It’s time to make race talk more common and less awkward
by guest blogger Brigitte Vittrup, Ph.D.
Back in October I participated in one of the Raising Race Conscious Children webinars, and it was great to see the interest and willingness of parents (and a few teachers) to explore the issue of talking to children about race.
What I did notice was a general discomfort and awkwardness around the actual discussions of race. When asked to state feelings and concerns, the comments were not unlike the comments I have seen in my research on racial socialization within White families.
For many parents—and for White parents especially—talking about race is not common and therefore feels unnatural. Some are afraid they will say the wrong thing and possibly offend others. Some are worried that talking about race will make their children notice something they haven’t noticed before and possibly creating or perpetuating stereotypes and bias. Some wonder if children can even understand the concept of race and prefer to wait until their child asks questions about it. And many intentionally avoid the topic because they want their children to grow up and be “colorblind,” and therefore they choose to be “color-mute.”
All of these are valid concerns. However, they should be balanced with the concern that silence about race can actually be a breeding ground for prejudice.
Children are surrounded by a society that is anything but colorblind. Racial minority groups are often portrayed in stereotyped manners and take on less important roles on TV and in video games, our neighborhoods and schools are often segregated by race, and poverty, wealth, and job disparities are often visibly categorized by race as well.
So as much as we might want our children—and our entire society—to be colorblind, the reality is that they are not. Children notice differences in skin color from a very young age, and as their thinking skills develop, they begin to notice how our society is organized based on race.
Last year when my son was in first grade I accompanied his class on a field trip. At one point one of his classmates asked me,
“But if you’re white and Alonzo is brown, how can you be his mom?”
Another child standing nearby had a puzzled look and exclaimed, “Wait… You’re Alonzo’s mom?”
They clearly had a perception that families tend to be the same skin color, and they had noticed our color differences. I simply told them:
“My husband is Black and I’m White, so our son is a color in between.”
One of the kids looked like she had a light bulb moment and said “Ohhhh… That totally makes sense!” It was such a simple explanation, yet something many children are unaware of because of the general silence around the topic of race and the invisibility of interracial families in the media.
When we are silent about race, we put the burden on our children to figure out what it all means, and we relinquish the educational responsibility to the media or their friends, both of which often omit or distort information. This in turn allows for biases to grow.
In October’s webinar one of the activities involved speaking to an infant about race. I sensed an awkwardness among some of the participants who wondered about speaking to a baby in these explicit terms. Why speak about this to someone who can’t understand you? The reason why starting this young can be beneficial is that parents get the practice and over time become more comfortable with the topic. Then when children reach an age where their language skills are more developed, the conversations become more impactful, and meaningful dialogue can start to occur.
The easiest way to initiate these discussions is to use books. My favorites are “Shades of People” by Shelley Rotner and Sheila Kelly and “All the colors we are: The story of how we get our skin color” by Katie Kissinger. Both of my children—ages 3 and 7—love these books and often use the pictures to compare skin colors, point out which kids in the books look like their friends, and who see. The latter talks about pigment and skin color, and it mentions that some people’s skin is very “busy” producing melanin, whereas other people’s skin is less busy. My son always loved talking about his dad’s skin was very busy, his own was a little busy, and mine was lazy.
My 3-year-old also has Kaplan’s Basket of Babies, which is a great toy to use when talking to younger kids about race. The basket contains six plush babies with different skin colors, and my daughter likes to pick them out and identify which ones are the same color as her friends, herself, and the people in our family.
Waiting until children ask questions about race on their own means missing out on important opportunities to teach children about fairness and equality and promoting tolerance. Some children may never ask—not because they aren’t noticing or thinking about it, but because it’s not a topic that’s commonly discussed. Or perhaps they don’t ask because they think that the stereotypes are true, and that the way society is organized and people are treated is just the way it is supposed to be.
When it comes to race, silence is not golden. We owe it to our children to end this silence.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously stated, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Dr. Brigitte Vittrup is an Associate Professor of Child Development at Texas Woman’s University where she teaches classes in child development, research methods, and statistics. She holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin, and her research focuses on parent socialization practices and media influences on children.