How to talk to your kids about race: start early, talk often

Jun 9, 2020, 1:19 PM
Dr. Rebecca Bigler says it's important to expose your children to different races and ethnicities from an early age, to raise a non-biased child. (Photo by Andrew Seaman/Unsplash)
(Photo by Andrew Seaman/Unsplash)

There’s been a lot of messaging shared over the past couple weeks encouraging parents to talk to their kids about race.

“In our studies, we do find that most white parents want to raise children who are non-biased but they really don’t know how,” said Dr. Rebecca Bigler, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “They say, ‘I thought that if I just ignored race and never talked about it, that might convey to my child that I like people regardless of their race.’ But it does not work to adopt a colorblind ideology or behavior when you’re raising children, in order to raise them non-bias. You have to adopt a different strategy.”

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Dr. Bigler has spent the past three decades studying how stereotypes and prejudices form in children. She says your work starts when they are new babies.

“Babies are non-verbal, so you will want to make sure that your child sees you engaged with the world in a non-biased way,” Bigler said. “That means, ideally, that your child sees you interact in warm, loving, supportive, close, intimate ways with people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds. All the way from the moment of birth until they leave your house. We do know babies pay attention to race, they are not born colorblind, they categorize people by race beginning by three months of age. And they will notice if you are only interacting in warm, loving ways with people who match your race.”

What if you don’t have black friends or people of color in your life?

“In some places, it really is hard because of racial segregation for whites to make friends across races,” Bigler said. “But often times white people just haven’t made the effort. White parents can visit areas that aren’t so white. So you can join a more diverse church, or rec center, or shop at a grocery store [in a more diverse neighborhood]. Of course, doing those things is likely to lead to friendships in a spontaneous, normal way. I never recommend that you go find a token black friend, that’s ridiculous and insulting. But white parents need to ask themselves: Where am I choosing to buy a home, in what kind of neighborhood? Where am I choosing to send my child to school, or to daycare, or to play basketball? To make sure those settings are integrated for the sake of your child to become a non-biased person with friends across different races.”

She also encourages reading books and watching movies with diverse characters, but says it’s crucial to talk about the material.

“What you have to do is read the book and say at some point, ‘I really love this book because it’s about an African American boy. And I think it’s so wonderful to learn about the experiences of African Americans in the world.’ So in other words, you’re not pretending that race isn’t there,” she said. “You are saying to your child, ‘I value people who come from different racial backgrounds and I value learning about their experiences.'”

A child’s awareness and perception of race changes at different stages of growth. When a child becomes verbal, at two or three years old, they might start pointing out what people look like, characteristics that are different than their own.

“It is not unusual at all for a young child to say something like, ‘His skin is black.’ Or, ‘His skin is dirty.’ Or, ‘His hair is funny.’ And white parents often react with horror at those statements and shut down that conversation very fast, often saying something like, ‘Shhh! You don’t say his skin is dirty!’ or, ‘You don’t talk about their hair,’ which conveys to the child that race is a topic that’s off limits,” Bigler said. “But it also conveys that there is something that’s wrong or bad about dark skin or afros. So you definitely want to engage with those comments. This is a great time to say, ‘Yes, his skin is dark. It is darker than yours, for example.’ And then say your values. Explain to a child that you think that skin color is just as beautiful as peach or light brown skin.”

Dr. Bigler says racial stereotypes start creeping in as young as five years old, based on things kids see in the world and in media.

“It’s not an easy thing to eliminate racial prejudices, and with children you have to start early and you have to do it continually. Having one conversation this month with your child, if you are a white parent, will not do the job,” she said. “You’re going to have to make a decades long commitment to sharing your values about race and acting in ways consistent with those values in order to raise a child who, in the end, won’t be racially prejudice.”

Of course, Dr. Bigler thinks parents of all races and ethnicities should have these talks and use these strategies with their children. But African American families are most likely already talking about race at home because they’ve been stigmatized and treated unfairly, and they have to teach their kids how to safely deal with police.

“White children are typically embedded in environments in which they are privileged by their race,” Bigler says, so the conversations aren’t born out of necessity.

To read more on the topic from Dr. Bigler, click here.

Click here and here for a selection of children’s books about race.

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How to talk to your kids about race: start early, talk often