Empathy: The Antidote to Racism

(This article is the third installment in a three part series, Talking Racism with White Kids. In [part I: ] I discussed why starting at an early age is essential. In [part II: ] I busted some common myths about racism. In this final installment I’ll look at the antidote to racism and answer some reader questions.)

Did you know the antidote to racism is already inside of you? We are all born with it. The antidote to our propensity for stereotyping and prejudice – a necessary side effect of our ancestors’ dangerous lives – is in our amazing neocortex just waiting for us to activate it.

It’s called empathy and it is a skill that like a muscle can be worked out and strengthened no matter your age. When we activate it at birth and train it to be powerful and second-nature, racism has almost no chance of taking root. Racism and empathy can not exist side by side. One side must win and it will always be the [side we feed:].

How do we feed our empathy and not our prejudices? Let’s look at the developmental stages of empathy.

Birth – 3 years: Foundational Skills

Humans are prone, just like we are prone to fear snakes, to be empathetic. Our development during the first five years is really an exercise in developing the concept of “self” and of “other” which is the basis of all empathy. At birth infants are primed to notice and focus on human faces. At 7-9 months of age infants understand the concept of attention to objects by others.  This shared-attention is the result of the baby understanding that a person besides themselves finds an object of interest, and is a milestone in the development of this sense of “self” and “other”.  By 12 months old infants can predict the behavior of someone else, further demonstrating a rudimentary sense of “other”.  18 month olds show understanding of another person’s goals and intentions but do not do so for inanimate objects. And by 24 month olds, emerging toddlers begin to display comforting behavior in social situations ([see the research here:].) We are social animals so of course attention to the mental states of others would be part of our neocortex tool box.

You might wonder how you can teach a baby about racism before they can even utter “mama”. That’s because the first set of ideas you’ll want to impart are not about racism at all but about developing it’s antidote: empathy.

Racism sits on a foundation of hierarchy – the idea that one person is more important or worthy and deserving of power than another – and conformity – the idea that people should groom themselves into an “ideal” version of themselves as dictated by society’s standards. We make racism a comfy companion when we raise kids with hierarchy and conformity as standards of parenting.

For my parenting courses, I created the “Parenting Onion” (I originally called it the parenting roadmap but “onion” just kind of stuck and is much more descriptive) to look at the development of empathy and pro-social skills in children.

The first three layers are about SELF because all respect, all love, stems from self-respect and self-love. Hence, respect for bodies, feelings, and identity (choice) becomes the foundational skills for the next three layers: respect for OTHERS.

In order for a human to fully have respect for others they have to have respect for themselves and they develop that by being respected by their primary caregivers.

Mainstream parenting is based on the opposite of respect. It is based on control (the actionable side of hierarchy) and conditionality (the heavily [adultist:] version of conformity). We say, “my way or the highway” and, “because I said so” and parents are harshly treated in public discourse for having kids who are “out of control.” (See the [recent parental blame regarding the boy who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cinncinnatti zoo:].)

Kids raised this way see the world as naturally hierarchical. They see some groups (children) are weak and wholly beholden to other groups (adults) with all the power. How easily this skeletal framework wears racism!

If, instead, we treated our children as whole and equal and worthy fellow humans instead of a class of people designed to be controlled, how much more difficult a time would racism have taking root? Bolster your child’s racism “immune system” by teaching them that all people, including and starting with their own self, deserve to have their bodies respected, their feelings heard and validated, and their needs and choices considered equally important to every other human on the planet. This core belief gives them a defense to racist ideas born from the incongruity of racist ideology to their lived experience. Treat children with respect and change the world.

Let’s look at the three layers of respect for SELF and how we either support or undermine it.

1. Respect your child’s body as their own.

Ingrain in them that they have a body that is THEIRS and they get to decide what happens with it and to it. You can do this by making consent a core value of your parenting. Choose wisely, much more wisely than traditional parenting, the areas where you are going to demand something of them. Being buckled in a car seat might be non negotiable. What they wear, when and how they wash themselves, who [they “have to” hug:], these are areas where we can give our children much more respect for self than they would get in the traditional control-obedience paradigm of mainstream parenting.

Their belief that they own their bodies will naturally evolve into an understanding that all people deserve to have autonomy over their bodies.

2. Validate your child’s feelings.

Control-paradigm parenting denies children their feelings often. And I get the lure. Young kids will say they’re hot in the snow, they’re hungry after demolishing a large pizza, they’re “not tired” as they rub their eyes. It is easy to just say “no you aren’t” and force them into a coat, to wait for dinner, or to go to bed. We are encouraged by our culture to do exactly that. Control, by definition, puts the child’s feelings on the back burner in preference to the adult’s feelings which are always “right” while the child’s are “wrong” or “silly”. Instill in them the idea that a person, any person, all persons, deserve to have their feelings and thoughts valued even when, or especially when, we don’t agree with them.

This will evolve into a firm belief that all people deserve to have their feelings validated.

3. Validate your child’s identity.

This is so crucial and such a hot topic these days with the discussion of transgender people. You can not, I’ll repeat CAN NOT, teach self-love by disrespecting the spoken identity of a person. It is not compatible. This is because respecting someone else explicitly means respecting their identity. If your three year old says, “I’m a lion today,” say, “hello, lion!” When my child wants to be called Speed instead of Boston, I try my best to call them Speed (no joke, this actually happens a few times a month). Which isn’t to be confused with permissive parenting. If Speed’s feelings matter then so do the other people around him. If a situation requires non-lion, non-Speed behavior, like at the grocery store, I don’t say, “knock if off Boston. You’re not a lion now.” Instead I say, “Hey Speed? Running in the store is dangerous so we need to rest your legs until we get home. I bet they’ll be even faster after a break!”  I want to instill in him a sense that he is not the labels anyone else puts on him. He gets to choose what he identifies as. No one else can.

This will evolve to grant this right of self-identity to all people. Can you see how [some recent bigotry in the news:] would dissolve if all people embraced this truth?

Age 4 – 10: Extending the Foundation to the “Other”

The next three sections of the onion finally get into how we treat other people (and although there is a reason I start this section at age 4, which I’ll explain shorty, you can actually practice these things from birth.) The first three layers have created a child that expects human interactions to be mutual and pleasant. Navigating “discipline” with a spirit of mutual respect and emotional connection has primed them for applying this outside the parent/child relationship. The only thing missing is a developmental milestone called Theory of Mind.

Around age 4 children develop a new mental ability crucial to the development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy is not, “if that were happening to me I’d be sad” but rather, “I understand that these circumstances are making you angry (regardless of how *I* would feel in the situation).” Before the development of ToM children literally can’t imagine another person’s frame of reference.

ToM refers to a person’s ability to understand that other people have different thoughts and ideas completely separate from their own and it is demonstrated in the famous Sally Anne False Belief test. In this experiment the researcher uses dolls to present the following scenario to the child test subject.

Before (approximately) age 4 kids will answer that Sally will look for the apple in the blue backpack. They haven’t yet reached the mental milestone of understanding that even though they, as the observer of what Anne did, know that the apple is in the backpack, Sally, being out of the room at the time, holds a different view in her mind of where the apple is. This seemingly simple task of recognizing that another person holds a different view of the world in their mind is a major step in the development of empathy.

The goals of the OTHER layers – respect for people, diversity, and culture – are achieved by expanding on the values of the inner, SELF layers. Let’s look at some specific ways to we can accomplish this.

4. Practice perspective taking.

I think perspective taking is the single most valuable tool in creating a better world. The skill of imagining what another person is experiencing/feeling/thinking and understanding that their experience/feelings/thoughts are completely separate and completely different from our own is a huge developmental milestone.

Its super easy to practice too. Humans, with their big brains, developed a powerful way to practice our empathy muscles: storytelling. Books, television, and movies aren’t the mindless drivel some people want to convince you they are. Storytelling has been used for millennia to teach lessons about life (parables and fables for example) and we can use them to talk about race too. I love this list from of [14 picture books about racism for children under 10:]. And this list from NPR of [novels about race and racism for adolescents:].

This is one of many reasons that we are not a screen free home. The stories we tell through books, TV and movies can be excellent tools for talking about a myriad of things. All you have to do is ask open ended questions like, “what do you think that person/character is thinking/feeling/experiencing?” Give your own opinion without the shade of authority, “That’s interesting. I thought…” When we say instead with authority, “no, this is what they’re thinking” we shutdown dialog.

By practicing focusing our attention on the perspective of others we increase our capacity to empathize with them. More importantly, the act of thinking about others becomes habit. It becomes something we naturally do with each person we meet without conscious thought on our part. (Psst: we just tricked our prejudice-prone brains to turn off, at least for fellow human beings, our curvy-stick-might-as-well-be-a-snake short-cutting!)

5. Model emotional literacy.

We often think of parenting as tools and skills to manage young people. We are so wrong. Parenting is about personal development. It’s not called CHILDing but PARENTing. It is about being the best version of ourselves today and growing better every day. That might sound scary but I actually think it is kind of awesome. It means taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do for your kids. When I do metta meditation (see the January issue of NMM’s article [Compassion Training:]) it is amazingly self-serving. It feels good. I get to grow and expand. It is simultaneously self-centered and one of the best things I can give my kids because it helps me become more empathetic and I can then model that for my kids.

Like reading literacy, which means a person can read and understand the written word, emotional literacy means we can identify, understand, and successfully manage our own emotions. It is essential to be able to “read” ourselves before we can gain insight into another’s emotions through perspective taking.

When you are angry, name that. When you are sad, name that. If you can’t in the moment then do it later (“I was really angry this morning.”) Be transparent in why you have feelings (“I think it is because I didn’t get enough sleep/I was hungry/I was in a hurry/seeing marker on the wall really upset me.”) and how you managed them (“I had something to eat/talked it out/did yoga and that helped me calm down.”) Every time you do this you model dealing with human emotions. You demonstrate that everyone feels out of control sometimes and that those feelings are both normal and manageable. It is an amazing lesson in resilience as well as giving them practice in identifying the emotions of others.

7. Celebrate Diversity

The acquisition of language is a trial in unseeing the unique and instead grouping the alike. All those unique individuals are “trees”, all of those varied, hairy animals are called “cows”, unique people with melanin-rich skin are called “black.”

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. I’m not calling on you to stop teaching your kids language (like we could if we wanted to!). I do think it is a crucial period of human development to ALSO point out the similarities shared by things that appear to be different and to instill an appreciation of variety. Yes a housecat and a horse seem to have very little in common. But, on closer inspection, what do they have in common? Four legs. Covered in hair. Live birth. Making milk for babies. (If you’re a homeschooler you’re probably seeing the biology taxonomy lesson here). A tree and a panda bear have nothing in common, right? Or maybe we could help our kids see that both need food and water, they both desire to reproduce, both want to thrive. If we can show (or develop) our own awe at the beautiful variety in the world around us, our kids will pick it up.

The leap from “how sad the world would be if all the trees looked exactly the same” to “how sad would it be if all people looked exactly the same” to the fundamental belief that it is exactly that diversity that makes us wondrous and powerful isn’t too far to jump if you learn it when you are a child. Kids raised this way will have an easier time seeing that, despite of our differences in skin color, we have amazing similarities that are much deeper than appearance.

8. Celebrate Culture

Finally, the Parenting Onion looks at celebrating culture. This can look like attending cultural festivals, visiting cultural centers, and expanding our social circle past people who are similar to us but, even more valuable, is that this forces us to look at what culture is.

Allow me to veer into evolutionary biology again. I’ve talked about how our brains grew to be quick-thinking, short-cut generating machines. This kept us alive (read [part I:] for an explanation). We also have this capacity for empathy in our big, impressive neocortex. But, there’s another part of the amazingness of human evolution that can’t be ignored: culture.

Culture is different from other ways humans learn because it is made by humans. A human child is born knowing how to suck. No one teaches them this the way no one teaches a sea turtle to lay her eggs on the beach. This is instinct.

Humans also learn to chew through their own experimentation with food. We aren’t born knowing how to chew but we learn through experience. This is experiential learning.

We also learn that it is rude to chew with your mouth open. Is this something we learn through experimentation? No. We learn it through another human telling us (either through example, being told outright, or punishment/shame). This is social learning.

This is such an important distinction. Our culture is influenced by where and to whom we were born. It is dangerous and wrong to think that our particular culture is reality or “better than” another.

If I had been born in ancient Sparta I would find it perfectly normal to give my children to the state at age seven for brutal, violent training to be soldiers. This would be normal to me. If I had been born in the Sambia tribe I would find it quite normal that adult men receive fellatio from adolescent boys as part of a coming-of-age ritual. This would be “just how the world works.” I’m hardly advocating either one of those. I was born in a rural mid-west town and my “normal” says that violence against children is wrong and sexual acts with children are worse. I’m not even remotely interested in changing my viewpoint on either of those topics.

However, I am acutely aware that my viewpoint is just that – a collection of ideas, ideals, rules, and ethics – that are completely dependent upon my arbitrary birth into this particular culture. This perspective created by my social learning, is called a frame of reference and not understanding our own frame of reference pushes us into prejudice.

A personal example, my freshman year of college I went to church with a friend from my dorm. It was a “black church”. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white church and a black church. I remember at 18 years old thinking the people in the black church were rude and rowdy. I was very uncomfortable.

My frame of reference, my cultural knowledge that was passed to me through my parents and other adults, was that it is rude to speak out in church. That public displays of emotion were inappropriate. I was judging people from a different cultural upbringing based on my cultural frame of reference and expecting them to conform. This is prejudice pure and simple. (And you’ll notice it didn’t require hate or racial slurs.)

Much misunderstanding and violence is caused by not understanding our frame of reference. When Christopher Columbus met the Taino people he saw them as both savage and “simple”. His frame of reference was that “civilized” people wore layers of clothes and shoes and that “smart” people built huge cities, had a written language, and fought with guns. His misinterpretation of the culture of the Taino people launched a century of genocide and forced assimilation to Columbus’ culture – his religion, his form of education, his language, his form of civilization. Meanwhile all of Columbus’ successors and the financial backers in Europe prided themselves on “saving” the “savages” because European culture was obviously better.

They were blind to their own frame of reference like fish are blind to water.

Teaching kids about the culture of others by going to a cultural festival is wonderful. But don’t forget to teach them that they have a culture too and that while it seems ubiquitous and “true” it is only one possible frame of reference. Teach them to guard against prejudice that might crop up because they believe “their way” is the only way.

It might seem like I haven’t talked about racism much in this article. That was intentional. Racism is a secondary infection, a symptom of the underlying virus plaguing our world. Racism is a direct result of things like hierarchical, control-based social stratification and a lack of understanding of how our fancy, powerful neocorticies function. The cure then is to find the seemingly unrelated practices and beliefs that allow this infection to run rampant and cure the underlying problem.

I certainly hope you talk to your kids openly about racism (since we know [children are not colorblind:]) and teach them the modern, [researched-based understanding of racial bias:]. But it will all wash away like water off a duck’s back if the underlying ideas of self-respect  and empathy aren’t included. On the other hand, raise kids with mutual respect, autonomy, and empathy and racism won’t ever be able to take hold.

Frequently Asked Questions

“My three year old pointed to a black person and said, “that person is chocolate,” I wanted to melt into the floor. What should I have said?”

The most important thing to do when your child embarasses you because of something concerning race is that you don’t shush or reprimand them. They don’t know it is rude to call out someone’s appearance. That’s a cultural rule that they aren’t born with. If you lead with that – “shhh, don’t say that” – you’ve made yourself more comfortable (and probably the person of color who overheard) but you’ve taught your child that “race” is taboo. Like swatting their hand away when they touch their genitals teaches them that there is something dangerous or bad about sex, silencing them or distracting them about race tells them there is something dangerous or bad about color. Kind of the exact opposite of what you want them to learn.

Start off by saying something positive and validating. “She does have beautiful skin!” or “I see, she is a chocolatey color.” or, “Isn’t it cool how people come in different colors like flowers?” If the person being pointed at is aware I’d also say, “do you want to say hi or wave to her?” Maybe point out the similarities, “she’s buying bananas too!” For a three year old being open and positive is important. Your primary goal is that they know talking to their parent about race is ok and that color differences are amazing and not taboo. This sets up an openness that will serve you both as your child ages.

What if a story I’m reading to my child or a show we are watching does something racist?

This is a great question because so many of the media we consume is profoundly racist. Sometimes I skip a work I know to be racist but other times it can be a wonderful prompt for discussing difficult topics. There are many resources online for talking about the racism in “classic” children’s books. For example, PBS has a [whole curriculum around the racial issues in Huckleberry Finn:]. Know the context of the work as well. We know Huck Finn to be racist today but when it came out in 1885 it was considered “vulgar” simply because it had a white boy being friends with a black person. We’ve progressed in seeing it as racism. But are the stereotypes of Jim so different from what black people experience today? It is a great opportunity for discussion.

Also, don’t be afraid to show how shocked you are. If you hear someone on a show say something racist, say so! Let your kids see that you analyze your media and question it when it is telling you something wrong.

My kids are multi-racial and I am white. How do I teach them about racism?

This was the question I was most frequently asked. I’m a white woman raising white kids and, if you remember last month, I said that de-centering whiteness is an important part of being anti-racist. Part of this means that everyone should stay in their own lane of experience and expertise. I can not give advice on a reality I don’t live. I shouldn’t. But I can point you to some writers discussing this topic;

Multiracial Child Resource Book: Living Complex Identities

Edited by Maria P.P. Root and Matt Kelley

Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children

By Donna Jackson Nakazawa

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World

By Marguerite Wright

I live in an all white area. How do I teach my kids to appreciate different races?

Hello, fellow middle-american! I also live in a very homogenous area. I was eighteen years old the first time I met a black person. No, really! For now at least I’m also raising three white kids in the same hometown. How to do this and still raise anti-racists is very important to me.

First, if your means allow, try to drive to activities in nearby cities so your kids won’t be like me on their first day on campus. I drive an hour north to use the YMCA or for some of their playgrounds. I like seeing my kids run around and have fun with a myriad of different colors of skin. We also go to cultural events whenever we can – from drum circles put on by local Native American tribes to the local Greek cultural festival.

That isn’t always possible but never fear there are many ways to make your environment diverse. Look at your toys, movies, books, and art supplies. Are they diverse? Is your only “flesh” toned crayon a peach one? Are all your dolls white? Are all your books and tv and movies featuring only white characters? Diversify your children’s environment. Here’s a [list of some great toys and books that are racially diverse (as well as queer and ability positive):].

Lastly, break up your culturally conditioned holidays. Thanksgiving and Columbus day shouldn’t be celebrated without the historical context. Halloween shouldn’t consist of culturally appropriative costumes. Expand into new-to-you holidays like Juneteenth and Kwanzaa. My two can’t-live-without resources for this are [Teaching Tolerance:] and [The Zinn Education Project:], both have lesson plans and resources for teaching non-white-washed history as well as learning about racism.

My kids are all over ten, is it too late?

It is never too late. I was in my twenties when I started learning about racism. My dad was sixty. And the same resources you use for learning about racism can be used or adapted for teenagers. Teaching Tolerance and Zinn (links above) both have searchable teaching resources where you can limit by age group and topic.

Make it a family affair! I know a family with older kids that are watching W. Kamau Bell’s excellent series on CNN called [The United Shades of America:]. Here’s a [list of docmentaries you can watch online about race:]. Model ongoing learning and expanding of your understanding of race as something grown ups do too. This will create lifelong learners.

My family member is overtly racist. I don’t want my kids picking this up. What can I do?

You have a right to filter out racism from your kids environment. A person violating this does not belong around your children. In my opinion, that person has a choice: stop using racist language or stop seeing my kids. You have a right and responsibility to set healthy boundaries.

Don’t be a racism bystander. Let your kids see you put your foot down and stand up for racial justice. This might take practice as we’ve been taught from birth not to talk about race (and also, perhaps, not to question our elders). I may have started years ago with a timid, “that is racist, please stop.” But the more I engage the easier it becomes. Now friends and family know they’re in for an ear-full if they utter bigotry around me. You’ve no doubt heard the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is how you live that. Be the good person doing something.

If your kids are older and getting savvy at all things race, let them loose on your relative. There is nothing quite like being schooled by a eleven year old to make you rethink your stance. Plus your kids will gain that valuable skill of being a good person doing something.

My area is super racist. How do I protect my kids?

Don’t protect them, arm them with information. I live in a tiny town in Ohio with more confederate flags per capita than should be normal. I can’t ignore this and let my kids develop their own ideas about those flags (and now, Trump signs) so I don’t. “Hey kids, see that flag? It is a symbol for racism…”

I know that anti-racists often get slack for being “intolerant” of others with different views. Turning our own words back on us to make us flounder. Don’t be swayed. You have every right and a huge pile of responsibility to be 100% INTOLERANT of racism. I tell my kids that everyone who is racist isn’t a bad person at heart. While they have an individual responsibility to not participate in racism they were also trained by their culture to be racist. This isn’t an excuse but a valuable way to hold empathy for a person you disagree with vociferously. We should treat them with dignity and respect as all humans deserve to be treated. That being said there is no reason that you or your children need to accommodate racism. Even (especially) if it is couched in “southern pride” (I’ll remind you I live in OHIO, well north of the Mason-Dixon).

Even young kids can learn the [history of the confederate flag:] (it includes pirates!). Knowledge is power.

How do I talk to my kids about racism in the news?

I’m glad you asked because people often ignore current events with their kids and I think this is a mistake. You are growing a human being to be independent and valuable to society. You can’t do that if you don’t engage them in the very real events of the day.

Anytime an event happens you can usually Google, “how to talk to kids about [fill in blank]” and you’ll find some advice. For example, [this guide discusses how to talk to kids from preschool to highschool about the Orlando massacre:].

Remember when you’re talking to your kids you don’t have to pretend to be all-knowing. Be real and raw. If it makes you cry, let them see that. If it makes you afraid, tell them that honestly. I know we don’t want terror to rule our kids’ lives but pretending never works. Kids are master pretenders and they’ll see right through you if you try to downplay your natural reaction. Don’t sugar coat the incident and please don’t white-wash it. A “bad man” didn’t shoot “some people.” A homophobic, racist white man killed latinx queer folk. A “bad cop” didn’t shoot a 12 year old. A racist cop murdered a black boy. If you pretend that color/sexuality had nothing to do with it you are telling your kids a lie. Maybe your three year old doesn’t know the difference but every time you use the words it helps it seep in a little more and makes you better at the conversations. By the time your teen comes to you with something deep you’ll be ready because you’ve been being real and honest since they were babies.

What questions do you have about raising white kids to be anti-racist? I’d love to hear them! Contact me via message at [ ].


About the author

Paige Lucas-Stannard

Paige Lucas-Stannard is a parent educator and coach specializing in social justice and feminist-focused, respect-based parenting practices. She is the author of Gender Neutral Parenting and the upcoming book, based on her popular online class, Transformative Parenting. She and her partner unschool their three kids in the rural mid-west. When not writing, she loves to travel and spend time in nature with her family. Follow her on Facebook at Parenting Gently and on Twitter @parentinggently.