“No one ever talks about the moment you found out that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That’s a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything. And that’s a profound psychological moment.”
-Toni Morrison, The Salon Interview by Zia Jaffrey 1998
How Children Relate to Race
Three Common Beliefs:
- Children are much more open than adults to people of different colors.
- Children are colorblind.
- Children are too young to be interested or to understand race related issues.
These beliefs have been proven incorrect by social scientists since the 1940s. Worse, these beliefs keep us from honestly addressing racism with children.
A First: The first study addressing this issue is the famous “Doll Test” (Clark & Clark 1947). Drs. Clark demonstrated that children as young as three show a preference for white dolls, associating them with positive characteristics. It is important to note that the children were African American. Drs. Clark saw proof of integrated low self-esteem among young African American children.
Findings: Children integrate the explicit and implicit racist ideas and imagery that surround them.
Another important study: (Monteiro et al 2009) involved 283 White children aged six to seven and nine to ten years old. The children were asked to allocate money to White and Black children sometimes with a White adult in the room and sometimes with no adult in the room, to see if having an adult present influenced their behavior. The presence of an adult is viewed as an expression of an anti-racist social norm. The researchers found that the younger group of children aged 6- to 7-year-old discriminated against Black children in both conditions, while the older group discriminated only when no adult was present.
Findings: The conclusion is that older children learned to hide racism from adults.
The Important Takeaways:
- Children integrate the explicit and implicit racist ideas and imagery that surrounds them.
- Children as young as two or three can use racial categories to understand the world.
- Older children learn to hide racism from adults.
Here is the foundation we are working from:
- Children and even toddlers see colors like all of us.
- Children live like us in a society plagued by systemic racism.
- Children understand the difference between ‘what we say we should do’ and ‘what we really do’.
- When we silence children on race related issues, we teach them to become “ColorSilent”.
- When we tell our children that they shouldn’t be prejudiced without further discussion, modeling or learning, what we are really telling them is that they should deny and hide their prejudice like we are denying and hiding our prejudices.
- We all have conscious or unconscious prejudices.
So, how can we support children?
Practice the Five Habits with the Children in your life!
We were not taught skills for addressing these issues. We need to break the cycle of racism by creating a new culture of awareness that builds inclusion, equity, courage and honesty for all people. The Five Habits offer a framework towards that shift.
Here is how it can work:
- Habit 1: ADDRESS race as often as possible. Make it systematically visible when you read a book or watch something together. You can talk about differences and similarities in skin, eyes and hair color. If you NOTICE confusion in the child’s perception of their racial identity, gently encourage them to observe.
- Habit 2: ASK questions instead of lecturing. You can also USE THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES at school or with their friends and support them to solve issues of inequity or inclusion (not necessarily race based).
- Habit 3: SELF-REFLECT on what the potential gap may be between what you are preaching and what you are modeling.
- Habit 4: Avoid books that are racially problematic or that passively victimize BIPOC. When you are faced with a problematic message or picture USE IT as an opportunity to ask your child some questions and discuss how what they are seeing is problematic. INCLUDE other people’s perspective and stories of resilience and resistance.
- Habit 5: MODEL working on your own prejudices. Model not being perfect, so they won’t hide their thoughts from you. USE HUMOR when you can. Tell them about your work practicing the Five Habits, reading books, taking online courses or implicit bias tests.
This is a dance where perfection does not exist, so do it your own way. At first it will feel bizarre, but as you practice talking about it regularly, you will find your unique way to bring up this important issue.
The goal is for children to feel safe enough to work through their prejudices with us without feeling guilt or shame.
Is my skin brown because I drank chocolate milk?. Dr. Tatum, TEDx Talks (2017).
Why and How to Talk to Young Kids about Race. Dr. Russel, EmbraceRace (2021).
Clark, K.B. & Clark M.P. (1947). Racial Identification and preference in negro children. E. L. Hartley (Ed.) Readings in Social Psychology. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Derman-Sparks, L. (2012). Stages in Children’s development of Racial/ Cultural Identity and Attitudes.
Monteiro MB., de França DX., Rodrigues R. (2009). The development of intergroup bias in childhood: how social norms can shape children’s racial behaviours. Int J Psychol.
Quintana, SM., & McKnown, C. (Eds). (2008). Handbook of Race, Racism and the Developing Child. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.