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Spotlight on Hope: Talking to Children and Youth About Race and Racism

Written by: Dr. Maru Gonzalez, Assistant Professor

Dr. Maru Gonzalez

A string of tragedies in recent years—including the brutal murder of George Floyd, a series of racially motivated hate crimes, and the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities—compounded by generations of systemic racism, have propelled issues of race and racism to the forefront of the national conversation. Still, parents and caregivers often struggle with how and when to discuss such matters with their children. Indeed, research has found that while children and youth benefit from talking about and understanding race and racism, many parents lack the knowledge and skills to effectively navigate these topics. Others delay these conversations because they underestimate children’s capacity to comprehend the complexities of race and racism or because they believe, erroneously, that talking to children about race will lead to racial bias. In fact, a 2019 study by Kotler and colleagues found that over 60% of parents in the U.S. rarely or never talk to their children about race and ethnicity, despite the importance of having these conversations at an early age. 

Of course, racism is not a U.S. phenomenon; it exists and persists globally. Racism in the Dominican Republic, for example, is a byproduct of African enslavement and European colonization and manifests largely as anti-Blackness, as evidenced by the Dominican Republic’s relationship with Haiti.

This month, we are shining a spotlight on Angelena Castro, a master’s student in our Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences who is examining parents’ and caregivers’ experiences talking to their children about race and racism. Motivated by her personal and professional experiences in the Dominican Republic, the ultimate aim of Angelena’s research is to provide parents and caregivers in the United States and the Dominican Republic with the knowledge and skills to effectively and productively navigate these important conversations and work toward racial healing and justice.  

Tell us a little bit about the work that you are doing or have done related to this topic. 

I am currently researching race conscious parenting.  My focus specifically captures how parents and guardians across the United States teach their children about and discuss race. My prior experiences working with youth and families in the Dominican Republic led me to pursue this field of research. 

Despite being part of the African Diaspora and having a predominantly Black population, the Dominican Republic is a country where racism and colorism thrive. “Mejorar La Raza,” meaning “improve the race,” is a common phrase used to encourage procreating with someone of a lighter complexion or a different race entirely. As a Dominican-American who has spent time living and working in the country, I am all too familiar with hearing similar statements filled with self-hate from beautiful black and brown people while working with youth between the ages of seven and twelve in the small community of San Jose De Los Llanos. In small group sessions, I alongside local high school English teacher Wander Frias facilitated open dialogue and workshops on the topic of self empowerment. Pelo malo/ pelo bueno, which means bad hair/ good hair is the idea that someone with thick coily 4b or 4c textured hair is deemed “bad” versus the belief that someone with type 1-  3c curls or straight “manageable” hair has good hair. Can you imagine the damaging effects this has on young black girls and boys constantly being told that the hair they were born with, the hair that grows from them is bad? As a group we discussed what culturally contributed to those ideas around hair. Much of it derives from Anti-Haitianismo, which are anti Haitain ideologies that were strongly institutionalized during the regime of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo, a Dominican dictator who ruled the Dominican Republic from February 1930 until his assassination in May 1961.

I observed that even the dolls given to young Dominican and Haitian girls are typically white with blonde hair and blue eyes. Out of frustration and a desire to gift them a tangible item to encourage self-love, I launched a Black Barbie Toy Drive. Over 100 black Barbies were donated from donors across North Carolina and shipped to the Dominican Republic. A small gift that in addition to weeks of dialogue, I hope was able to have a lasting impact on the young girls I worked with. 

What resources do you recommend for parents, caregivers, and practitioners who want to learn more about this topic? 

For those interested in learning more about race, racism, and colorism in the Dominican Republic, I recommend visiting The In Cultured Company provides several resources for the general public to learn more about these issues and how they affect the entire island of Hispanola. Resources in the United States include: PBS and the Center for Racial Justice Education which have many resources, including lesson plans.

How do you suggest people get involved in this work around this topic? 

The issues of racism and colorism are major in the United States as well. I suggest that the public become educated on how these issues affect diverse communities. Parents and caregivers interested in engaging in conversations about these issues should research and learn the appropriate ways to approach these topics with children and youth. Churches and community centers are safe spaces to collaborate with community partners to offer family oriented programs and workshops that provide education to promote racial understanding. Schools can engage more in the community by celebrating the various cultures of the students on special occasions such as Black History Month, National Hispanic American Month, etc. to highlight the beauty of diversity and also educate in the process.

What challenges, if any, have you faced in doing this work? The biggest challenge was engaging a few of the parents from the community. Many still had the mindset that it’s important to “mejorar la raza.” Working alongside Wander Frias was to my benefit. He already had an established rapport with the parents. Due to their trust, I believe more parents felt more trusting to engage in discussions around race and racism in the Dominican Republic. 

When you think about this topic and the work you do, what gives you hope? 

When I think about this topic specifically, in how it pertains to the young Black youth I’ve worked with overseas, it makes me hopeful. Hopeful that more of these conversations will continue to be had amongst their families, communities, and peers. The Dominican Republic has a dark history of racism and xenophobia. That does not and should not be the story of its future. 

If you want to learn more or get involved in this work, we encourage you to attend an upcoming public lecture by Dr. Anneliese Singh, entitled, “Racial Healing: Practical Activities to Help You Explore Racial Privilege, Confront Systemic Racism, and Engage in Collective Healing.” The lecture is on October 13th from 7-8pm in Witherspoon Cinema. 

Registration is free, but required. You can learn more and register here. The first 50 registrants who sign up and attend the in person event will receive a free copy of Dr. Singh’s book, The Racial Healing Handbook. The event will also be livestreamed.