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'Blues Clues & You!' host Joshua Dela Cruz on talking to kids about coronavirus racism

“The way that you look and the way that you are is beautiful. And we're celebrating that and, especially now as a country, we're celebrating that in spite of all the misinformation and all of the blame that's going on.”
Joshua Dela Cruz.
Joshua Dela Cruz.Gary Gershoff / Getty Images file

As Asian Americans confront the rise in incidents of racism spurred by the pandemic, parents are faced with the added challenge of figuring out how to broach the subject with their children. And host of the kids' show “Blues Clues & You!,” Joshua Dela Cruz, has some thoughts on where to start.

Dela Cruz, who is Filipino American, told NBC Asian America that he’s been worried about how his viewers and other children may internalize or process the racism they see unfolding in the news and in front of them. However, unpacking the issue starts with confronting it head on, he said. And that means acknowledging the confusion many children may be experiencing right now.

“It's difficult. I am nervous and I am anxious and a little bit scared," he said. "How do we talk about this to our kids? I think that the first step is to talk to kids. A lot of the time in the conversation, parents will tell you what's right and what's wrong. And so what happens is that there are a lot of confused feelings. There's no dialogue like, ‘Well, I feel this and I don't know why I feel this way.’”

Dela Cruz added: “We need to open up that conversation and, like in our show, take what kids have to say seriously. There are real emotions and there are real thoughts that go through their heads.”

Dela Cruz, who’s currently in between seasons, underscored that children have legitimate feelings and thus are capable of developing opinions based on speech or events unfolding around them. Research shows that children as young as 3 have exhibited prejudice. Dela Cruz said he himself was recently reminded of this after reading a news article about a reported bias incident in which a young girl allegedly told her parents she thought she was going to die. When her parents asked why, the girl said “coronavirus” and pointed to an Asian American.

“It’s really disconcerting to me, because that's, that's so wrong," Dela Cruz said. "I don't believe that child is racist at all, but it's not only the beginning of that bias that she is starting to develop. It's also so unhelpful in the time that we're living in now. These kids are going to start to get confused about, ‘Oh, I should avoid Asian people.’ Instead of … how to practice good hygiene.”

In addition to giving children space to air their thoughts, Dela Cruz says parents should also explicitly condemn the racism that their children are seeing or hearing about. For Asian American children in particular, he said they need to hear that the ongoing anti-Asian sentiment is not their fault, but a product of misplaced blame.

“The way that you look and the way that you are is beautiful. And we're celebrating that and, especially now as a country, we're celebrating that in spite of all the misinformation and all of the blame that's going on,” he said.

Richelle Concepcion, president of the Asian American Psychological Association, similarly recommended that parents should remind their Asian American children that the racism they’re seeing isn’t personal, but is rather rooted in misinformation around the virus.

The “Blues Clues & You!” host explained that condemning racism is just a portion of the work, however. He said he feels that children often miss the context around why individuals harbor racist thoughts or feelings during the pandemic in an effort to foster empathy. In some cases, those who spew racist ideas have not been given verified information, he said.

“Yes, we need to condemn racism. But we also need to exercise compassion,” he said, emphasizing understanding for those who are misdirecting their anger. “That's the only thing that is going to stop this resentment for these people that are acting in this way.”

For non-Asian children, Concepcion said parents could explain the origins of and dispel stereotypes around Asian Americans, especially if they’re already expressing fear. Like Dela Cruz, Concepcion noted the importance of talking about the topic with children, adding that parents could inadvertently perpetuate racism if they do not discuss the issue at all.

“Ultimately, they can continue to engage in discussions or behaviors without any true understanding of their origins,” she said.

Some experts argue that having discussions around race isn’t sufficient for raising empathetic children. A 2018 study examining prejudice in children ages 3-9 revealed that they absorb both blatant and implicit biases from their parents. Researchers recommended that parents not only refrain from using explicitly racist statements, but also show openness to other cultures and avoid using “us versus them” language when referring to other groups, among other more subtle actions.

Citing “Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools,” sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman noted in Time magazine that while white families often say they embrace diversity, their behavior suggests their “desire to protect practices of segregation within diverse schools that offer advantages to their kids.” The scholar wrote that everything from reading materials found around the house, to when parents feel it’s appropriate to lock their doors can color how children see race.

“Rather than focusing solely on what they say to kids about race, white parents should think more critically and carefully about how what they do on an everyday basis may actually reproduce the very racist ideas and forms of racial inequality that they say they seek to challenge,” Hagerman wrote.

Dela Cruz admitted the pandemic has created a distressing environment for all communities. With the hateful rhetoric and violence aimed at Asian Americans, it can be especially difficult for youth in the community to ride the “Asian wave,” or take pride in the advances in representation that have taken place in recent years. But Dela Cruz said that the progress made in Asian American visibility is undeniable and that it’s pertinent for people to demand visibility amid the vitriol to inspire progress for future generations.

“We cannot retreat. As long as we are moving forward in a caring, kind and lovable way, I don't think we should retreat. I think we should continue to be proud. And find what connects all of us,” he said.

Above all, Dela Cruz encouraged parents to continue checking in with their children and their emotions during the pandemic. For those who may be unsure of how to broach the subject, Dela Cruz said they should feel comfortable seeking help whether it be from therapists or community leaders.

“Kids are going to be thinking about this and they're going to be forming opinions. And I think it's our responsibility as adults to … continue to have that open line of communication, as they figure it out,” he said.