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Color & Race: It Matters To Kids What You Are AND AREN’T Saying

Research shows that as parents, we should be talking about race with our kids. Unless you’re a racist… in which case I urge you to just stop talking. The world doesn’t need any more of your poison. 

I’m a white woman in the middle class, and while I’ve wanted to write a race article many-a-time, it makes me nervous. I mean, who am I to talk about racial prejudice? I feel arrogant and ill-suited to speak to an injustice that I do not know personally. And what does all that boil down to? Me and my own insecurities. What a poor excuse for not standing up for what’s right.

My stomach turns and my blood boils when I read headlines. What we see and hear on the news or social media are the loudest megaphones in broadcasting our national problem with racism and injustice, but I hear personal stories from my Black or Hispanic friends and it’s shocking. Everyone– this violence, fear, and hate is out of control. We all have a part to play in putting the shattered pieces back together.

So here I am with my nerves and insecurities, writing about this important topic because of two key truths I believe: 1) If and when you encounter or observe injustice, you should say and do something about it, and 2) If you possess a bit of information that you value as good, right, and pertinent, you should share it.

race and diversity

Friends just being friends.

That said, racial tensions abound and I have a bit of information that I believe is helpful to parents in knowing how to communicate with their children about race.

A few years back, I read a fascinating book called NurtureShock. I highly recommend the book to anyone who is even remotely interested in child psychology as it relates to parenting strategies. In it, there was a chapter devoted to addressing race; it totally changed the way I parent when it comes to acknowledging our differences. 

Colorblind Households. Do you live in one? We used to. When our first daughter was born we assumed that, logically, if we didn’t point out race or skin color or differences, then our kids would grow up “colorblind.” That is, they would love and appreciate all types of people from all sorts of backgrounds, regardless of ethnicity. It seemed like the best way to impart upon our children a sense of inclusiveness in that we weren’t singling anyone out for the way they looked. According to the race chapter in NutureShock, apparently many white families take this approach; many believe it’s the right way to promote an “everyone is equal” environment that values all races.

Again, I read the book a few years ago, so specific details have grown a bit foggy, but the main lessons of this chapter remain etched on my heart. The researchers/authors of this book (Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman) did a study with some Caucasian families who were raising their kids in colorblind households. They simply asked the kids if their parents liked Black people. Keep in mind, these were the parents a lot like me who thought the best course of action was to just not talk about race at all. The thinking is, if I don’t talk about skin color at all, how could I possibly introduce a prejudicial bias to my child? Now get this. Guess how the children perceived their parents’ silence on the matter? The majority of the kids assumed that their White parents didn’t like Black people. When “colorblind” parents avoided the race topic altogether, their kids interpreted the silence to mean that their parents had negative feelings about other races. Whoa! That very night around the dinner table, our family talked very specifically about race and differences and love and value of life. And we have been talking about it ever since.

A couple other key take-aways from this chapter: Bronson and Merryman assert that children naturally categorize things – shapes, sizes, colors, even people. To think that children won’t notice differences without our pointing them out is erroneous. Instead of trying to discourage your child from noticing skin color, proactively celebrate the uniqueness of each individual.

Furthermore, we can’t just say “Everyone is equal.” That doesn’t make enough of an impression. We have to be very specific. “Dr. Jones has dark, brown skin, doesn’t she? Anyone – no matter their color or gender – can be a doctor.” “Officer Arturo works very hard to keep us safe. He’s awake during the night making sure the neighborhood sleeps peacefully. Anyone – whether they have dark skin, brown skin, light skin, or anything in between – can be a police officer or firefighter to help others.” “You know how Mrs. Rao speaks with an accent and has dark skin? It’s important for you to know that even when people look or sound different from us, they still have love and kindness in their hearts just like you do.”

Lastly, very interesting, it helps children build empathy when we tell them about historical injustices (slavery, civil rights movement, etc) and what we’ve learned from those moments, but keeping them up to date on current events can exacerbate an “us versus them” mentality. If you decide to bring up our nation’s “fresh wounds” regarding race with your children, be sure to choose your words carefully and gracefully. 

There are loud and proud racists out there who love to spout off prison/incarceration statistics, crime rates in certain neighborhoods, or anecdotal experiences. I pray that your hearts would be softened enough to choose to love even when it’s counter-intuitive and that your eyes would be opened to a bigger picture – a story that began long before you decided you hated anyone.

In this article, I’m talking primarily to the many well-meaning parents who want their kids to love and accept all people – be colorblind – and whose game plan is to purposely not talk about race. Bronson and Merryman’s research would suggest that this is not the best strategy and that “colorblind” isn’t even a real thing – we know we have differences, we see we have differences. Children know and see whether or not we tell them. Refusing to acknowledge these differences is not only potentially damaging to our children’s perception about race, it’s a crying shame because we’re overlooking some of the most beautiful, unique parts of the world found in our fellow humans.

If this strikes a cord with you, consider opening up an ongoing conversation with your kids about race, particularly if you’ve been intentionally silent on the topic before. You have a responsibility to do good and to help teach your children to do the same: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  ~ Edmund Burke


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2 Responses to Color & Race: It Matters To Kids What You Are AND AREN’T Saying

  1. Lanita July 10, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

    I think a great way to show true color-blindness is by having friends of all races and ethnicities. When we and our children have friends of various colors and backgrounds, we SHOW that color doesn’t matter as well as talking about it. Our children are adults now, but I think that was what helped them most not to be racist.

    • Laura Moss
      Laura Moss July 11, 2016 at 8:03 am #

      Such a great point, Lanita! As the old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words”. Thanks for your thoughts.

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