Race relations, discrimination and racial injustice aren’t easy topics to broach with kids and parents sometimes feel they can’t find the right words or the right time.

A recently published children’s book by three Atlanta psychologists, “Something Happened in Our Town – A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” gives parents a roadmap to follow.

Atlanta Parent talked with one of the authors, Dr. Marianne Celano, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, about the book, written with Dr. Marietta Collins, Director of Behavioral Medicine, Department of Family Medicine, at Morehouse School of Medicine, and Dr. Ann Hazzard, a retired clinical psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine.

“We wanted to write a book that would offer a way for parents and teachers to begin to explain the history and power of racial bias against African Americans in the United States. And we also wanted a book to teach children to fight racial bias and injustice in their own lives,” Celano says.

The book, written for ages 4-8, features two main characters, a black boy and a white girl, and how their families and classmates deal with a police shooting in their town.

Q. One of the authors of the book is black and two are white. When you were researching and writing the book, did the three of you uncover anything surprising in your own beliefs about discrimination and fairness?

A. I don’t think we uncovered anything surprising because we had known each other for a while and worked together on similar issues. The challenge was to try to translate what we think is important into a story, a narrative that is engaging and children could understand. Young children can readily understand the concept of fairness, so there’s a section of the book where a classmate from another country is excluded. Young children can easily empathize with that character’s feelings and get the message that it’s unfair to treat others differently because of their skin color and that they can take action to encourage fair treatment.

We also wanted to promote the message that inclusion and diversity bring value, or as one character in the book says, “You never know who’s going to be your best friend.” Because that’s our own experience, as coauthors and friends and colleagues, that we are enriched by our diversity.

Q. Why did you choose ages 4-8 and how would you start a discussion with a 4-year-old?

A. I think it’s up to parents, who know their children best, to decide when to start these discussions; 4 may be too young for some kids and 8 may be too old for other kids, but we felt that age range captured the right time to begin these discussions.

In terms of how to start, we recommend that parents read the book themselves first, in particular, the extended note to caregivers at the end of the book that has general guidelines on how to address racial bias with children and sample dialogues with child questions and the answers parents might provide. It has child-friendly vocabulary definitions as well as a link to a free list of additional resources.

Q. When did each of you begin discussions with your own kids about prejudice and discrimination?

A. I’m white, and I would say it came up by age 4 or 5, definitely by kindergarten. For African American families, it may come up even earlier. … For many white families it may not come up until later. It certainly depends on the context in which your child is growing up, how much racial diversity there is in the child’s classroom. For the three of us, raising children in Atlanta, it came up relatively early in our children’s lives.

Q. How did you start your own conversations?

A. One of the messages we give to parents in the back of the book that comes from our own personal experience but also from a lot of research we did, is we have to listen to how our kids bring it up. And we may not be prepared in the moment to answer their questions but we can always come back to it [By telling kids you’ll remember their question and discuss it later, parents can think about their answer, be better prepared and pick an appropriate time to discuss the topic].

Listening to and answering your kids’ questions is part of how you start the conversation, and the more proactive part is reading books with your kids, or introducing your kids to TV shows or movies and social gatherings where the topic of racial injustice comes up or where diversity is front and center.

Q. What would you say to parents who think a color-blind approach might be best, to just not discuss it?

A. Research shows that kids as young as 3 notice race and … they’re more likely to develop a racial bias if you do nothing. It’s better to take a color-conscious approach, to talk about race, to talk about equity, to say, “This person was not treated fairly and I want everybody to be treated fairly.”
It’s a hard conversation to have, and it’s not the first time parents have not wanted to talk with children about a sensitive subject out of a desire to protect them.

If you’ll recall, decades ago, parents didn’t really want to talk to children about personal body safety. And now we do that, and it makes us uncomfortable as parents and creates a little anxiety for the kids but we do it because we feel like the advantages of doing it outweigh the disadvantages, and I feel like we should do the same for racial injustice.

About the Book: “Something Happened in Our Town – A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” is available at independent bookstores, Barnes & Noble, on Amazon and in the Fulton and DeKalb library systems. The book was published by Magination Press, an imprint of the American Psychological Association.

The publisher’s website has two guides that are free (one for teachers who choose to read the book aloud in classrooms), and an extended list of resources, including, other books, online resources and YouTube videos; the list is updated every six months.

– Amanda Miller Allen

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