The first time New York City native Taifa Harris felt the indelible sting of racism, she was 200 miles from home. It was fourth grade, in a new school in Massachusetts where she was temporarily living with her grandmother. “Another kid on the playground called me the N-word. I was so mad. I said to him, why would you say something so dumb?” Turns out, he said he just wanted to see what would happen. “After that, it opened up a conversation.”
These conversations are ones Taifa relishes in, as she teaches theater full-time at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, and raises her twin 4-year-old daughters in the city she spent her own childhood.
“It’s so important that we as parents start our kids’ real education at home. Once they’re off to school, all bets are off,” Taifa says. “So let’s arm them with the awareness, vocabulary and tools that will prepare them to face unexpected situations.” With her expertise in educating elementary school children in one of the most diverse — and intense — cities on earth, Taifa offers the following insight on how to talk openly with young kids about race.
1) Start small — because they are small.
“Don’t jump in and say, ‘This person shot this person.’ That’s too big for them,” Taifa cautions. Instead, open with a conversation about unkind actions or words. What can people say or do to hurt feelings? What makes people different from one another? Is it the skin color? Or where they live? Or where their families are originally from, or what religion they practice?
Kids see our physical differences and ask questions innocently. Don’t be afraid to respond, and approach it at their level, so they can understand.
“For instance, Paul is white and our twins have very different skin tones. When they’ve noticed it and remark, ‘Keala’s skin is darker like Mommy’s and Reyna’s skin is lighter like Daddy’s,’ we would respond with how cool it was that we’re all different. When they asked why we’re different, the go-to response is first, ‘That’s just how we’re made.’ And then also, ‘Besides, it’s more fun that we’re different. It wouldn’t be as exciting if we were all the same. Like in Sesame Street, everyone looks different and likes different things.'”
2) Set up a judgement-free haven for your child.
In her classroom, Taifa tells her predominantly white students, “If you have a feeling about something, if you have questions, you can say it here. This is a safe, sacred place. Don’t feel ashamed. If you have questions about black people, I will not be offended, because this is a learning space.”
It’s the child who feels safe enough to ask pointed, honest questions, without fear of being punished or criticized, that can become a more compassionate adult. Taifa reassures: “What kids ask you might be shocking, but it’s because they are searching, guessing and therefore learning. And that’s okay.”
3) Strive for emotional honesty.
Show how you’re feeling about what you talk about. Kids acutely tune in to their mom or dad. They respond emotionally first to you as their parent — you are their foundation, and that is the way in. Taifa emphasizes being honest with yourself, and then with them. “Tell them why something is so important to you, why it makes you sad. The rest of the world isn’t going to be as honest, as helpful and as loving as you will be.”
4) Be available; race is a constant conversation.
It’s vital to be actively involved and engaged in topics like race. “As adults, we tend to be protective about hard topics, and often don’t give little ones enough credit for being able to understand it.”
So, what’s Taifa’s approach, with her students as well as her twin daughters? “I see what they respond to. I always say to them, ‘If you don’t understand something, or something is making you nervous, talk to me about it.’”
Taifa also works closely with the other teachers at Riverdale to support their curriculum, through the instrument of theater. For one of her classes, she had the children role-play what they learned in American history about the slave trade through exercises; then they reflected on what they discovered through those characters. “We use their own language. We get on their level. We figure things out together.”
5) Be an active role model — your kids are watching.
Kids have surprisingly accurate memories, and they’re constantly observing. “They remember conversations and words and thoughts. Be aware that anything could be said or done that will be a model for them.”
So how do you be a good role model? Quite simply, practice compassion — often. Taifa’s seen this trait develop in her own daughters. She admits, “The care I see that they have for each other makes me feel successful. Or they see I’ve had a hard day, and they ask me, ‘Mommy, do you need a huggie?’ It’s this amazing compassion, this love for each other and others which is put into action. It’s honestly the juiciest, yummiest feeling ever.”
6) Acknowledge differences, and give those differences weight.
When some people claim that they are prejudice-free, often they are in denial or avoidance of current societal issues. Taifa breaks it all down: “When you say you don’t see color, then you don’t see me. You need to know who I am. So acknowledge I’m different. Or that she’s a girl; that he’s black, or they’re Asian. Or trans.” And after affirming these differences, it’s important to emphasize how valuable and beautiful these differences are.
7) Keep checking in with your spouse or partner.
Hold each other accountable and make sure you’re on the same page. Same goes for other adults who are in a position to care for or influence your child, like a babysitter, teacher, or their best friend’s parent. Checking in will also keep the conversation alive in your own life. “You don’t have to agree on everything, but know your position on it and still work together,” Taifa says.
Photo credit: Taifa Harris
Growing up in two boroughs of NYC exposed Taifa Harris to ethnicities and creeds across the board. Raised by a single mom who fiercely encouraged an appreciation of the urban arts scene, she went on to study drama at Carnegie Mellon and now teaches theater full-time at Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. Her husband Paul stays home with their 4-year-old twin daughters, Keala and Reyna — though the family is so active, you’d rarely find them at home in their 1-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.