White parents often avoid talking openly about race with white children because of the unfounded fear that it will call attention to differences that kids wouldn’t otherwise notice. Some insist their kids are just too young for such conversations.
Yet research indicates that even infants can recognize differences in skin color. By preschool age, children develop racial biases — which aren’t always consistent with the beliefs of the adults in their lives.
As a parent, talking about race doesn’t reinforce prejudice in your children, but staying silent about it does.
“Starting at a very young age, children see patterns,” Erin Winkler — associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — wrote in a story for BuzzFeed. “Who seems to live where; what kinds of homes they see as they ride or walk through different neighborhoods; who is the most desirable character in the movies they watch; who seems to have particular jobs or roles at the doctor’s office, at school, at the grocery store; and so on — and try to assign ‘rules’ to explain what they see.”
If parents don’t explain why these inequities exist — that they exist because of longstanding systemic racism in this country — children will assume they must be justified or “natural.”
If your kid makes a racially insensitive comment, your instinct might be to swiftly reprimand them and then change the subject. But this sweep-it-under-the-rug approach is doing a disservice to your child.
“[Parents] stop at ‘Ssh,’ silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it,” psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote in her 1997 book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria.” “Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.”
Of course, just addressing your kid’s offensive comments when they happen isn’t enough. Parents should also be having ongoing, honest (but developmentally appropriate) conversations about race and inequality with their children, as well as spending time with friends and relatives of different racial or ethnic backgrounds, reading kids books and watching movies and TV shows created by people of color that have non-white protagonists, and showing their kids how to get involved in social justice movements and other important causes, just to name a few.
We asked experts to share some of the problematic things white kids commonly say and how parents can respond in order to further the conversation and create a teachable moment.
1. “Why is her hair weird and poofy like that?”
When a white child says this about a Black child, it shows that they see aesthetic features that differ from their own as “other” or negative, perpetuating white-washed, Eurocentric beauty ideals, like straight hair.
“Parents can respond by emphasizing the beauty in differences,” said marriage and family therapist LeNaya Smith Crawford, owner of Kaleidoscope Family Therapy in Atlanta. “They can point out the differences among their immediate family and how these differences do not change the love, characteristics and treatment among their family.”
2. “That boy’s skin is dirty.”
Many very young white kids mistake darker skin tones for being “dirty” because Black or brown skin is so unfamiliar to them. They assume the difference in color must be attributed to touching or eating something brown.
As Tatum wrote in her book, a parent might respond by saying something like, “[His] skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors.”
“Being accepting of others begins with exposing them to a world outside of their bubble.”
– LeNaya Smith Crawford, marriage and family therapist
White parents can interpret such remarks as a sign that they need to do a better job of exposing their kids to people of different races and cultures, said Smith Crawford. Parents should also have genuine cross-racial friendships and encourage their kids to expand their social circles to include children from different backgrounds, too.
“Oftentimes the reason white children are so quick to point out differences is because their world usually looks like them,” Smith Crawford said. “They are reflected in the media, movies, shows, in school and in their neighborhood. Being accepting of others begins with exposing them to a world outside of their bubble.”
3. “We didn’t play with them at the park because they’re Black or brown.”
In their 2001 book “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism,” researchers Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin wrote about a study they conducted with 3- to 5-year-old children at a racially diverse day care center. They found that kids in this age group used race to include or exclude peers in play and to negotiate power within their social networks.
If your kid mentions they excluded another child for this reason, start by saying you’re glad they told you what happened, said educator Jennifer Harvey, author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.” Then explain why that behavior is racist.
You can say: “I feel worried that ’X’ was really hurt by that. Also, I want to talk about what it’s called when someone says something mean about someone or treats them in a mean way because of their skin color or their race,“ Harvey suggested. “That’s called racism. We haven’t really talked about this before, but I am going to teach you what it is because in this family we believe in standing up against racism.”
4. “This [Black] doll isn’t as pretty as that [white] doll.”
White children may display preferences for dolls with lighter skin and other toys that look like them. Even if you celebrate diversity at home, your kids are soaking up messages everywhere that lead them to view darker skin tones as less desirable, while associating lighter skin with more positive attributes like beauty.
“It’s important parents of white kids be very proactive about positive messaging about and responses to brown skin, African-American dolls, Latinx characters on television — very proactive,” Harvey said. “White kids pick up anti-Black and anti-brown biases from the culture around them very, very early. So being proactive to attempt to work against that early, but also listening for such beliefs or perceptions in our children is important.”
Instead of hushing your child for saying something unkind, probe them to see where the comment came from by asking, “Why do you think that doll isn’t as pretty as this one?”
You can also say: “Look, this doll has beautiful brown skin,” Harvey suggested. “Did you know that most of the people in the world have much darker skin than we do?”
5. “I don’t see color.”
Older kids may say they’re “colorblind” to racial differences, perhaps parroting something they heard from a parent, teacher or peer. And while people who claim they don’t see color often have good intentions (“See, I’m not prejudiced!”), such statements are harmful nevertheless. Refusing to acknowledge a person’s race is also a dismissal of their lived experiences and the mistreatment they’ve faced because of their skin color. Not to mention, it’s a blatant display of white privilege: Only white people have the luxury to move through life without taking race into account.
“If people can physically see a person in front of them, they make quick snap judgments about that person, without even realizing it,” said Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College. “We do it all the time when it comes to gender, age, and other qualities. Why would race be any different?”
“White kids pick up anti-Black and anti-brown biases from the culture around them very, very early.”
– Jennifer Harvey, author and educator
Instead of reinforcing the idea that racial differences don’t exist, help your child acknowledge them. Teach them to embrace the positive differences — like variations in skin tone or hair type, for example — while also pointing out the similarities that exist across different races (“You and your Black friend both love going to the library”) and dissimilarities that exist within people of the same race (“You and your white friend have different taste in movies”). At the same time, it’s important to bring attention to the unfair differences in the way non-white people are treated.
“Teach them about the racial inequities in the world and that it is all of our responsibilities to be relentless in recognizing and fighting against injustice,” Nadal said.
6. “Black or brown kids only like to hang out with each other.”
By middle school, self-segregation by race becomes more pronounced, Harvey said. If your child makes a comment like this, ask them why they think the Black kids or other students of the same race tend to hang out together. Ask them if they notice the white kids doing the same thing.
Your child may also remark on how there are more white kids in the “good” or “hard” classes and fewer Black or Hispanic students. Explain that it’s not because of one group’s innate intelligence. Rather, these racial disparities exist within education (and society at large) because of the systems, structures and biases that oppress people of color, while benefiting white folks.
Then get your child to see how they may be personally contributing to racial divides in their school and discuss how they can make an impact.
Ask them: “What kind of person do you want to be in [this] space?” Harvey said. “How can a white high schooler be an agent of connection and change in a school building? What might that look like? Are there other students and/or teachers who you think would also want to be part of increasing interracial connection at school? What might a conversation with those folks look like if/as you care about changing what school feels like?”
Emphasize that by building meaningful interracial friendships, these barriers will start to break down, Harvey added.