It’s a comforting thought. That young children are oblivious to other people’s skin colour. But the truth is children as young as three are capable of recognising racial differences and even discriminating against others who are different from them. As a Caucasian parent I’ve tended to think that if I don’t mention race to my son, he won’t notice. But he does.
Research has found that while parents from Caucasian backgrounds speak to their children about gender and sex differences, they aren’t inclined to speak to their kids about race . In fact, a 2007 study of 17,000 parents found that non-Caucasian parents were about three times more likely to discuss race than Caucasian parents. Three quarters of the latter never, or almost never, talked about race.
And it’s not just young children. A 2014 study funded by MTV designed to understand and measure how millennials experience and respond to bias found 84% of respondents said their family taught them everyone should be treated the same, no matter what their race. But purposefully being “colourblind” means that we tend not to acknowledge race at all, and half of the respondents thought it was wrong to draw attention to someone’s race even if you were being positive and respectful. Even though the majority of these young people believed open conversation about race and biases would reduce prejudice, they were uncomfortable with the topic and didn’t know how to start the conversation. So they didn’t.
This is the first generation of young people to call themselves “post-racial”, but this is dangerous territory. It risks simplifying a complex issue into binary terms: if we don’t talk about race, racism doesn’t exist.
So why talk about race? Surely we don’t want our children preoccupied with it? I have a young son and until recently believed that talking about race would make it into a big deal. I thought that discussing another person's skin colour would overt it when it doesn't need to be, because surely all children are colourblind? But it has occurred to me that maybe race isn’t a big deal because I’m in the majority in Australia. As uncomfortable as it is to admit, I’m an educated, middle class, white woman who sees people like me as the norm. I don’t think about my race or culture because I don’t even feel as if I have one. And that’s the trap.
A study from 2012 found that nearly all of the European American mothers who took part in research about racial socialisation adopted “colourmute” and “colourblind” approaches when discussing a book that was either directly or indirectly about race with their 4 – 5 year old children. Most mothers, the study found, did not discuss race at all. At home, the parents told the researcher, they addressed race by making vague comments like, “everyone’s equal”. In a conversation after the research had been conducted, the researcher said, “A lot of parents came up to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”
Quite often we may not know quite what to say, so we say nothing. But if we don’t talk to our children about skin colour and all that goes with it, even if we live in a diverse and multicultural community, children come to their own, often erroneous, conclusions about race. If we shush kids for commenting on another’s skin colour, or leave questions unanswered we become complicit in the great pretence that race is something that other people have, and shouldn’t be discussed. The risk is that children learn race isn’t something that can be easily talked about and so they form views of the world that go unchecked.
A US study published in 2008 demonstrated this perfectly. The study was conducted in 2006, before Barack Obama was a candidate for president, and showed what happens when children’s thinking about race goes amiss. A group of 5 – 10 year olds were asked why they thought all 43 American presidents were White. The children were offered a range of answers and a quarter of the children surmised that Black people could not be president because it was presently (in 2006) illegal. This shows that children are actively constructing their reality, and if they don’t have reasons for things, they’ll come up with their own.
The best way to help children is to be frank in talking to them about race. In the same way that we tell our children that men can be nurses, and women can drive trucks, we need to tell them that men and women of any colour can be nurses and truck drivers. It might initially seem counterintuitive to have explicit conversations about such a sensitive issue, but in the end it is counterproductive not to talk to our children about race.
Lindy Alexander is a freelance writer and PhD candidate in social work at the University of Melbourne.