How White Parents Should Talk to Their Kids About Race

Advice for parents
March 30 2014 9:45 PM

Teaching Tolerance

How white parents should talk to their young kids about race.

diverse playground.
A little conversation can go a long way in heading off racial prejudice that can form in early childhood.

Photo by Purestock/Thinkstock

Last summer, my family moved from Brooklyn to a small town in the Hudson Valley. We love our new life, but one thing about the community is not so great: It’s predominantly white. What will it mean in the long run if my white children don’t see and befriend people who come from different racial backgrounds? And are there steps I can take to instill racial sensitivity and acceptance in my kids despite the fact that they’re growing up in an ethnic bubble?

To find out, I dug into research on the causes of racial bias and talked to developmental and social psychologists, race-relations researchers, and Africologists. The good news is that the answer seems to be yes—there are things I can do to keep my kids from harboring racial prejudice. Namely, I can talk to them about race.

First, a caveat: I’m writing this article as a white parent with white kids living in a mostly white neighborhood. I know that my experiences, perspectives, and considerations differ markedly from those of parents with different ethnic backgrounds living in different situations, and I also realize that I know nothing about the racial landscape that minority parents have to navigate with their kids. For many minority parents, talking about race is not an option—it’s essential in helping their children move through a world that sees a “black kid” and not just a kid. Although I talked to researchers with diverse backgrounds while reporting my piece, I’m guessing that my findings and advice will apply predominantly to white parents like me. Still, I would love to hear from all readers on the issues discussed in this column, so please, send your thoughts, advice, and feedback to melindawmoyer@gmail.com.

In their book Nurture Shock, journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman told the story of Birgitte Vittrup Simpson, a University of Texas at Austin Ph.D. student who in 2007 recruited 99 white families to participate in a study—the basis for her doctoral dissertation—that involved asking them to talk meaningfully about race with their kids.* Five families immediately dropped out when they heard what they had to do. Nine out of every 10 of those who stuck with the study admitted at the end that they did not have truly in-depth conversations with their kids on the topic.

Why? I’ve avoided talking about race with my kids mainly because I’ve thought that racial bias is learned by direct instruction and imitation—and that if I don’t talk about race or act in explicitly racist ways, my kids won’t pick up prejudices. My sources told me that this notion is pretty common; research suggests that nonwhite parents talk about racial identity much more frequently with their kids than white parents do, but that even minority parents often avoid talking about racial differences. “There’s this idea that if you do call attention to race at a young age, you’re poisoning kids’ minds,” says Erin Winkler, chair of the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

This theory makes sense. In fact, it’s what social learning theorists believed for a long time, and why so many parents strive to make their children “color-blind.” But over the past 15 years, research has supported a different idea: that children start assigning meaning to race at a very young age. When researchers presented 30-month-olds with pictures of children of various races and asked them to pick who they would want to play with, the toddlers were more likely to pick kids of their race. Likewise, when sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin observed kids in an urban day care center for 11 months, they found that children as young as three excluded other kids from play based on their race and used race to negotiate power in their social networks, as they described in their 2001 book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism.

Why does this happen? Kids actively try to understand and construct rules about their environment. As they do, they engage in what is called transductive or essentialist reasoning, which means that they simultaneously categorize people and objects according to multiple dimensions—so they might believe, wrongly, that people who have the same skin color have similar abilities or intelligence. They also notice class-race patterns—for instance that white people tend to hold privileged jobs or positions (or play them on television). One study found that by age 7, black children rated jobs held by blacks as lower in status than jobs held by whites. In other words, as Winkler wrote in a 2009 paper, “children pick up on the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society.”

Beverly Tatum, a race-relations scholar and the president of Spelman College in Atlanta, has referred to this pervasive cultural message as a “smog in the air,” noting that “we don't breathe it because we like it. We don't breathe it because we think it's good for us. We breathe it because it's the only air that's available.” Ultimately, kids may infer that the patterns they see in privilege and status are caused by inherent differences between groups. In other words, they may start to think that whites have more privilege because they are inherently, somehow, smarter or better.

Other aspects of psychology come into play to promote racial biases, too. Children (and adults) exhibit a type of bias known as “in-group” bias, which basically means that we tend to prefer people who are members of groups we also belong to. Researchers have elicited strong in-group biases in children as young as 3 by assigning them to color-coded groups in their preschools; after a few weeks, the children said they preferred the other kids in their group more than kids outside their group and even preferentially chose toys that they were told their groups liked. Starting at around age 4 or 5, kids also start to develop what is called “high-status bias,” in that they show implicit preferences for individuals who are members of high-status groups—in our culture, whites.

So if children as young as 3 develop racial prejudices when left to their own (cognitively biased) devices, it may help for parents to intervene and, you know, actually talk to their kids about race. “Don’t you want to be the one to suggest to them—early on, before they do form those preconceptions—something positive [about other races] rather than let them pick up something negative?” asks Kristina Olson, a University of Washington psychologist who studies social cognitive development and racial bias. “White parents seem very, very resistant to talking about race—even really liberal ones—and they have this attitude of ‘I wouldn’t want to talk about it because it would make it real to my kids.’ But inevitably, it’s their kids that show these really strong race biases.” In fact, Olson says, when parents don’t talk about race, kids may infer from this silence that race is especially important, yet highly taboo—basically, the last thing you want them to think.

In her University of Texas dissertation, Simpson reported that the children of parents who actually did talk meaningfully with them about race had better racial attitudes at the end of the study than they did at the beginning. The kids whose parents glossed over the issue or didn’t discuss race did not improve.

But how should white parents talk about race with their kids? “It depends,” Winkler says, “on who the kid is, where they’re living, what the context is, how old they are.” But, generally speaking, be upfront and specific. If little Henry makes a mortifying comment in the grocery store about someone’s skin color being “dirty,” don’t shush him and change the subject or say something vague like don’t say things like that; it’s hurtful. Use the moment to explain what skin color is. An appropriate response might be, “Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors,” as Tatum explained her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. You can also use examples from television or books to start race conversations. As Howard Stevenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor of education and Africana studies and the author of Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference explained to me, “I’ve always been in commentary with my sons while they’re watching TV, saying, ‘What do you really think about that?’ You may see an issue in diversity that bothers you that you want to comment on, like, ‘How come there are no black Santa Clauses on television?’ ”

Stevenson, who develops strategies to help parents, teachers, and kids cope with racial conflict, also points out that when children say racially insensitive things, parents should take a moment to consider, before admonishing them, where they are coming from. “Rather than challenge them about their words, get a sense of what they understand it to mean from their perspective,” he explains. “Where did they hear it from? How is it being used in the social context they’re in? Then, you have a better angle as to how you can speak to it.”

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White parents can also make kids’ in-group biases work for them: Point out that even though Lily has darker skin, she, too, seems to really like playing with dolls. The more similarities young kids see between themselves and children of other races, the more they may embrace them. That said, for older kids, it may be smarter to encourage kids to embrace racial differences, rather than to downplay these differences. A Northwestern University study found that when kids aged 8 to 11 were taught about diversity as a value, they were better able to detect evidence of racial discrimination than were kids who had been taught a “color-blind” message. Pointing out how much diversity exists within races may help foster diversity acceptance, too. As Deborah Rivas-Drake, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, suggests, you could say to your children, “Within our own group, we don’t all act and look the same, we don’t all think the same—so if we ourselves are really diverse, can you imagine all the different kinds of diversity that exist among other groups?”

It may also help to broach the subject of our country’s racial history. In 2007, Rebecca Bigler, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a two-part study—the first among white 6-to-11-year-olds at a Midwestern summer school, and the second among black 6-to-11-year-olds.* All of the kids were read short, positive biographies of famous Americans, half of whom were black and half of whom were white. Half of these kids were also taught about discrimination the famous Americans experienced; the other half did not get this extra lesson. At the end of the six-day study, Bigler and her colleagues assessed the children’s attitudes toward black and white people in general. The kids who had been taught about discrimination had higher opinions of black people than did the children who had simply been read the positive biographies. Van Ausdale and Feagin warn, however, against blaming racism and discrimination on “bad people” or “bad behavior,” because doing so may dismiss inequality as something that’s the fault of an “evil few” rather than being an institutional problem.

So, for any parent, talking about race with your kids is incredibly important. Even more essential, though, is making sure that your kids get to know children of other races. “Friendships are a major mechanism for promoting acceptance and reducing prejudice,” Rivas-Drake explains. Kids should “have direct contact with people from different groups—to learn about them without relying on stereotypes.” That said, simply sending your kid to a diverse school may not do the job. One study reported that in highly diverse schools, students self-segregate more by race than they do in moderately diverse schools, and the likelihood of cross-racial friendships goes down. But the study also reported that when diverse schools ensure that their extracurricular activities are racially mixed, interracial friendships become more common.

You know what else helps? When parents have a diverse network of friends. “We have some hints that parents’ friends and the diversity of the people they hang out with matters a lot,” Olson says. If we’re telling our kids that they shouldn’t judge people based on race, but our kids only ever see us hanging out with other people of our race, our words may not go very far. This notion has big implications for families like mine who live virtually cut off from other ethnic groups—for most white families, in fact, since research suggests that the average U.S. white family lives in a neighborhood where three-quarters of all other residents are also white. (This New York Times infographic on the distribution of racial and ethnic groups in New York City is, for instance, jaw-dropping.) If we truly want our children to accept and befriend people of other races and ethnicities, we need to address the institutional problems that keep us all apart from one another—and we need to remember that, as parents, the choices we make shape the world that our children see, and may limit the choices that they are able to make for themselves.

Correction, April 2, 2014: This article originally misstated that Ph.D. Student Birgitte Vittrup Simpson recruited 93 families for her study. She recruited 99 families. (Return.) Due to a copy-editing error, the article also mischaracterized Rebecca Bigler's study of 6-to-11-year-old children. She did not study a mixed group of black and white students. She studied a group of white students and a group of black students, but they never mixed in the study. (Return.)

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science writer based in Cold Spring, New York, and is DoubleX’s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter.

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