How/When to Start Talking to Kids About Race and Ethnicity (It’s Sooner Than You Think)

Thursday April 14, 2016

Last week, a group of us started chatting about exactly how to teach very young children about race.

Of course, most of us had already come across the wonderful and hopeful The Skin You Live In, with simple phrases to explain to children that some babies have “coffee and cream” skin, others “pumpkin pie slice” skin, and “butterscotch gold” skin. Isn’t the world wonderful! All of us in our different hues!

Which is the world I think we wished we lived in, where skin color was just another difference like hair color. Our world is much more complex. How do you even begin to talk about race, and racism, to a preschooler?

(I am coming at this as a white parent, as well as a first-generation American, who grew up within a tight-knit ethnic enclave.)

Most researchers will now say that saying nothing doesn’t really help, at all. Many parents who live in multicultural settings don’t think we have to talk about race. Why, she already has friends of different races and interacts with people of different races all day long!

I think, though, that instead, parents are worried about popping some hopeful perceived bubble of racial blindness in our kids. As though to bring it up would be to ruin her acceptance of everyone.

In fact, the opposite is true. Children have already picked up on race and skin color differences. (I mean, Bean quickly figured out that all the girls wear pink at preschool. There’s no way she hasn’t also noted that some kids look different from her.) In NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman site a study that asked white children in Austin a simple question, “Do your parents like black people?” 14% answered no. 38% answered “I don’t know.” I’m sure most white parents would be horrified to find out this was their kid’s answer.

The same researcher divided the families into two groups. One received multicultural videos to watch for the week (a particular episode of Sesame Street, for example); the other group received the same videos as well as a checklist of items to discuss with their children after watching the shows. Neither of those things affected the children’s racial attitudes. Yep. Even worse, the parents who were supposed to talk to their kids after the videos said that it didn’t really lead to a discussion and they resorted to saying things like, “we’re all the same” because the discussion made them so uncomfortable.

And, to be clear, this is mostly a white parent problem. A different study showed that nonwhite parents are three times as likely as white parents to have talked to their kindergarteners about race. (In the same study, 75% of white parents said they had never, or almost never, talked to their child about race.) So, most white parents are not even talking to their kids about race, and the ones who do may be so uncomfortable that they end up not saying anything at all.

But, in the face of this vacuum of parental guidance, kids start coming up with their own explanations of race and what it means. Kids tend to like other kids that are similar to themselves — they’ll form cliques based on common names (think: Heathers) or similar styles (how my preschooler suddenly insists she must wear pink on preschool days, including her socks.) And, without anyone telling them differently, this could also someday encompass race. Bronson and Merryman site another study that had 3 year old white children look at photos of kids and asked them who they wanted to be friends with. 86% of the children chose other kids of their own race.

So, preschoolers are already sorting people based on race, just like how they sort everything else in their little minds to make sense of the world around them. This need to sort and differentiate becomes even stronger in 5 year olds, and even stronger in 7 year olds. It really is on parents to talk about race, and talk about it early.

NurtureShock unfortunately doesn’t offer much guidance on how to actually talk about race, other than to be explicit. Platitudes like, “we’re all equal” and “we are all the same” may be too broad for a preschooler to understand. Studies tend to show that children react more favorably to multicultural programs that describe discrimination in detail, rather than just the all-positive hero biography approach.

In a Slate article, Melinda Wenner Moyer suggests that celebrating racial and ethnic differences (as opposed to downplaying them) may encourage racial and ethnic acceptance. Also, by pointing out how children of different races like the same things they like, parents may be able to help their kids re-sort people into different, new categories (likes to play soccer vs doesn’t like to play soccer) other than race.

As my friends and I accepted, we don’t really know how to go about doing this. I try to bring up race, but I also have that fear of popping the race-blind bubble (even though all those studies show it doesn’t really exist.) In our readings, I tend to gloss over the terrible, brutal racism suffered by heroic figures like Harriet Tubman,Cesar Chavez, and Florence Mills. “And then they were mean to her because her skin was brown” sad face. Which itself is a vague and random paraphrasing and doesn’t really do justice to the actual horrors suffered by Harriet or Cesar (let alone talk about contemporary examples of racism). Bean tends to also look sad with me and ask her preschooler WHY? questions, but I have no idea if any of it sinks in. I don’t exactly feel like I’m getting anywhere.

Perhaps the first step is to accept that it is parents’ jobs to talk to their kids about race; our multicultural world won’t do it for us. From there, keep doing it and the more specific you can get, the better, regardless of how uncomfortable it might make you feel.

If you still have questions (and don’t we all), Oakland Public Library will be hosting a session called “Talking with Kids about Race and Racism” on May 10th. You can RSVP at the link.

2 Responses to “How/When to Start Talking to Kids About Race and Ethnicity (It’s Sooner Than You Think)”

  1. Very interesting. I was just talking about when kids find out about race with a friend of a friend. He said that his friend wasn’t really aware that he was black until 2nd or 3rd grade when kids picked on him. I wasn’t completely aware that I was Asian or rather different until around that time either until the same thing happened to me. My parents definitely didn’t talk to me about it ever. Thinking back, it might have been nice to be prepared for something like that so I knew how to handle it. I can definitely remember that the feeling wasn’t good-finding out from some very mean kids that I was different and not in a good way at that time. But every minority kid in their 30’s and above probably has had the same story-that was just the way it was.


    4/14/2016 at 7:48 pm

  2. Thanks so much for sharing that about your childhood. In a different study in NurtureShock, it turns out that nonwhite parents bring up race with their kids because they feel compelled to in order to protect them, similar to what you’re suggesting parents should do. They wanted to prepare their children for the reality of discrimination, even if the child hadn’t been discriminated against yet (or, discriminated against in a way that they were aware of — some of the other studies suggest even preschoolers play in a way that excludes kids of different races. But, preschoolers aren’t too socially advanced. They 1) may not understand that they are being excluded or 2) understand that they’re being excluded because of their race. (Excluding others from play becomes an important aspect of 3 year old play — they feel compelled to show how strong their friendship bonds are with one child/group by (vocally and emphatically) excluding a different child/group.))


    4/14/2016 at 8:23 pm