Tough talks: Discussing race & bias with children
Tough talks: Discussing race & bias with children
Tough talks: Discussing race & bias with children


Loretta Smith Frankfurt International School


By Loretta Fernando-Smith



I had a hard conversation yesterday. One of the hardest I have ever had. 
It punched me, right in the gut.    


I have the joy of spending my working days with four- and five-year-olds. I love my job! Exploring the world with young children brings me moments of joy but also nudges me to pause and reflect on norms, standards, and behaviors I often take for granted. It stretches me.

Snack time was well underway when Student ‘K’ moved from the carpet to a table. K had yoghurt, and after several accidents, we had agreed that it would be best to eat yoghurt at a table. As she walked over, she was greeted with smiles. One peer called her over to the empty seat beside him. As she sat down, I noticed another girl, Student M, at the table get up. M took her snack and walked away. Her face, clearly unhappy. ‘Is everything okay?’ I asked. ’No,’ she said, ’I don’t want to sit at that table with K.’ ’Oh! Did anything happen between the two of you?’ I wondered if there had been an incident I had missed. ’No,’ she said quietly.

I could tell something was bothering M, so I motioned for her to come and sit beside me on the bench, and we started talking. Eventually, she told me that she didn’t want to sit beside K because she has a ‘brown face.’ Last week she had an unpleasant encounter with a boy outside of school. He, too, had a brown face.

I looked over, and there was K, laughing and giggling, unaware of the conversation I was having with her peer on the bench. This wasn’t the first time a child had made a comment about skin color. I knew what to say:

‘I realize that there are only a few people with brown skin around us, so when you have an experience with one person, it can seem like every brown person is like that. The world is filled with people of color, and they are all different. I can tell that these feelings you are having are making you feel confused. You like K and enjoy playing with her, but now there is this story of a brown-faced kid who was not nice, and K has a brown face too, and you are trying to make sense of it. You are very brave to share your feelings and thoughts. I want you to know that being a good or nice or smart person does not have anything to do with your skin color, or the way you look on the outside.’      

That was hard. It made me angry. Not angry at the little girl. I had read the research. I knew that racial prejudices often peak between the ages of four and five. In fact, children as young as two use race to reason about people’s behavior (They’re not too young to talk about race).

I was angry at colleagues who continued to see and treat young children as color-blind. Who ardently believed in a ‘we-are-all-the-same’ approach to education. Adults who hushed children’s questions or comments about physical differences and shamed them into silence. Who hid behind curriculums and lesson plans. Who claimed that the high educational and socio-economic background of their school’s families excluded them from problems. It was these attitudes and beliefs that had led in part to this moment in time.


Becoming an identity-conscious educator helps us to not only better understand ourselves, but through that understanding, also the people around us. It allows us to move away from judgment and approach each other with curiosity.


Adults can help children develop positive attitudes about race and diversity, and they can cultivate skills and attributes that promote an equitable, just future, but, only if we talk honestly and openly. I am frustrated that, as adults, we do not see the urgency to do better. That we continue to center our comfort.

Regardless of how many times I had heard comments about skin color or could rationalize where those comments were coming from, it was still hard. I am a brown female, much darker in skin color than K. I looked at the white child beside me and asked: ‘Does my brown face make you uncomfortable too?’

She stopped. She looked down and started to cry. Maybe she cried because she truly had not noticed the color of my skin until then. Maybe she cried because she thought she was going to be in trouble. Or maybe she cried because she suddenly realized that the story of bad brown-faced people really didn’t make sense, and it was a relief. I don’t know why she cried, but she took my hand, and we went for a walk.

We sat in our school’s garden, breathed and listened to the wind and the river nearby. I told her once more how brave she was to share her feelings and thoughts. Those feelings inside of us that are so real but confusing at the same time because we don’t know where they came from. I told her that the world is constantly telling us stories but not all of those stories are true. It is important to question the stories, especially the ones that leave us feeling confused.

She leaned in. It was a hard conversation but a hopeful one.

Later that evening, I called M’s family. I waited until I knew my kids were in bed and that she, too, would be fast asleep. Mom knew why I was calling. After several meltdowns, M had shared our conversation at home. Mom was devastated. She blamed herself: ‘What did we do wrong?! We have very good friends of color. I intentionally purchase a variety of books with diverse characters. She even has a Black doll. I don’t know where she got these thoughts from!’ I assured mom that she needed to keep doing what she was doing.

Connotations were all around us in the ways color was represented, in the ways it was not, and in the spaces it was missing. Children are astute; they hear and feel the loud messages but also the quiet whispers. Open, honest conversations are important.

As I hung up, I wondered that if children with highly educated, compassionate, well-meaning parents and allies could have thoughts like that, was there any hope for the world?!


Hard conversations

That was a hard conversation, but not the hardest that day  

For a moment, there was silence, a pause, and then I heard footsteps descend the stairs. My son stood in front of me. Furious. He yelled: ’She is a racist!’ I tried to gather him in my arms, but he pushed away: ‘How could you be so nice! How can you love someone like that!’ I had no more words. How could I explain that it wasn’t really her fault? That the system and the world we lived in were built to make her think and believe those things? That this was the world he had to navigate as a brown-faced boy? That love was the only hope we had left?

That was the hardest conversation.

I have the joy and privilege of exploring the world with young children. Their curiosity and keen sense of observation keep me questioning my assumptions and continually nudge me to reflect. To adults, their comments can often feel like an assault to our sensibilities. Rude. Socially unacceptable. Politically incorrect. We rush to silence them in the name of politeness and to teach them social etiquette and manners.

Yet, often, their comments and questions are observations about the discrepancies in our world. Injustices, biases, contradictions, and tensions adults have long accepted and taken for granted. Injustices, biases, contradictions, and tensions that deserve to be questioned and challenged.


How do you react when a child makes a comment that could be interpreted as racially charged?

As educators, our reactions, actions and inactions send important messages about what the world values, what’s acceptable and what is important. When we hush comments, we send the message that talking about differences is not acceptable. That those differences are bad. Yet, we are all different, and those differences continue to impact how and where we show up. 

Conversations, especially from an early age, are critical in breaking down biases and social injustices and creating an equitable, inclusive future. 

As educators, we prepare for our lessons by making plans, gathering resources, and setting up the environment. Talking about differences requires the same preparation, but this time an investigation into the self. Why is talking about race so hard and uncomfortable?

Our immediate reactions are based on our own experiences. The values and expectations that were passed on to us and we hold on to. The first step is to better understand ourselves and the experiences and lenses through which we interpret and interact with the world.     


Take a moment to ask yourself

  • What do you believe about children? 
  • What do you believe the purpose of education is, and the role educators should play in it?
  • What are your social identities? What privileges do you have, and how do they influence the way you experience the world?

The first time a child commented on the darkness of my skin, I became defensive. I was angry and offended. I lectured them with a comment that shut down the conversation: Maybe I wasn’t too dark? Maybe they were just too white! My defensiveness came from a place of hurt, of having experienced racism as a child and adult and being on guard while predominantly working and living in majority-white spaces.

When I unearthed the roots of my feelings, I was able to recognise that the child themself had not caused the hurt, that they were unaware of it nor trying to cause it. I believe children to be capable, competent, and agents of their own learning. Viewing children through this lens enabled me to reframe the question and move from feeling insult to inviting curiosity. Rather than being a commentary on my skin colour, 'You’re too dark' became a wondering about our shared social world: 'Why is your skin different from those around you? Why aren’t there more melanated people here? Does your skin colour affect your sense of belonging?' These were important questions to ask. They deserved to explore this together in order to develop a better understanding of the world we live in and the world we want to live in. 

Inevitably, another comment about my skin was made, and this time I was prepared.     

Examining my own identity helped me understand how I viewed and approached situations. It allowed me to examine and refine my reflexive responses in order to align them with my beliefs about children and education.


'We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.'Anaïs Nin


Become conscious of your identity

If you are an educator from a marginalized group, engaging in this process may bring to the surface tensions around your identity and upbringing. You may engage in a process of decolonization. Find groups and organizations to support you in this work.

If you are a white educator, you, too, will need to engage in the process of self-examination. As a society, we need to understand that “white” is not the norm or standard; white is just as much a designation. White educators, too, need to develop an understanding of their racial identity in order to become aware of their privilege and how that influences their experiences and reactions.

This exploration of the self also requires an exploration into the history of race as a social construct and the history of our own ethnicity.

Becoming an identity-conscious educator helps us to not only better understand ourselves, but through that understanding, also the people around us. It allows us to move away from judgment and approach each other with curiosity. 

From an early age, we are exposed to misinformation and stereotypes about different ethnic and cultural groups. Cartoons, TV shows, commercials, advertisements, billboards, books ... all shape our view of race. For example, in 2019, only 12% of children’s books published in the US were about Black or African main characters (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, New Narratives are Necessary for true diversity in Children's books).

Even in those books, children were more likely to be shown with lighter skin than adults (Adukia, 20211). Even in books where children might be represented, strong stereotypes emerge. Coupled with this are sometimes limited interactions with other groups. We all have prejudices and biases, but that doesn’t free us from the responsibility of examining and challenging them.     


Nurture curiosity

As international educators, we can proactively counter stereotypes by inviting families from diverse backgrounds to share their family’s nuanced traditions and celebrations, favorite stories in their home language, books and media with a diversity of characters and accents. Keeping in mind that characters need to be more than just their race.

While we can change our curriculum to be more inclusive of other cultures and ethnicities, all these actions will not lead to a more inclusive classroom unless we do them with recognition and awareness of our own identity.

The act of becoming an identity-conscious educator requires constant self-reflection. To be open-minded and curious. In order to create safe environments for difficult conversations, we need to stay away from judgment and to nurture curiosity in ourselves and our children.


Become comfortable with discomfort

As you engage in this work, do not expect to have answers. Do not expect to reach conclusions or agreements. Do not expect closure. Acknowledge when you have made a mistake. Do not expect to feel good after each exchange. Each conversation will be different. Each conversation will require courage. The important thing is to have the conversation, to admit when you are unsure and wrong and to look for possibilities and solutions together.     

Interested in creating a space where children and adults can openly have safe, difficult conversations about differences? Start by exploring your own identity. 



Becoming an identity-conscious educator

Further reading

  • Wish We Knew What to Say by Dr Pragya Agarwal 
  • Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards & Catherine Goins
  • Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum 
  • Becoming a Totally Inclusive School: A Guide for Teachers and School Leaders by Angeline Aow, Sadie Hollins & Stephen Whitehead



1Adukia et. al, What We Teach About Race and Gender: Representation in images and text in children's books, NBR working paper (2021)

Related content:

  • Read more blogs about inclusion via diversity, equity, and anti-racism (I-DEA)
  • Our members can find lots more resources and guidance in the CIS Community portal 
  • Workshops: Explore CIS workshops that support on inclusion via diversity, equity, and anti-racism (I-DEA)



Tough talks: Discussing race & bias with children
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Tough talks: Discussing race & bias with children