted,” Kelley Kenney said, when thinking back on their years of studying the topic. “But, you know, we're still dealing with the same inherent issue of racism and bias and lack of understanding. … I'm hoping that we're moving forward in at least starting to dialogue more about it.”

Kelley Kenney said talking about race within family is not just a singular event. “It’s not just a one time conversation, but it's very, very, very much a part of the whole family dynamic.”

Eva Lourdes, 7, in her home next to a learning exercise called 'American Heroes are Black Women' on June 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Know Your History and Take Time to Educate Yourself

“In cases where the relationship involves a white partner for whom this is perhaps their first interactions … dealing with issues of slavery, it is important to spend some time being honest with folks and really talking about what that all means in terms of how they want to proceed in a relationship and a family and all of those things.” — Mark Kenney, counselor

Don't Be Scared to Talk About Race

“The big one is to not be scared of the topic or to think that you're introducing a concept of race to a child who has no concept of race. The reality is, kids know and think about race very early in infancy. They start by three, four, five. They're noticing it. Thinking about it. And so parents can't shy away from those conversations. Parents can feel uncomfortable, particularly if parents are in a different racial group than the kid is.” — Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist

Talk With Your Partner

“Partners need to talk among themselves about race and racism and what their experiences have been, and what they want their relationship to be, what they want their family to be. It's sort of about some racial socialization, if you will, between partners themselves before they even start to talk about, what it is to talk about these things in a family context.

"Also making sure that the family dynamic includes openness and honesty. Also including expectations for extended family, in terms of addressing issues of race and racism." — Kelley Kenney, counselor

Talk About Your Child’s Identity Positively

“Talking about the positive parts of culture, kind of thinking about all the great ways your culture has contributed to society, kind of cultural pride. … We know a positive view of ethnic identity is really protective in the face of discrimination. That helps buffer all sorts of negative aspects of society. You really have to be very proud of your culture and your ethnicity.” — Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist

Discuss Stereotypes and Difference

“How can you as parents help protect kids from those experiences? And the answer is, it's somewhat counterintuitive. It's not shielding them from that part of their ethnicity. It's really leaning in to that part of their ethnicity because leaning into it is what's protective.” — Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist

Sarah Baltazar-Pinheiro and her daughter paint in their garage on June 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Take a Proactive Stance — Don’t Assume Your Child Is Immune

“First of all, it begins with the parents having a conversation, again, with themselves about how they want to raise their children. With respect to discussions of race and racism, et cetera. And then talking about their socialization practices, that should include how they instill a sense of cultural and racial pride, how they prepare children to deal with racial bias, how they talk about issues of white privilege in the home. Again, I can't emphasize enough the importance of being proactive versus reactive.” — Mark Kenney, counselor

“We know that things like support seeking are helpful. So talking to a teacher or talking to a friend or talking to the parent is a really helpful way to cope with discrimination. We know that saying something, being kind of active or having some kind of action plan is really helpful for kids to cope with it.

"We want our kids to recognize when they're being treated unfairly because of race. Parents might think 'well, but we wouldn't want them to be overly sensitive.' But the reality is, if they don't blame race or ethnic bias, instead they're going to blame themselves. We don't want kids to be overly quick to jump to labeling discrimination, but we want to make sure that they label it correctly when it does happen, because it's better than blaming themselves. Because we do know that that's actually worse for self-esteem and a sense of competence.” — Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist

Ask Questions and Use Media to Start a Conversation

“Inquiry is a really good way to know … where they are. What do you think? Why do you think this show only has people that were white? Why do you think this is going on in this book? Asking kids questions and letting them come up with a good solution. One good thing about asking kids questions, is it will stay with them, then kids can understand because they are the ones kind of leading the conversation. And so that way they can kind of lead what they're capable of absorbing at that moment.

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"Media is a great way to talk — it's a great organic way to have conversation. Books are great conversation starters. You can read it and then you can ask a couple of questions and have a conversation about it. ... The one to two minute talks I think are the most meaningful, especially when they are a regular part of childhood. Whenever you see inequalities or stereotypes, calling them out.” — Christia Spears Brown, developmental psychologist

“Ensure that you have books, toys, images, dolls that represent everyone. So you have to be purposeful and intentional.” — Mark Kenney, counselor

“In my experience, books are always a good starting point. Reading about someone else's experiences and then discussing how the child is reacting to the different character and how did they think that the character is dealing?” — Kelley Kenney, counselor

Fabiano ‘Sabià’ Pinheiro with his daughter at their home in Walnut Creek on June 11, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Additional Resources

The Children’s Community School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has a comprehensive list of resources and a one-pager with links to guide parents in discussing race with children.

Here is guidance for talking about race from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and from Smithsonian Magazine.

Ibram X. Kendi, author of forthcoming Antiracist Baby board book, and co-author of the Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You for young adults, has recently appeared on a number of podcasts such as Unlocking Us.

Here is a compilation of resources from Katrina Michie with age-appropriate resources.

Additional anti-racism resources in French, Spanish and German are also available.

More resources to add? Let me know: lsarah@kqed.org

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