Tara Bone, contributing writer

TALKING ABOUT RACE and racism with children can be difficult. Some parents avoid the topic altogether, and some assume racism in Cache Valley doesn’t exist, while other parents — especially those who have encountered racism themselves — have no choice but to have those tough talks.

Children and teens around the country, including here in Cache Valley, have questions and concerns following the intense and often violent protests of last summer. They can’t help but see, hear, and read — often on endless social media feeds — the voices of protest. In today’s interconnected world, discussions about race, diversity, and inclusion have never been more important. But it can seem overwhelming: Where does a parent or caregiver start?

Fortunately, Dr. Melanie Domenech Rodríguez from the Department of Psychology in the College of Education and Human Services at Utah State University (USU) has been researching the topic for 20 years and works with parent groups on campus, teaching a variety of parenting skills. She also conducts diversity training and teaches multicultural and diversity psychology courses.

Melanie, who prefers Melanie to “Dr.,” grew up in Puerto Rico and now lives in River Heights. She has two children whom she says keep her humble and honest and are “great companions in life’s journey.” Melanie is pleased to see a renewed desire among parents to talk to their children about race. Although she says she doesn’t have all the answers, she does have tips for parents and believes this is a critical parenting topic.

“Parents are concerned and it’s a beautiful thing to have parents wanting to have conversations about race,” Melanie said. “The reality of the world is that people come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and skin tones. People around the world have different hair texture and facial and body features. We live in a global economy. We live in a global social world. Teaching our children about race, ethnicity, and culture is preparing them to be members of a global society. To the degree that our children are able to navigate skillfully between context and have some depth of understanding of the wide variety of human experiences, they will be better equipped to understand their own humanity and to walk in the world as bridgebuilders and collaborators.”

According to Melanie, there are two points to remember when talking with children about race, ethnicity, and culture.

Raise Your Children to See Color

For many years, the idea of “colorblindness,” or ignoring racial and ethnic differences to promote racial harmony, was thought to be effective. But Melanie says research findings do not support the idea; it doesn’t work.

Melanie says context matters. She uses the example of parenting children of different ages and asks, “What if a parent didn’t see age among their children?” A parent will treat a 16 year old differently than a 4 year old when assigning chores and establishing schedules.

Instead, teach children to see and appreciate differences. Melanie says that by doing this children will remain open to cultural differences. She shares an experience she had with her oldest child. While on an airplane, her young daughter noticed the different skin tone of another passenger. Instead of becoming embarrassed by her questions, Melanie used it as an opportunity to talk openly about differences and celebrate them.

Melanie says parents shouldn’t feel that talking about race must be one big, deep conversation or event. Rather, an ongoing dialogue as teaching moments arise.

“Meet children where they’re at, take what they say, and use that as opportunities to normalize (in her daughter’s example) skin tone variations,” Melanie said. “Seize the teachable moments and move on.”

Expose Your Kids to Diversity

Melanie encourages parents to try different foods, listen to different languages, and interact with people who are different. But by doing this, individuals must look at “different” in a new way.

“We have been taught to see difference as a deficit,” Melanie said. “But celebrate differences as opportunities for growth and development.”

She says this mindset takes practice to improve and is like a muscle that needs developing. Even adults can grow and develop this mindset, too.

“Teach that when people do things differently, it’s not right or wrong; just different,” Melanie said.

There is a large refugee community in Cache Valley and opportunities in recreational sports and other community-sponsored programs that provide opportunities for children to interact with a variety of people. Melanie encourages parents to get kids with similar interests interacting, regardless of race, religion, or culture.

Another important tool for exposing children to diversity is reading books with characters and places that are different from a child’s experience. Books help children experience new people, places, and ideas. Parents can continue a dialogue about race and inclusion that starts in books.

Take a deep breath and have conversations about race and racism. Now is the time to help children develop a sense of empathy, compassion, and tolerance in a world of anger and hurt. As Melanie says, parents have a real opportunity to teach children to “understand their own humanity and to walk in the world as bridgebuilders…”

Books That Teach About Race and Diversity

Recommended by Melanie Domenech Rodriguez, PhD, from USU and Jeana Wolfley Haymond, a Utah native who currently works as the Children’s Librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats A picture book about Peter, an African American boy, who explores his neighborhood after the season’s first snowfall.

Saturday, by Oge Mora A mom and her daughter, Ava, look forward to Saturdays spent together. On this particular Saturday they experience a series of disappointments. Still, they figure out a way to enjoy their time together. A quiet yet profound picture book.

Red: A Crayon’s Story, by Michael Hall  Red’s factory-applied label clearly says that he is red, but despite the best efforts of his teacher, fellow crayons and art supplies, and family members, he cannot seem to do anything right until a new friend offers a fresh perspective.

The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson Other students laugh when Rigoberto, an immigrant from Venezuela, introduces himself but later, he meets Angelina and discovers that he is not the only one who feels like an outsider.

Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong’o When 5-year-old Sulwe’s classmates make fun of her dark skin, she tries lightening herself to no avail, but her encounter with a shooting star helps her understand there is beauty in every shade.

The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates A spacious umbrella welcomes anyone and everyone who needs shelter from the rain.

I’m Like You, You’re Like Me, by Cindy Gainer  Illustrations and simple text explore ways in which children are alike and some ways they may be different.

I Am Enough by Grace Byers A story of loving who you are, respecting others and being kind to one another.

All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold Discover a school where—no matter what—young children have a place, have a space, and are loved and appreciated.

Skinnamarink by Sharon, Lois, and Bram Based on the classic folk song made famous by a beloved trio of children’s entertainers, this picture book is best sung aloud! “Skinnamarink” is a timeless anthem of love and inclusion

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan Esperanza and her mother are forced to leave their life of wealth and privilege in Mexico to go work in the labor camps of Southern California, where they must adapt to the harsh circumstances facing Mexican farm workers on the eve of the Great Depression.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson A new girl, Maya, shows up at school, and the whole class, including Chloe, shuns her because she’s shabbily dressed and seems different. This goes on for a while, and then Maya is suddenly gone, and Chloe realizes she’s missed her chance to be kind.

The Youngest Marcher by Cynthia Levinson In 1963, the City of Birmingham jailed hundreds of kids for joining the Children’s March. Among them was 9-year-old Audrey Faye Hendricks, taken from her family to spend a week behind bars. This story emphasizes the girl’s eagerness to make a difference and her proud place in her community.

Fish In a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt Ally has been smart enough to fool a lot of smart people. Every time she lands in a new school, she is able to hide her inability to read by creating clever yet disruptive distractions. Her newest teacher Mr. Daniels sees the bright, creative kid underneath the troublemaker. With his help, Ally learns not to be so hard on herself.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang 10-year-old Mia Tang has a lot of secrets. Number 1: She lives in a motel. Where she manages the front desk while her immigrant parents clean the rooms. Number 2: Her parents hide immigrants. If the mean motel owner, finds out they’ve been letting them stay, the Tangs will be doomed. Number 3: She wants to be a writer. But how can she when her mom thinks she should stick to math?

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson It all starts when six kids have to meet for a weekly chat – by themselves. There, in the room they soon dub the ARTT Room (short for “A Room to Talk”), they discover it’s safe to talk about what’s bothering them. When the six are together, they can express the feelings and fears they hide from the rest of the world. Together, they grow braver and more ready for the rest of their lives.

Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice by Veronica Chambers 35 inspiring stories from the past 500 years of history, each with a lesson for kids about how to fight injustice in their own lives.

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham An honest explanation about how power and privilege factor into the lives of white children at the expense of other groups, and how they can help seek justice.

The House That Lou Built by Mae Respicio Lou Bulosan-Nelson is going to build her dream. Lou has a talent for woodshop class and creating projects, and plans to build a tiny house, 100 square feet, all her own, on land that she inherited from her dad. This heartwarming coming-of-age story explores culture and family, forgiveness and friendship, and what makes a house a true home.

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely A look at the effects of police brutality from the perspective of two teen boys: one white and one black.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi A book that slyly draws attention to the page itself. ‘Uh-oh. The R-word,’ they write. The word that ‘for many of us still feels Rated R. Or can be matched only with the other R word — run. But don’t. Take a deep breath. Inhale. Hold it. Exhale and breathe out’ — and here, the text breaks apart to give us the dangerous word — ‘race.’

 

 

 

Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan 12-year-old Willow Chance is obsessed with nature, diagnosing medical conditions, and counting by 7s. Struggling to connect with anyone other than her adoptive parents, she leads a quietly happy life, until both her parents die in an accident, leaving her alone in a confusing world. Willow manages to push through her grief and find a substitute family.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio 10-year-old Auggie Pullman, who was born with extreme facial abnormalities and was not expected to survive, goes from being home-schooled to entering 5th grade at a private middle school in Manhattan, which entails enduring the taunting and fear of his classmates as he struggles to be seen as just another student.

Cicada Moon by Marilyn Hilton It’s 1969, and the Apollo 11 mission is getting ready to go to the moon. But for half-black, half-Japanese Mimi, moving to a predominantly white Vermont town is enough to make her feel alien. This historical middle-grade novel is told in poems from Mimi’s perspective over the course of one year in her new town and shows readers that positive change can start with just one person speaking up.

New Kid by Jerry Craft 7th grader Jordan Banks loves nothing more than drawing cartoons about his life. But instead of sending him to the art school of his dreams, his parents enroll him in a prestigious private school known for its academics, where Jordan is one of the few kids of color in his entire grade. Jordan soon finds himself torn between two worlds – and not really fitting into either one.

Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli A homeless orphan becomes a legend in a town divided by racism in this sometimes funny, sometimes moving, always exciting story. Jeffrey Magee’s exploits may have made him famous, but reconciling a town filled with hate and finding a decent life for himself may be more than even he can manage.

Becoming Kareem: Growing Up On and Off the Court by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar From a childhood made difficult by racism and prejudice to a record-smashing career on the basketball court as an adult, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s life was packed with “”coaches”” who taught him right from wrong and led him on the path to greatness.