Kids aren’t colorblind. Why we need to talk about race with children.


This article from Newsweek is about how early and easily young children are aware of different skin colors in people, but for the most part, parents have little or no explicit conversations about race with children.  A study was done at the University of Texas that focused on how parents talk (or more accurately, don’t talk) to their children about race.

There are many troubling things about this study but here is one aspect I find very disturbing,

“…Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.”

The Univeristy of Texas is in Austin, and Austin tends to be a pretty liberal town.  So multiculturalism and embracing diversity are values that are openly talked about and supposedly held by lots of people in the capital of Texas.  Yet over half of the children of 1000+ Austin residents aren’t sure if their parents like black people.

There is a lot in the article about the idea that merely exposing children to people of different ethnicities makes them colorblind or accepting of all people equally.  It turns out that this isn’t really the case.  There is actually more social segregation in schools with more racially diversity.  Exposure to racial diversity doesn’t have the impact we hope without explicitly talking about racial diversity with our children.

“Is it really so difficult to talk with children about race when they’re very young? What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. The same way we remind our daughters, “Mommies can be doctors just like daddies,” we ought to be telling all children that doctors can be any skin color. It’s not complicated what to say. It’s only a matter of how often we reinforce it.”

It certainly seems easier to talk about gender stereotypes as opposed to racial stereotypes.  Are we as parents afraid of seeming less than colorblind?  Are we hoping that our children haven’t noticed that people come in various hues and colors, or that they have just magically realized and accepted that the difference is only skin deep? This article states pretty clearly that kids as early as six months old notice difference in skin color, and it doesn’t take too long for children to make value judgments based on skin color, especially when their parents don’t offer any explicit direction to the contrary.

We are often very eager as parents to start making our children smarter at an early age.  Let’s play classical music for baby in the womb!  Let’s learn Spanish with Dora!  In our home we have several maps near our dinner table for impromptu geography lessons.  We recognize the potential of young children to learn even before their formal education starts.  So doesn’t it make sense to carry this same principle into education about race and diversity?

“Several studies point to the possibility of developmental windows—stages when children’s attitudes might be most amenable to change. In one experiment, children were put in cross-race study groups, and then were observed on the playground to see if the interracial classroom time led to interracial play at recess. The researchers found mixed study groups worked wonders with the first-grade children, but it made no difference with third graders. It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.”

My wife and I have already started talking about race with our four year old son.  I’d like to say that this is simply because we are the Best Parents in the World(tm), but it’s not.  If all goes according to plan, next spring or early summer we will be traveling to Ethiopia to adopt our daughter.  So pretty soon our son will be fielding questions about skin color and race, we will be fielding his questions as well, and our daughter will have her own questions to ask and answer.

We will have the luxury of being a multi-racial family.  Conversations about skin color will occur and we will have the opportunity to address these differences and stereotypes.  And selfishly, expecially for my daughter, I hope that others will create these opportunities to talk to their children about race as well.