We need to talk to children about race

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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.

9 comments

  • I don't think we should specifically talk about racial differences to our children, we should simply bring them up to believe that every human being has equal rights.

    Talking about peoples differences encourages racial division rather than eradicating it.

    Commenter
    Freddie Frog
    Date and time
    May 29, 2014, 8:08AM
    • That's a really naive way of looking at it. I'm a white women raising mixed race kids and of course we talk about it.

      Children aren't idiots. Mine know their parents are different colours and that they in turn are different colours from their parents. They know why these things are so. We normalise the difference and these things are reflected in the community around us.

      We have to talk about race to our children, because children talk race. One of my children, at four, was told that she couldn't place with another group of random kids at the park because "we don't play with *insert incorrect ethnicity here*.

      If you're a middle class white person in Australia, you're brought up to thing talking about race is in as poor taste as talking about religion or politics at a dinner party. I can assure you that non-white people discuss race. They have to because it takes a position of vast and unconscious privilege to think that race is something that doesn't need talking about.

      Commenter
      No, actually
      Date and time
      May 29, 2014, 11:02AM
    • Disagree,
      the only reason people "have" to talk about race is because people use it as a defining characteristic of groups of people.
      If less people constantly wanted to talk about race, then we would have less of a problem with racism.

      "One of my children, at four, was told that she couldn't place with another group of random kids at the park because "we don't play with *insert incorrect ethnicity here*."

      This is what I'm talking about, defining your (or others) own being by skin colour is useless and counter productive, it actively promotes racism rather than reducing it. We need to treat all people as just people rather than "insert race here" first.

      Commenter
      Freddie Frog
      Date and time
      May 29, 2014, 4:13PM
    • exactly!
      and let's also make sure we teach our children that racism is perpetrated by all races, not just a few, and that all of it is wrong.
      Teach them also to be tolerant of religions and the non-religious and not denigrate or mock either one.

      Commenter
      david
      Date and time
      May 29, 2014, 4:25PM
  • "non-Caucasian parents were about three times more likely to discuss race than Caucasian parents"

    Any guesses what the context of the discussion was? Because, in my non-Caucasian family of origin, the mention of Caucasians was always in a negative context, ensuring it was drummed into us that we were superior, in every way.

    It still happens today, and my family was not an exception...

    Commenter
    Hmmmm
    Date and time
    May 29, 2014, 10:48AM
    • I'm more inclined to put forward that whether you speak to your children about race and race issues or not, your actions and words in an everyday context when you think you are not being observed or not conscious about being observed is the most pertinent and damaging indication to your child as to how to behave or develop perspectives in interaction towards other races. Too often I read or hear about parents telling their children that "everyone is equal" but in action and words when interacting with family, friends and outsiders in front of their children it is speckled with racial over and undertones and/or prejudices, good and bad, intentionally or unintentionally.
      By not talking frankly to children about how to deal with intrinsic bias of the individual versus the concept of 'everyone is equal' (but behaving Orwelianly as though some are more equal than others) you create a conflict and gap in the child's perception and approach on how to reconcile that apparent paradox.
      By making it a taboo topic where the discussion cannot be fully realised, explored maturely and frankly you are relegating it to pretending that these biases, prejudices do not exist, or if intentional (for example, believing Aborigines are lazy, Black people are more violent than others, and acting out by words, comments, etc). You never allow a child to develop a intelligent, coherent framework as to how to deal with it. You see many young people who through sheer ignorance carry around a vague "everyone is equal" shell with no substance and have no idea how to interact with their peers, or have understanding of any depth in having intelligent, empathetic discourse with fellow humans of another race who may have a completely different life experience as they have had.

      Commenter
      Green Tea
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      May 29, 2014, 11:49AM
      • My favourite is white parents who tell their children "X may be brown/black/yellow/whatever, but she's just as good as you" and think they've done a helluva job at race relations. No, idiot, your kids wouldn't have a made a connection between ethnicity and inferiority if you hadn't opened your big mouth.

        Commenter
        No, actually
        Date and time
        May 29, 2014, 1:59PM
    • I may be naive here but can't we talk about skin colour in the same way we talk about other physical attributes such as height or eye colour or hair colour and take race out of it? My son once mentioned that a boy at his Day Care had brown skin. Can't that be treated the same way as saying a girl has blonde hair, irrespective of race?

      Commenter
      MG
      Date and time
      May 29, 2014, 1:12PM
      • agree
        unfortunately current race laws that LNP wish to amend make the discussion by "white" people of others extremely difficult, but similar discussion by "non'white" of whites much easier.
        Should be a level playing field for all I think.
        We continually believe in our politically correct world today that discussion equals racism.

        Commenter
        david
        Date and time
        May 29, 2014, 4:27PM
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