Almost all Americans have heard the famous words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Reflecting on these words and America’s legacy of racism, some parents—especially white parents—try to raise their children to be colorblind. The best way to bring about MLK’s vision, they reason, is to avoid talking about race. That will make it more likely that their children will judge people by their character, not their skin color, as they grow up.
The problem with this approach is our children do notice skin color, and they’re picking up all sorts of messages about it, beginning earlier than we might think. In fact, studies show that children begin to notice physical differences that mark race by the time they are six months old.1 Three and four year-olds regularly notice and talk about race as they play with one another.”2
Children perceive racial differences at an early age
As early as age five, children recognize the different groups are treated differently. They sense that different racial groups occupy different spaces and have different social status.”3 They see that some places have only one racial group in them, while others have multiple groups.”4 Church has White people while the bus has Black, White, and Brown people. Mommy and daddy have mostly White friends. The janitor at our school is Black. They’re forming ideas about “who belongs where” in the world around them.
If we want to raise young people who will fight for racial equity in society, we don’t want these observations to harden into schematic models that guide our child’s expectations for how the world should be. The first step in that process is to minimize the degree to which our child draws distinctions among people for the purpose of telling themselves a story about their own superiority or the superiority of some people over others.
Discuss racial differences openly and positively
The best first step to doing that is to speak openly, naturally, and positively about the racial differences we observe, argues Jennifer Harvery, author of the book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America. Speaking to White parents, she writes: “If we believe racial differences are beautiful and we want our [white] children to learn to see people of color as beautiful,” she writes, “we have to constantly and early name aloud and describe as beautiful the different colors of skin.5
Young children are curious and don’t have verbal “filters” yet. They may make observations about skin color, hair, accents, dress, the way names sound, and the music they hear. If your child makes a comment, even a rude or uncomfortable one, don’t shy away from the topic. Hang right there with them and engage in conversation that seeds positive visions and connections for your child.
For example, White parents might respond to their children’s racial curiosity with observations like these:
- “Yes that woman has long braids in her hair. Isn’t it gorgeous?”
- “Yes, that man is learning to speak English. Isn’t that brave of him? It’s hard to learn a new language!”
- “Yes, DeSean’s name is different from the other kids you know. I love the sound of it: DeSean.”
The same basic strategies are available to all families, regardless of racial or ethnic background. Show your child that you embrace people across a wide range of differences.
“Let the language of observing physical differences roll off our tongues”
Of course, these kinds of conversations are more likely to happen if you live in a racially integrated neighborhood and/or your child attends a racially integrated school—not the typical American experience. Regardless, you can likely find places where your child will encounter people of different races, and you can provide your child with books and toys that feature a wide range of races.6
We’re accomplishing two things when, as Harvey recommends, “we let the language of observing physical differences roll off our tongues and become part of the fabric of our everyday conversations.”7
First, we’re preemptively countering confusing or negative racial messaging our children are likely to hear as they grow up. They’ll be better able to deal with racial innuendo or bigotry if race is less mysterious and discussion is out in the open.
Second, we’re signaling to our child that observing and discussing racial differences is not taboo, which is important if you’re going to keep the channels of communication open with them as they grow older and they are processing race-related observations and emotions. If kids perceive their parents are reluctant to talk about race, they may internalize that race is a shameful thing, and they’ll be more vulnerable to malign influence.
As you work to bring closer the day that all people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, remember that colorblindness is not the answer. The more promising path is to discuss racial differences openly and positively, allowing our children to see that race is not a shameful or taboo topic and that we appreciate and respect all kinds of people.
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- Jennifer Harvey, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, p. 28.
- Harvey, p. 31.
- Harvey, p. 30.
- Harvey, p. 34.
- Harvey, p. 70.
- See, for example, this list at A Mighty Girl for some good ideas.
- Harvey, p. 71.