Talking to Kids About Race
On this day of celebration for the life and contributions of Martin Luther King, I thought I would visit the topic of talking to kids about race.
I used to like the idea that kids are colorblind. I love the vision of American being this great melting pot where kids of every race play together in perfect harmony. I think we are getting there. But as my kids are getting older, I’ve begun to realize that children do, in fact, notice race. I’ve even had the sinking feeling as I’ve observed playground interactions that my African American children are sometimes excluded because they look different. And then, we had a couple incidents where my kids were blatantly excluded for their skin color. My colorblind theory was beginning to crack.
I thought I was just being paranoid until I started doing some research on it. A simple search on race and exclusion yielded dozens of recent studies on the impact of race in preschool and elementary school. The findings were scary: race is one of the biggest factors in children being left out by their peers. It’s as impactful as gender, physical differences, and even cognitive ability.
The truth is, at the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. I think many of us are unaware of this, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid. We want our kids to be "colorblind", so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations. I have a few friends who decided to broach the subject of race with their children, and they were shocked at what they found. One child expressed how glad she was that her skin was light because lighter was prettier. Another child said, point-blank, that he didn’t like kids with brown skin. Another parent decided to just observe her son at their next park outing. She watched her child allow a white child into the circle to share sand toys, but tell a Mexican child he had to play elsewhere.
Now, let me point out that these are not bad, abnormal, or cruel kids. These are sweet kids from amazing families, just expressing a typical (albeit flawed) developmental preference for similarity. A child who is wary of children who look different is not a racist in the making, any more than a child who wants to play with kids of their own gender is a budding sexist. These are normal developmental stages. However, like many "normal" childhood traits (impulsivity, selfishness, etc), this brand of xenophobia may need some gentle guidance and education from parents.
Children are social beings, and one of the first social lessons they learn is to sort and group. Boys hang out with boys. Girls hang out with girls. If your children shows these gender preferences, chances are they have racial preferences, too. This doesn’t make them little racists. It doesn’t mean they have a future in the KKK. It just means that they need some gentle guidance from you to be a little less self-centered. And really, is that last sentence what parenting is all about? Training our kids to move from a self-centered infant into a more respectful and empathic person . . . that’s the stuff of raising kids. Racial acceptance should be a part of that.
At a certain age, all kids are prone to leaving others out based on external factors. This can be gender, race, disability, etc. I think kids need help to overcome this natural tendency to seek out "sameness". I also think they need intentionality, especially when living in non-diverse areas. Kids do see color – and when parents ignore it, the lesson children learn is that diversity is something to scary to talk about. There is a new book called NurtureShock that puts this well:
How to Raise a Racist
Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”
Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.
Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that [insert your race here] is better than everybody else.
What NurtureShock discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The rule is that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. It’s kind of like the sex talk. If we never talk to our kids about sex, they are gonna have to figure it out on their own. Which will probably lead to some not-so-great influences filling in their gaps of knowledge.
So talk to your kids about race. Have an ongoing and frank conversation, and observe their interactions with children who are different. Assume that they will have biases, and confront them when they emerge. Here are a few practical suggestions:
1. Take an inventory of your home’s diversity. Are your toys sending a subtle message? Make it a point to buy dolls and action figures of every race. Watch how your kids react.
2. Be intentional in showing your children positive examples of other races in the media they watch. Some great examples are Go, Diego, Go!, Little Bill, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan, Dora the Explorer, and Cooking for Kids with Luis.
3. Take inventory of your own racial biases. Be careful with the language you use around your children. Avoid making stereotypical statements or racial jokes in front of your children. (or better yet, don’t do it at all).
4. Look for opportunities to immerse your family in other cultures. Try to find situations where your family is the minority. This is a great stretching and empathy building opportunity for you and your kids. Try attending a minority church event or a cultural festival. Again, observe your child’s reactions and open a dialogue about how that feels.
5. Read books that depict children from other races and countries. Some of our favorites are We’re Different, We’re the Same, The Colors of Us , and Whoever You Are (Reading Rainbow Book) . For an incredible list of multi-cultural children’s books, check out Shades of Love at Shelfari.com.
6. Just observe. Watch how your children plays with children who are different, whether it be skin color, gender, disability, or physical differences. Talk about it. Let your child know that you are a safe person to process their feelings and reactions with, while at the same time guiding them to accept children with differences.
7. Lead by example. Widen your circle of friends and acquaintances to include people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences.