Critical Conversations: Dr. Marietta Collins on Discussing Police Shootings with Children

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We connected with Dr. Marietta Collins, co-author of the picture book, What Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice (APA/Magination Press), to get her insight on how to discuss racism and police shootings with young children, and the role children's books can play in facilitating these conversations. Marietta Collins, Ph.D, worked for over two decades as an Emory University School of Medicine faculty member, serving children and families in Atlanta. She has been involved in community advocacy efforts focused on children’s behavioral health and social justice. Dr. Collins is now on the faculty at Morehouse University.

The Conscious Kid (TCK): Often, parents will try to shield their children from the news of a police shooting rather than having a conversation about it. How, and at what age, should parents be talking with their children about police shootings? How about racism? Is this different for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) vs. white children? Why do these conversations matter?

Dr. Marietta Collins (MC): Of course, the answers to these questions vary from family to family. We always recommend that parents follow their child’s lead and discuss these topics in developmentally appropriate terminology. Research however, has shown that children as young as 3 notice skin color and not talking about it actually may teach children that race is a taboo topic. White parents are less likely than ethnic minority parents to talk openly about racial issues with their children. White parents may take their White race for granted and not perceive race as significantly impacting their lives. White parents are often afraid that talking about race may make their children notice skin color more, or they may be afraid of saying the wrong thing. Even well-meaning parents hope that taking a color-blind approach will lead to their children developing accepting attitudes about race. Research has shown that this approach in fact produces the opposite effect. For all parents who want to raise children with egalitarian values, taking a color-conscious approach is more effective. But many White parents will need to accept some guidance to feel comfortable talking about race. We hope that our book is helpful in that regard.

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TCK: How can children's books be used to facilitate these conversations? How can they be used to counter anti-Blackness?

MC: Stories found in children’s books can help children gain a sense of mastery over the world and aid children in better understanding and accepting their feelings. Stories in children’s books help to assist children in processing difficult events while creating a sense of distance that helps those events feel less emotionally overwhelming. Stories in children’s books also serve to engage our hearts and our imaginations, which is where we believe true transformation takes place. For Black children, children’s books promoting positive self-images of Black children, adults, and families serve to encourage the development of healthy self-esteem, which can counter the negative anti-Black messages of Blacks often portrayed in the media. Our story strives to help children feel empowered to effect positive change in their daily lives, while acknowledging the reality of racial injustice in America.

TCK: Seeing and experiencing racism and racial injustice (such as police shootings of Black children and adults) can impact a child's self-perception and perception of their race. How does internalized racism show up in Black children? What age does this start? How can positive racial identity development be supported in Black youth?

MC: Internalized racism can be observed in children’s overt preference for and identification with white (or majority) culture and its associated ideologies over the ideologies more commonly associated with Black (or minority) culture. This can more specifically be observed in Black children’s preferences for white dolls and characters representative of white culture over Black dolls and characters representative of Black culture. This also includes a predominance of negative attributions made by Black children about themselves and towards Black culture while a predominance of positive attributions is made towards white culture. Supporting positive racial identity begins in the home with parents during their children’s preschool years by surrounding their children with positive images of Blacks via dolls, books, magazines, and television shows. We’d also encourage parents to expose children to diverse individuals in their daily lives, in the stories they read, in the TV shows they watch, and in the art in their homes and communities. Teach children to have multidimensional views of themselves, their race, and others. Use daily events or story lines on TV to help children recognize stereotypes, bias, and discrimination. Communicate that it is not acceptable to tease or reject someone based on their race, gender, religion, culture, or family type. Express and show your enjoyment in the pleasures and possibilities inherent in multi-cultural experiences.

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TCK: You are a Psychologist, Associate Professor and Director at Morehouse School of Medicine, the Medical Education Program of HBCU Morehouse College. What is the impact/significance of all-Black spaces on Black youth/students today?

MC: HBCUs continue to have an important role in the Black community as the schools that first gave Black students the opportunity to obtain higher education when no other colleges would. The existence of all-Black spaces for Black youth continues to be of paramount significance and importance today. HBCUs provide an environment fostering positive images of top notch Black leaders and role models for Black (or other) students to identify with and emulate. The supportive environment created by HBCUs encourages community, collaboration, and caring among people who have had similar cultural experiences and a sense of success and empowerment among students.

TCK: Anti-Black bias is not isolated to police. In what other ways does anti-Black bias show up in personal, educational, institutional, or professional spaces? What can parents and children do to identify and disrupt it?

MC: Although some progress in racial equality has been made, there are many indicators of continued racism and economic inequality in America, many of which are tied to Jim Crow laws that followed slavery, and other unfair institutional practices. Major racial disparities still exist such as the wealth gap, unequal incarceration rates related to unfair sentencing laws, redlining, prejudiced employment practices, and unequal access to quality education. For example, compared to white children, ethnic minority children are much less likely to have access to advanced math and science classes and more likely to be taught by less experienced instructors. Black parents can and should stay involved and advocate for their children in both educational and social settings. Creating an open environment where consistent time and space within the family is reserved to discuss such sensitive issues is crucial. Modeling involvement in social justice issues as a means of directly addressing such unfair practices is also essential.


Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice (APA/Magination Press) can be purchased directly through the American Psychological Association's website or here. The book includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with 8 pages of guidelines for discussing race and racism with children, child-friendly definitions, and sample dialogues. Guidelines include: Countering Racism and Racial Injustice with Children, How to Address Racial Bias with Children, Unique Issues for African American Families, Sample Parent-Child Questions and Answers, Sample Dialogues of Special Relevance for African American Families, and Additional Resources. Ages 4-8.