Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

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Several years ago, as a newly-hired education consultant working for the Department of Human Services, a preschool teacher approached me with a question.

“How do I talk to kids about race and tolerance?”

Being completely unschooled in this topic, I answered this:

“With preschoolers, I wouldn’t worry too much about direct teaching. I would focus more on making it a non-issue. Little kids are so open and accepting naturally. We don’t have to teach them to be non-prejudiced, we just need to provide an environment that keeps them that way.”

My approach here was the “colorblind” approach. The theory goes like this: if we don’t draw attention to race, children won’t either. They’ll grow up accepting difference rather than being afraid of it.

Anyone out there who knows anything about race and prejudice is cringing right now. I know. I cringe just remembering it. Worst. Advice. Ever. Unfortunately, it’s common. A Washington Post article highlights the prevalence of this:

“In a recent study of more than 100 parents, 70 percent fell into this “colorblind” or “colormute” category, and one of the main reasons for choosing this approach was that they did not want their children to pay attention to race and develop biases. More than half of the parents also indicated that they did not perceive a need to discuss race because it had never been an issue.”

Let’s deconstruct a bit.

First, the underlying assumption isn’t bad. Kids are naturally open and accepting. They are actually drawn to differences because their curious little minds are seeking out every bit of information they can find. They are scientists, collecting data about the world.

You know what this looks like. It’s the white 4 year old standing in the grocery store loudly asking, “Mom! Why did that person paint himself?” (A true quote.) Or the black little girl petting a white little girls hair, muttering, “It feels so flat.” (Another true story.)

These are mortifying for parents as we rush to explain that people come in all kinds of skin tones, or that hair comes in all kinds of textures. But overall, they are valuable teaching moments. We make a quick comment about “all people are different and that’s ok.” And we are grateful for our sweet little innocent children who aren’t bothered by these differences at all.

This was the image in my mind as I gave my advice: give children room to be curious, don’t be prejudiced yourself, and kids won’t have to be taught about equality later. Instead, they’ll be reaffirmed in what they already know.

The fallacy is the assumption that this was the only message children would receive. Who knows, maybe this would work in culture that was both diverse and equal. But that’s not our culture–yet.

The truth is, we’re receiving countless, subtle messages each and every day. We see a disproportionate number of minorities working in lower paying jobs. We see more news stories involving people of color in crime. We see more whites in positions of leadership. And our rational, scientific, colorblind-trained brains make the logical leap: this is right. Only the leap is more of a short hop. It’s so subtle, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Somewhere along the way, though, we begin to internalize a message that minorities are somehow “less than” whites.

It doesn’t stop there. We’re fooling ourselves if we think our children aren’t hearing overtly racist viewpoints. They are. As much as I want the age of racism to be over, it’s not. There are still people out there holding genuinely racist views. If I’ve heard it, you know my daughter’s heard it–or will soon. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from cooky uncle Max, or that old church member we’ve never trusted anyway. Kids will hear these messages. And if we don’t offer an alternative view, the message of discrimination will be the only message they get.

Our silence on the topic of race won’t promote unity.
Instead, it will be taken as assent to the message that’s already being received, sometimes subtly and sometimes loudly: racial differences should be feared and inequality is justified.

It all boils down to this: we have to talk to our kids about race, prejudice and discrimination.

Last February, my daughter came home from school so excited about a lesson they’d had on Rosa Parks. Her eyes lit up as she told me the story.

“Can you believe that Black people used to be treated that way? That’s not fair, Mama. I’m so glad that doesn’t happen any more.”

And her trusting, excited little 8 year old eyes made it even harder to say what I had to say next.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? And the Montgomery Bus Boycott was so brave, and so important. You’ll get to learn about more things people did to change our laws. (deep breath) But you know what, we still don’t treat people fairly all the time. (I swear to you, her little face fell and I felt like I’d just betrayed Santa Claus.) A lot of times, people with different skin colors are still discriminated against. It’s really, really hard. And really important that we keep working to stop it.”

This was hard, this brief little comment. Harder than it should have been. It was hard for me to overcome my natural tendency toward the “colorblind approach.” It was hard for me to dash her little hopes. It was actually even hard for me to talk about race in modern America, which just proves how ingrained all of this is.

We’re fooling ourselves, though, if we think we can avoid these issues for our children. The truth is, they will have to confront them sooner or later. Either now, under our guidance, or as part of some hard inner work when they’re adults.

I remind myself of this when I’m tempted to avoid these hard conversations. They have to be had sometime–either with me or with someone else. And it’s too important to leave to someone else.

2 thoughts on “Talking About Race with Children (The Worst Advice I Ever Gave)

  1. So thoughtful and true. Such an excellent post, Amelia. We can be truthful with our children as is appropriate for their ages and personalities. And, YES, better for us to have those hard conversations (in love). What I found in raising my children is that the very act of honest conversation became part of our core family dynamic. We may not realize as young parents how much such a dynamic builds trust with our children, who will continue to come to us with their questions and concerns as they grow. Even when we haven’t agreed, we know we can all talk openly with each other. I see how the conversation topics as well as the practice of open communication has formed their worldview as young adults.

    1. Wow, I love that point about how these hard conversations build trust and create a whole family dynamic of honesty! It makes me feel hopeful and inspired rather than intimidated by the many topics we still have to navigate as a family.

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