Inevitably, every time I write about the importance of talking to kids about race there is comment suggesting that, by bringing up race to kids, we are making them race-conscious. Sometimes the comment is sarcastic: Nice job, mom. You’ve just made your kid a racist. In other cases, it is gentler and well-intentioned: I want my kids to keep their innocent way of viewing the world without noticing color.
And I get it. I do. These responses reflect the colorblind sentiment that pervades White society (and sometimes appears in communities of color too, although not to the same extent). The widespread belief is: If we don’t talk about race and we don’t make it an issue, kids will grow up not caring what color someone is and racism will disappear.
Okay, so let’s talk about that. We’re on the same page with wanting to see the end of racism. The question is, how do we get there? Is ignoring race an effective way?
The colorblind approach is predicated on the assumption that if we don’t talk about race, kids won’t notice it. The problem is, that isn’t true. Really. It is.not.true.
Racial constructs so deeply pervade our culture – not just in the media, where it is pretty undeniable that people of color are generally portrayed in very limited and stereotypical ways, but also in the way people of color are treated and talked about – that it is damn near impossible for kids not to pick up on this. Unless you create a bubble around your child, devoid of television and books and the internet, devoid of peers and school and other adults, they will be exposed to messages about race. The messages are often very subtle, but they are there. And, consciously or subconsciously, kids absorb these messages like the little sponges that they are.
Even if kids didn’t pick up on those messages – which are all around them, whether we like it or not – they are going to notice the fact that one person is a different color than another. The idea that they won’t notice unless we mention it, is a bit like suggesting they won’t notice the difference between boys and girls if we don’t mention gender. Research has consistenly shown that kids do notice both gender and race from a very young age. How young? Think babies. Six months old. Maybe earlier. I’m a firm believer in science and that research speaks volumes to me.
Let’s stick with the gender parallel for a minute. No one suggests that we don’t talk to kids about gender or pretend it doesn’t exist. Even among those who want to push back against gender stereotypes, there seems to be agreement that the best way to do this is by talking candidly with our kids about gender, pointing out stereotypes when we see them, and encouraging our kids not to be limited by them. So why do we think a totally opposite approach is the answer when it comes to race?
By not talking proactively to our kids about race, we are allowing several things to happen:
- We send the message that race is a taboo topic. (This is the message many of us White folks were raised with ourselves, which is probably why we are so uncomfortable talking about it!)
- We let kids come to their own conclusions, which are often not as pretty as we’d like. For instance, researchers have found that young White kids’ thoughts about Black people are often pretty negative, even when their parents think of themselves as very accepting and haven’t done anything to actively teach their kids racist views. It’s failure by omission – by doing nothing, we get the opposite of the result we wanted.
- We shut down the conversation within our own families, including the opportunity for valuable conversations about how our kids can be resisters against racism and prejudice.
The other part about the colorblind approach is that it assumes not noticing color is a desirable goal. But ending racism isn’t about erasing color. It’s about embracing people for who they are, as whole, dynamic human beings, including their race and whatever that means to them. It’s about not limiting opportunities or judging people or treating them differently because of race. I can’t speak on behalf of people of color, but I have heard many say that being told, “I don’t even notice you’re Black / Asian / insert-race-or-ethnicity-here,” isn’t taken as the compliment that is intended.
So let’s say that we agree now that YES, we need to talk to kids proactively about race. For White parents raising White kids, that can feel like a pretty daunting task. What the heck does that conversation look like? Where does it begin? How do I talk to my kids about race and racism without accidentally teaching the “wrong” thing? In the end, I think that is where some of the resistance in the White community lies – we just don’t know where the heck to begin or how to have these conversations!
The good news is that there are a ton of resources out there for parents who need some guidance. My post 3 Tips for Raising Racially Sensitive Kids includes a video clip, questions you can ask yourself, and a list of resources to get you started. And if you’d like to read more about the research on kids and race, Chapter 3 in the book Nurture Shock gives a fabulous, easy-to-read overview.
It’s a slow process and that is okay. You don’t need to have all of the answers – just be willing to invest some time to listening, learning, and growing, so that you can help your child do the same.