What are kids learning… when we are not teaching…?

by Lucretia Carter Berry

This is Ali Michael. Listen to her story.

Are you comfortable talking about skin tone and race?

Why or why not?

What were you taught about race in your home? In your school?

How were you taught about race?

Do you have ‘race talk’ anxiety?

My four year old, while watching Family Feud told me that she wanted the brown family to win because they are brown like us. Here is a picture of our family.

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As you can see, we are a multi-ethnic family. We are five different skin tones. The family that she was rooting for was a black family, or from her non-racialized perspective, a family in which everyone’s skin tone looks like mine. I was not bothered that she noticed the families’ skin tone differences. I was baffled by her established connection based on skin tone. I nervously asked myself, “Why is she connecting to the family based on their skin tone? Has she somehow developed prejudices?

Another time and completely unrelated to Family Feud,  I overheard my six year old telling her sisters that the doll with the dark brown skin could not play the role of Elsa (from Frozen) because Elsa has light skin and only dolls with light skin can play the role of Elsa because Elsa has light skin. I politely interjected telling her that the dark brown dolls should have the opportunity to play the role of Elsa because if only the light skin dolls were able to be Elsa then the dark brown dolls would not know the joy of pretending to be Elsa. And if we only see Elsa’s role played by light skin dolls, then we will think that only light skin dolls can play the starring roles.  

You probably have all kinds of thoughts about the skin tone conversations that we are having in our family, but here is the truth. Children are noticing skin tone differences as early as 6-18 months and by age three, children are making decisions to associate with friends who look like them. In Rubbing Off, Allison Briscoe-Smith sheds some light on developmental process of children.

For years, studies have found that children who recognize these [skin tone or racial] differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size—which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests. …children between the ages of four and seven who show this advanced ability to identify and categorize differences are actually less prejudiced.

It is natural for children to make distinctions and categorize. But parents and teachers who have ascribed to ‘being colorblind’ have little experience talking about skin tone and race without feeling like they are somehow being racist or contributing to race problems.

The scenario is common. Many unprepared parents or teachers—perhaps caught off guard by a child’s inquiry or conversation about skin tone or race—panic and respond with “Shhh…we don’t talk about skin color,” “race doesn’t matter,” “race shouldn’t matter,” “ we are colorblind…we don’t see color.” The problem with that response is that CHILDREN DO SEE COLOR; and we live in a racialized society where race has played a huge role in establishing systems and norms which continue to have a huge impact on shaping lives. So, unfortunately, RACE still DOES MATTER! And intentionally NOT talking and teaching about it does NOT make racism go away!

When we silence our children with attempts to make them colorblind, we rob them of the power and language to have healthy conversations that could contribute to the change we’d love to see in our society. As Ali Micheal (the shero in the video),  points out in What White Children Need to Know About Race, when we don’t talk or teach about race, “we leave unchallenged the racial messages children receive from a number of sociailzing agents, which consistently place whites at the tope of the racial hierarchy” (Michael and Bartoli). Therefore, silence allows our children to be conditioned by the very “racist status quo” from which we wish to absolve them. In our children, we have the opportunity to brandish change. We should not forsake this opportunity with silence.

So, if we want to have ethnically diverse communities in which race does not matter, we need to actually feel free to talk about skin tone and race—give our children the awareness, skills and competencies that can not be acquired through silence.

The benefits of teaching such skills and competencies far exceed the comfort of silence. Teaching

  • undermines the power of racist structures, traditions, ideas and laws
  • provides support for disrupting stereotypes and implicit bias
  • leads to greater understanding
  • increases the ability to recognize and interrupt racial injustice
  • supports conscious and intentional practice
  • exposes counter narratives
  • helps understand connections
  • contributes to change and changing world view 

Teaching does not

  • make racists
  • perpetuate racism
  • create racial tension
  • portray racial groups as inherently bad, ignorant, racist, victims, powerless, hopeless, etc.

It’s important that our children are comfortable having conversations about skin tone and race. They should not be made to feel awkward or inappropriate for asking questions. They should not be made to feel as though talking about someone’s skin tone or race is off limits or a big, intimidating topic. Children should not be made to feel awkward or inappropriate for asking questions. We can begin conversations with them when they are young. If you as a parent or teacher, have ‘race talk’ anxiety and have no idea how to have non-silencing conversations, find helpful resources. I’ve listed a few below. Also, practice —with friends, with other parents and teachers—so you can reduce your anxiety before talking with children.

The history of racism belongs to all of us and and everyone is needed in the healing process. As parents and teachers, instead of silencing our children with colorblindness, let’s make it our goal to be CONSCIOUS, COMPETENT, CONFIDENT and COMFORTABLE

Here are a few resources that can help you move beyond the silencing ‘colorblind’ approach.

  1. What White Children Need to Know About Race
  2. Rubbing Off
  3. 7 Steps Toward Healthy Race Conversations with Kids
  4. Resources for Continued Learning by  We Are ColorBRAVE
  5. Why Color Blindness Will Not End Racism 

Stay tuned as I share specific ways to equip and empower children in this area.