Katherine Heigl on Talking to Her Kids About Racism: 'Can't Pretend That It Might Not Ever Happen'

For more on Katherine Heigl, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Katherine Heigl
Katherine Heigl and daughter Adalaide Marie Hope . Photo: Katherine Heigl/Instagram

Katherine Heigl is opening up about how she talks to her daughters Adalaide Marie Hope, 8½, and Naleigh Mi-Eun, 12, about racism.

In an exclusive chat with PEOPLE for this week's issue, the Firefly Lane star reveals that growing up with a Korean sister gave her a "naïve" view in the sense that it "didn't feel unusual" for her to adopt two non-white children: Naleigh from South Korea in 2009 and Adalaide, who is Black, from Louisiana in 2012.

"That has been a very complicated and oftentimes stimming conversation for [husband Josh Kelley] and me," admits Heigl, 42. "For all the obvious reasons, Josh and I felt like we had lived in a very light bubble our whole life. You don't even know that you are because it's just the world around you."

"I even think when the girls came into our lives, I didn't assume everyone felt like I did, but I assumed the majority did — that the majority didn't see race and color," she adds.

And when George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement picked up speed, "I didn't know how to have this conversation with my daughters," Heigl says.

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Katherine Heigl
Katherine Heigl's daughter Adalaide. Katherine Heigl/Instagram
Katherine Heigl
Katherine Heigl's daughter Naleigh. Katherine Heigl/Instagram

The Grey's Anatomy alum tells PEOPLE she "didn't know how to say" to Adalaide and Naleigh, " 'You are a divine child of God. You are valuable. You are important and worthwhile and beautiful and smart, but there will be some people who don't like you simply because of the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes.' "

"I didn't know how to do that without feeling like I was destroying a piece of their soul," Heigl adds. "So I waited and I prayed. We live in our mountain bubble [at their ranch home in Utah] away from all of the intensity of it, so I was able to wait and pray."

To tackle the subject with her girls, "I decided to try first to watch kid-friendly films and shows that dealt with race and racism," the mother of three shares.

One film in particular, she recalls, "had to do with racist slurs and ugliness among white people and Black people," which prompted her to pause and speak to her younger daughter about what was happening onscreen.

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"I said, 'Adalaide, I want you to understand that if anybody ever spoke to you like that, if anybody ever called you those kinds of names or treated you like that, it has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with them. Do you understand that?' " Heigl says.

Adalaide's response? "She said, 'Yeah, I know. I already know that I'm really beautiful and super cool,' " the actress recounts, adding with a laugh, "I was like, "Okay. Well, then I guess we've done our job too well. Perhaps then we should work on some humility."

Heigl jokes that she tells her girls she will "go find" and "hurt" anyone who says racist things to them, but in all seriousness, "I just want them to feel safe enough with us that they can tell us if they are hurt that way so that we, as a family, can come together and reduce that."

"Because I can't pretend that it might not ever happen," she says.

For more on Katherine Heigl, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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