This is a topic I would never dare touch on my own. I simply do not know enough. But Cecily does. She's graciously written an amazing guest post about teaching kids about racism for me. Thanks, Cec.
First of all, I have to start out by saying that if you are a person of color, you will face teaching your children about racism because you can’t avoid it. Racism will come up to meet them, and in preparing your children for the force that will influence their whole lives, there is nothing I can teach you. Even if I felt I had the expertise to do so, I don’t have the experience to even attempt it.
That said, if you are white, it’s possible to never mention racism once to your children before they encounter it in school. White people are considered the “norm” in the United States and throughout Europe. This comes with privilege, including the privilege of not having to think about race and racism. White parents, however, have a responsibility to address race and racism with their children.
Unfortunately, it’s not happening.
A study at University of Texas in Austin, found that the majority of white parents feel uncomfortable talking to their children about racism. Even when given specific instructions to discuss racism with their children as part of the study, the parents told the researchers that they didn’t know what to say.
However, without guidance, children’s attitudes about race can get quite ugly or confused. Children, ages 5-7, raised in families where no one talked specifically about racism had racist attitudes about how nice black people are versus white people, for instance. So talking about it is vitally important. Obviously, I can’t give you a specific script to use with your children, but I can give you some pointers, based on current psychological and sociological research.
Children as young as six months can tell the differences between skin colors and start to show preferences for faces that look more like their parents and caregivers. Some researchers believe that this was originally a survival strategy for young children in times when people lived in small tribes or villages. Over time, small bands of people tend to look like each other because of genetics, and giving infants a preference for people who look like their parents could increase their safety in such situations. Whatever the reasoning, however, the fact is that very young children notice the differences between people of different races. Obviously, we can’t have long conversations with 6-month-olds about race.
What we can do is expose our children to toys and books with different races represented and point out those differences for our kids. They notice them anyway. Ignoring the differences doesn’t make our children more likely to ignore the evidence of their eyes; it will teach them that talking about how one character is darker than another or has different hair is forbidden or scary. Children are extremely sensitive to our moods and reactions. If you get scared when confronted with a question about race, children will pick up on it and decide that such questions are taboo. Treating such questions as normal extensions of noticing differences will mean that you are a step up when talking about racism with your children.
Work on Your Own Attitudes and Racism
One consequence of the sensitivity mentioned above is that children pick up on how their parents and caregivers interact with others. An Italian study in 2008 showed that children pick up on racial uneasiness between adults. The researchers showed preschool children as young as 3 videos with white people and black people being open and friendly with each other or being uneasy with each other. The children picked up on these cues very quickly, and were likely to take learned uneasiness from those video interactions and apply it to interactions with other people of the same race.
What this means for parents is that it’s important to confront their own preconceived attitudes and fears when it comes to people of other races. A lot of these attitudes and fears are not conscious; therefore it means making a real effort to notice how you interact with people of other races, and changing things accordingly. It also means talking to your children honestly about those interactions afterward, especially if you noticed yourself doing something problematic in front of your child.
An example might be:
“Did you see how Mommy walked into the office and talked to the white lady, but didn’t talk to the black lady? That was racist, and Mommy needs to do better next time.” Don’t be afraid to label racism for what it is, and don’t be afraid to be imperfect. That’s how we all learn, adult and child alike.
If you’re like me, you were raised with the ideal that all people are the same and race or skin color doesn’t matter. “We’re all the same inside;” “it only matters what you do, not what you look like;” and “everyone should be friends” are great ideals, but the truth is that they are too vague to really teach children anything about race or race relations. Not only that, but they ignore the reality that racism exists and it affects different people differently.
If you live in a city or urban area, the likelihood is that your children see people of different races every day. Even in the most rural and segregated parts of the country, however, children are going to see people of different races on TV, in movies, and in their daily lives. The majority of TV shows and movies are going to carry the message that if we all try hard and do our best, we’ll get along fine in the world and with each other. This is an underlying message of colorblindness, that deep down we are all the same, and therefore if we all put some effort into things, we all have the same chance to succeed. Sadly, this is not true.
It’s okay to tell your children that they have an advantage in life because they are white, as long as you also tell them that the advantage is unfair. The best way to point this unfairness out in a way that makes sense for children, especially younger children, is to have a conversation with them about the entertainment they enjoy, especially the movies.
With few exceptions, people of color are generally sidekicks or secondary characters in movies, especially in movies aimed at children. This is because books and tv shows can get away with having a smaller audience, but movies have to appeal to the masses if they are going to succeed. The general attitude is that white children will not identify with heroes who are of other races. Talk about this with your children. Point out that the only black character in “The Incredibles” shows up very infrequently and gets almost none of the story. Ask your children why there are no people of color in most animated movies they see. Listen to what they say. You might be surprised about what kind of answers you get.
Teach Your Children to Listen
The world isn’t very fair, but we want our children to be. In order to make them as fair as we can, they need to know what they’re up against. They need to be told that life will be easier for them because they are white, and they need to be encouraged not to just feel bad about it, but to use that knowledge to fight that unfairness when they see it, and to listen when they don’t see it, but someone else does. Teach them to be humble around people of other races, to listen first, and talk second. And teach them that they need to take what they learn from listening and tell it to other white people.
Your children are going to learn something about race and racism from this world. There are lots of messages about it out there, from the idea that racism doesn’t exist anymore because Obama is the president to the question about why we don’t have White History Month. It’s easy, in such an environment, for anyone to get confused. Don’t just leave something so important to chance. Your children deserve the truth, and you might learn something too.
Cecily Luft is a parent educator with a decade of experience and has studied human development at Cornell University. She lives and works in Tyler, Texas.