Thursday, April 28, 2011

Should we talk to young children about race?

With the blatant racism of the whole "birther thing," (sorry, guys, I know you don't like it when I talk politics, but this stuff has been outrageously racist), it's fitting that Psychology Today has a piece on talking about race with young children:
Colorblindness dictates that we should not notice or talk about race, and thus the right thing to do in polite company is to not acknowledge difference. The goal is noble: as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. movingly said, we want to judge people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Accordingly, a large study of racial socialization (Hughes et al., 2006) concluded that parents of majority and minority children alike do emphasize hard work, virtue, self-acceptance, and equality when raising their children.

Yet, in our increasingly multicultural society, our children are going to be exposed to race-related issues sooner or later-and they need to be prepared. Children may witness acts of exclusion or rejection based on race, or will themselves be targets of discrimination. It is precisely for these instances that parents must provide their children with a framework for understanding difference, for helping them place such experiences within a developmentally appropriate narrative about the meaning of race both within their family and their culture. Think for a moment about how you might best react if your child saw or even experienced bullying. I doubt many parents would cope with the problem by not talking about it. Rather, a likely response might be to shower our child with love, remind them that we are always going to be in their corner, to avoid that bully, and additionally make sure that our child doesn't go hit somebody else. A lot of these strategies apply to racism - but they cannot be enacted if we don't broach the topic directly, albeit in a developmentally appropriate way.

It is important to understand a couple of reasons why a strategy of avoiding conversations about race simply doesn't work with kids. The first reason is that while many parents don't talk about race, peers certainly do point out differences, and it is critical to equip our children with the scripts and strategies to navigate these early conversations successfully. But the second, and more important, reason is that the words we say (or don't say) are only one modality through which children learn about their world. When children see their parents or other adults tense up around members of other groups, or notice that adults' social networks are not very diverse, or pick up on racial segregation in their environment, there is a clear message being communicated. That message is that skin color does matter, just in a secret way that nobody is going let you in on. Thus not talking about race can make the subject even more confusing. And when children are young, the only way for them to resolve this confusion may be by concluding that people of other races are "bad," thus setting the stage for exactly what many parents seek to avoid: prejudice.

As far as the data goes, the research is clear. Kids have the capacity to notice race from a very early age- infants will stare longer at faces of people from races they are unfamiliar with, which tells us they notice difference. Yet difference is a long shot from racism-an awareness of stereotypes and racism doesn't begin to happen until about age 6 (McKown and Weinstein, 2003). Between those ages, there is a lot of time for parents to teach valuable lessons to their children about how to confront difference. Rather than avoiding race through a colorblind strategy, I recommend that parents do talk about difference. Parents should strive to go one step further than simply saying "it doesn't matter." Rather, parents can adopt a message of acknowledging and celebrating differences- talking, for example (and as a first step), about different cultural traditions, or dishes that different people cook. This is known as a multiculturalist strategy - one that recognizes and celebrates our differences. At the same time, however, the message of multiculturalism needs to be complemented by a message about our common humanity- in other words, the things that unite us. A children's book that mixes these messages well is Sesame Street's "We're different, We're the same... and we're all Wonderful."
I've written about talking to young kids about race as well, and trying to adress the HOW question, how do we talk to our kids about race and racism?  See here.


Truly Blessed said...

Of course we should talk to young children about race, as the article said, they notice when people look different than the folks they see everyday. And what's more, we should expose our children to people of different races so that they don't just stop and stare when they see someone who looks different than the folks they see every day.

17 years ago, when my son was in Kindergarten we lived in a very caucasian area of our city. My kids had never interacted with a person of color and when two little A.A. boys and a Japanese boy were in his K class, he announced to me after the first week that he didn't "like the black tops" - of course I had no clue what he was talking about and questioned him, and learned that the "black tops" were the boys with black hair (there were also "yellow tops and brown tops" in his class, btw). We had some age appropriate talks about race and then I asked the teacher to put my son in small groups or working pairs with these boys so that he could get to know them. Wouldn't you know it, these four became best friends.

My daughters are Asian. Fortunately, our area is much more diverse now and they see and interact with people of different ethnicities every day in school, church and in our neighborhood. It's truly a wonderful thing. I just don't buy the "colorblind" argument -- let's celebrate the differences instead of ignoring them.

Anonymous said...

When my son was 3, he referred to people by the color of the shirt they were wearing. Green guy, red guy, purple guy, black guy. At that age, I thought it was really sweet that his "black guy" was just someone wearing a black shirt. Now he's 6, and he has of course noticed differences other than shirt color. He'll notice when people have eyes like his, and when we were watching Star Wars he referred to Samuel L Jackson's character as the "brown Jedi." I still love his innocence, but now that he's in school, I know it's really time to give him the right language before he starts hearing racist stuff from the older kids. It wouldn't be fair to him not to be prepared for that. Going to check out this article now...

bytheriver said...

Our daughter has faced descrimination based on race from other children since the age of 2. It has made her not want to go to school. How can we not talk with her about racism, or at least what it is and what we think she might try. So far this has worked out to a point, but I am sure she will face more as she gets older. At this point she was able to take our suggestion and complain to an adult when it is happening. The adult talked to the kids 1st and 3rd grade and the taunting has stopped. But its only the 1st grade, so we'd better be ready for more.

Reena said...

We started talking about how people look differently and also look the same from the get go. There are books for even very young kids--I'll try to ge the titles correct, "We're different. We're the same," a Sesame STreet book; "Whoever you are;" and The Skin we Live In." The last book talks directly about racism and we started reading it with our 3 and 4-year old recently.

My 4-year old began commenting that everybody's skin in our family is different when she was 3-years old.

My stepkids are biracial, Hispanic and a lot of stuff comes up-- especially with all the wonderful immigration *talk.*