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How silence can breed prejudice: A child development professor explains how and why to talk to kids about race


I’m a white woman married to a black man. Several years ago a friend’s 6-year-old son Jake met my husband for the first time. He looked at me and then at my husband, as if puzzled by what he saw, and then asked “But if you’re white and he’s dark brown, why did you marry him?” His mother was notably mortified by the question – she exclaimed “Jake!” and then whispered “I’m sorry” to me.

However, I simply told him that my husband is a very nice man and I married him because I love him. That answer was sufficient for Jake and he went on with his day.

Jake’s question was very innocent and simply a reflection of the fact that he was not used to seeing interracial couples. When children ask these questions, all they need to hear is that “When you love someone, it doesn’t matter what color they are” or “Friends come in all colors. As long as they’re nice, they can be your friend.”

Over the past year, racially charged clashes between whites and blacks – the Charleston church shooting, the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, racial profiling at a McKinney pool party, and racists chants by University of Oklahoma fraternity members – have made it clear that even white parents have a responsibility to engage in conversations about race. Children see and hear the news, and unless we teach them otherwise, they may start to believe that white and black people don’t like each other and are meant to be separate.

[We need to deal with our discomfort and talk to our children about racism]

Young children don’t need a long explanation about racial politics and history. They just want to understand the world in the simplest terms.

Nonetheless, Jake’s mother’s reaction is not uncommon.

Another friend of mine told me of a time when she and her husband took their 7-year-old niece to a Thai restaurant. While waiting for a table, the young girl looked around and suddenly commented “There sure are a lot of Chinese people in here!”  My friend told me they immediately shushed her but afterwards wondered if that was the right thing to do.

These questions from children offer great opportunities to teach children about race and diversity in a way that makes them both tolerant and comfortable with the topic. One way to respond to this last example would be to say “Actually, this is a Thai restaurant, so maybe some of them are from Thailand. It’s a different country than China, and they even speak a different language.” Thus, the child’s comment could be turned into a fun educational opportunity.

It may be difficult to initiate these conversations if you are not used to it, but sticking to simple facts and information children can easily understand can make it easier.

Books and videos can be great conversation starters. Two books that have inspired a lot of conversation at my house are “All the colors we are: The story of how we get our skin color” and “Shades of People.” These books allow children to explore skin colors, label them, and even learn the science behind pigment. From there, the conversation can move to different hair textures, cultures, and common interests. Children can imagine being friends with the children in the books and talk about what that would be like.

However, many adults – white people in particular – are not comfortable talking about race or ethnicity. So rather than engaging in conversation, they try to silence the children.

But what happens when we silence children’s questions about race? Ironically, the result is not silent at all.

It sends a very loud message to the children that this topic is taboo. While the intended message may be “Shhh… race is a sensitive topic in this country, so be careful what you say out loud, because we don’t want to offend anybody,” what the child is more likely to hear is “Shhh… there’s something wrong with these people, so let’s not talk about them.”

In my research on racial socialization of children, I have spoken to many white parents who say they intentionally avoid conversations about race.

In a recent study of more than 100 parents, 70 percent fell into this “colorblind” or “colormute” category, and one of the main reasons for choosing this approach was that they did not want their children to pay attention to race and develop biases. More than half of the parents also indicated that they did not perceive a need to discuss race because it had “never been an issue.”

These white parents are clearly well-intended in this approach, but a colorblind ideology may actually do more harm than good.

While parents may assume that their own egalitarian attitudes will rub off on their children, this is usually not the case. In one of my studies I found that children were more biased than their parents, and there was no direct association between the parents’ and children’s attitudes. Instead, the children’s attitudes matched their perceptions of the parents’ attitudes.

Almost half of the 5 to 7-year-old white children in the study said they did not know whether their parents liked black people, and about 35 percent either said that their parents would not approve of them having a black friend or they did not know if their parents would approve. This was despite the fact that their parents reported positive racial attitudes.

So in the absence of conversation, children are apt to make assumptions that may not be true, but these assumptions often reflect the biases the children are exposed to in the world around them. In other words, the silence can breed prejudice.

Silence about race removes the opportunity for children to learn about diversity from their parents and puts it in the hands of media and misinformed peers. Television, moves, and video games are full of stereotypes, and over time children pick up on these. They see blacks portrayed as criminals, Hispanics as uneducated service workers, Asians as unassimilated foreigners, and whites as powerful CEOs.

Without discussion about the errors in these portrayals and a conscious effort to expose them to counter-stereotypical examples, children will unwittingly adopt these images as pieces of evidence of how the world is supposed to be, and these pieces become a breeding ground for prejudice.

Brigitte Vittrup is an associate professor of child development at Texas Woman’s University and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from The University of Texas at Austin, and her research focuses on parent socialization practices and media influences on children.

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