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  • Writer's pictureCultures Connecting

Q&A: Talking with Children about Racist and Sexist Language

We are excited to bring you our very first Question & Answer segment! You wrote in and we answered! Our first question comes from a librarian.

We have a handful of kids that are making comments...racial and gender slurs...and even worse. It is just a few...but these few are at recess with younger kids who could potentially learn them. We have done a number of books on inclusion and kindness, those different than you are ok...

We will have a staff meeting on the problem soon...any tips for staff in how to handle these when they hear them?  Or as a staff how to handle? It should be teaching, not shaming, as we know...

Thank you for asking. It’s always a challenge when you are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion but don’t see this taking hold in the way you would want to. It is especially hard with young people. Educators may feel the impulse to point fingers at one another, the media, or the parents, rather than doing the harder work to co-create a culture of belonging.

Here are some things we would recommend keeping in mind when engaging with young people. You’ll also want to involve their families (that could be a whole other response).


Silence allows stereotypes, biases, and racism to be reinforced. Research tells us that after age 9, racial attitudes tend to stay constant unless challenged, so it is important to invite conversation and take it seriously. During late elementary school, young people are beginning to form groups and solidify group identity. Words have impact (positive and negative) and helping young people understand what they are saying and the impact it can have on others is important. 

First, check in with those who may have been targeted by comments. These comments are wounding. What would you do if a student broke a bone? We would attend to them, acknowledge their feelings (even if they say they aren’t hurt) provide supports, seek ways to repair the damage, and support healing.

Next, meet with the young people making these oppressive jokes or comments. Here are a few ways to engage them, although this may vary depending on your role, relationship, their age, etc.

Talk about Feelings

  1. How were you feeling when you made those comments?

  2. Tell me about a time when someone put you down? How do you feel when people call you names?

  3. Why do you think someone might feel hurt by your words?

  4. How do you think the other child’s parents would feel if they knew you were…?

  5. How do you think your grandmother would feel if she knew you were saying…?

Ask Questions

  1. What do those words mean to you?

  2. What makes that joke funny?

  3. Why do you think they responded the way they did to what you did or said?

  4. What are other ways you could express your anger or frustration (if this is the case) without labeling or stereotyping?

  5. Why is using a stereotype or hate speech worse than other insults?

  6. In what ways do you think using a stereotype insults an entire group of people?

Talk about Why it’s Not Okay

Hold their goodness and humanity central, while not shying away from clearly labeling their actions. Provide young people with the language to understand what they said was racist or sexist, but that doesn’t mean that is who they are as a person. 

  1. When you say hurtful things, people don’t usually forget. They stay with them, even when you apologize.

  2. Saying things like that leaves a scar on the inside, which can be even harder to heal than a visible wound.

  3. I know you didn’t realize it (if this is true), but what you said is a racist stereotype. Do you understand what that means?

Determine Ways to Repair Harm

When students genuinely understand the pain they caused others, they are likely to feel a sense of guilt or shame. Offering them ways to make things right with their peers gives them a chance to feel better about themselves. Restorative justice means the person takes responsibility for their actions, apologizes, changes their behavior, and contributes to healing the community. This will look different in every situation. 

If a couple of individuals were targeted by the comments, you might want to talk with them about what they would like to see happen. Keep in mind though, that most young people are likely to think in terms of punishment and will need guidance to go beyond this to reparations. 

Thank you again for asking this important question. Please let us know how it goes!

With Love and In Solidarity,

Richard and Ilsa


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