words to talk with kids about the hard stuff: working dictionary

These are working definitions, and explanations for different words and ideas related to identity, power and violence. They are intended for kids as young as preschool. Please leave a COMMENT at the bottom if you have additions or edits!!


Institutional or systemic racism:

“Racism sometimes means that people with pinkish or tan skin say or doing unkind things to people with brown skin, but it also means that people with pinkish or tan skin, who are called white people, get more money for working the same amount or even less, just because they are white. They get bigger houses and places to live that have more parks and schools with more books, just because they are white. They get jobs that pay more money, just because they are white. They get more of a chance to go to a doctor when they are sick, just because they are white.

(This is unfair and we must work together to change this.)

And people with brown skin, who may be called Black people, are sent to jail more and kicked out of school more, when they do the exact same thing that white people do. They also get pulled over by the police more and get hurt by the police more, even when they aren’t doing anything wrong at all.

(This is unfair and we must work together to change this.)”


History of racism:

“Lies were told about people with brown skin to explain why people with light tan skin made them work without paying them any money. That is called slavery. Even though people with brown skin now usually get paid money to work, a lot of people with light tan skin, called white people, still tell those lies. This can make it hard for people with brown skin to get important things, like jobs, or schools with enough books or computers.”



“The color of your skin plus how much the government helps you be healthy and safe.”


Normalized violence:

“I know we live in a culture that sometimes makes violence seem brave, or exciting, or normal; but this is a lie. Hurting other people is a very sad and very disappointing thing to do, because everyone deserves to be safe and not be hurt.  Hurting people does not make us brave or tough, it just makes people sad, and not trust us.”


Naming race isn’t racist:

“Talking about or naming race is not racist, unless it is done to put someone down. Just like it is okay to call someone a girl, if they are a girl, unless it is being used as an insult. Talking about race is important to understand how racism works and to fight against it.”


Reverse racism isn’t real

“Saying not nice things to people with white skin may hurt white people’s feelings, but it does not make white people less safe. Saying not nice things about people with brown skin, makes them less safe, and makes it harder for them to be free and healthy.”


Consent (to ask questions)

“Sometimes people don’t always want to answer questions about themselves, so if you want to ask someone something personal about their body, or their family, ask them first if they want you to ask them questions. If they don’t, maybe tell me and I can write it down, and maybe we can try to find the answer another way!”


Intent vs effect

“Even if we try to not hurt people by talking about [skin color or race], if people are hurt by what we say, that matters even more than what we meant. When people tell us we did something to hurt them we must believe them, and try hard not to do it ever again.”


Equality vs equity

“Imagine you have three friends who are coming over for lunch.  One friend hasn’t eaten for 2 days, one friend has only had breakfast today, and one friend just ate a huge hamburger and French fries and a milk shake. Equality means that when they come to your house, you give them all the exact same amount of food. Equity means that the friend who hasn’t eaten in 2 days get the most, because he’s the hungriest, the friend who just had breakfast gets medium amount, and the friend who just had a hamburger and French fries gets the least, because he has already eaten lots of food today.”



“Who the police believe (if two people who look different or speak differently, tell a different story about what happened).”



“[Friend] decided to make their body stop working. They had a disease in their brain called depression*, and this made them so sad, they didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

*language about depression offered by Jill MacFarlane, Director of the Sharing Place


Myth of Meritocracy

“You will get lots of messages that everything someone has is based on how hard they work. this isn’t true. some people work really hard and many hours every week and are very smart and they still don’t get paid enough money to have enough food and clothes and a safe house and doctor visits. Every kind of work people do, helps someone, in some way, and it is unfair that some work people get paid a lot of money and some work people gets paid just a little.”


Myth of White supremacy (confidence)

“You will get a lot of messages that say that you should feel loving of yourself because you have light tan skin, that people call white. This is not something you chose, and in this country white people have told a lot of lies and stories about being better than everyone else. Our skin color doesn’t make us better or worse, it just is part of having a body with different amounts of melanin. Our job is to find ways to love ourselves based on how well we take care of each other.”


Police murder

“The police made a choice to make his body stop working*. They may have done this because they believed lies about people with brown skin being dangerous. This is not true. I wish he was still alive because his life was very important.”

*language about death offered by Jill MacFarlane, Director of the Sharing Place


-isms//identity based oppressions

“-isms are lies that some peoples lives matter more than other peoples, based on a part of their body, or one thing about them. For example, classism, is the idea that the lives of people with more money, are more important than the lives of people with less money, or education. And while it is not our fault, if we have parts of us that are treated as “better” than other people, it is our job, to not believe the lie that we are better, or worse.

These lies affect how we act, where we live, who we are friends with, how sad we get when someone gets hurt, but it also affects schools, who gets what jobs, who gets lots of books in school, who gets access to doctors, who gets loans from the bank, who gets pulled over, who goes to jail the most, a lot of other important things.

I hope we can learn together about these lies, why people tell these lies, and how these lies are so harmful and scary and dangerous to both the people who get lied about and the people who do the lying.”


Response when a child stereotypes

“Maybe you haven’t seen many [boys play with the dishes]. I wonder why that’s true. [At my house, I’m the one who usually sets the table and washes the dishes.]”

-Eric Hoffman, quoted from Starting Small, Teaching Tolerance Project, page 39. [   ] indicates other scenarios can be inserted here.




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