5 Reasons We All Need to Talk to Kids About Race in America

“I don’t see color — I just see people.”

“I want to raise my children to treat everyone the same.”

“If we stopped pointing out race, then everyone would be equal.”

“Race is a social construct, and I don’t want my children to participate in racism.”

These are just a few of the responses I got when I mentioned that I was writing an article that addressed talking to kids about race.

They all came from the same place: socially liberal (mostly White) adults who genuinely want to raise their children to be “racially enlightened” and to treat all people the same, regardless of the color of their skin or the birthplace of their recent ancestors.

The problem is, whether we “see” race or not — whether we personally acknowledge it — it exists. And the social constructs that we have built around it color (pun intended) the way people move through the world.

Race affects real people in real time, and by claiming “color-blindness,” we become complicit in the very systems we allege to object to. Take it from someone who has spent two decades unlearning my “color-blindness.”

It is crucial that we talk to our kids openly and honestly about race, that we give them the words and language to understand both the superficial outer differences between people, as well as the very real, lived differences that exist under the surface. We need to teach them to respect and value those differences as well as the many similarities that all people share.

Talking about race in America can feel dangerous and overwhelming, but it’s important work if we want to truly get to a place where all people are treated as equals.

And as with all important conversations, it needs to start with our children.

Here are five reasons every parent, guardian, and educator should be talking about race with the children they care for.

1. If You Don’t, Someone Else Will

Many people I talk with wonder why they should talk to their kids about race. Many are worried that by talking about it or pointing it out, they will be promoting racism and bigotry.

There seems to be a belief that if we simply ignore race and teach our children to be “color-blind,” racism will magically go away — as if any major power imbalance has ever gone away because people ignored it.

Many liberal parents rattle off quotes about how no one is born hating, that hatred is taught, and that they vow not to be that parent.

But when we refuse to discuss race with our children, we are forgetting that we are not their only teachers! We are abdicating our responsibilities and allowing other voices to inform and influence our children’s beliefs.

I was reminded of this recently when my youngest came home and announced at the dinner table, “My friend says God hates Black people.”

The neighbors probably heard my jaw drop.

Before I could piece together a response, she continued, “That doesn’t make any sense to me. I mean, if there is a God, and He created everyone, then why would He hate some of them?”

Her pronouncement started a lively conversation about race, religion, hierarchy, bigotry, and power structures in America – as well as how to talk to and educate people who make racist claims.

But more than that, it reminded me that any gaps I left open would be filled by other people in my children’s lives.

2. Talking to Kids about Race Actually Helps Them See Beyond Race

Humans are hardwired sorters, and children express a natural tendency for “in-group favoritism.” Kids will often use superficial cues to sort themselves into “us” and “them” groups.

In one experiment, half of a preschool class was given red shirts, the other half blue. Teachers never mentioned the shirts or separated the children according to shirt color, but after three weeks, the kids were showing distinct favoritism for the kids wearing the same color shirt as them. Though they didn’t display overt hostility to kids wearing the other color of shirt, they stated that they believed they were meaner, dumber, and not as good as the kids wearing their own color shirt.

What this means in terms of race is that kids who don’t have the information and language to put race into context are more likely to use the visual cue of skin tone to separate people into “us” and “them” groups in much the same way that they use gender, body type, and other “easy” triggers.

By talking to our children openly, honestly, and specifically about race – and what it means – we help them to see beyond the superficial outward differences and look deeper for common interests, similar likes and dislikes, complimentary values, beliefs, and attitudes.

Rather than forming groups based on skin-tone or ethnic heritage, they can form groups based on who likes to ride bikes, read books, climb trees, perform dance routines, play ball games, tell stories, do math, or any number of other shared activities.

It will also help them see and call out stereotypes in the world around them because they will see people as whole, complex individuals beyond skin-tone or ethnic background.

3. Not Talking about Race Can Lead to Complicit Racism

Passive racism and bigotry ignorance take place every time we remain silent after hearing a racist remark or comment. We may not be actively, intentionally hurting another person or group of people, but we are consenting to the spreading of those ideas.

In recent weeks, the world has been watching Ferguson, MO where a young, unarmed Black man named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer. And this is far from uncommon. Every 28 hours in the USA, a Black man is killed by police or extra-judicial vigilantes.

Studies show that many people conflate Blackness, especially male Blackness, with violent criminality.

This is obviously a racial issue. And if we don’t talk about it in terms of race, we can’t expect to fix it.

When we fail to talk to our children about race, we are leaving room for these types of harmful stereotypes to permeate their beliefs. Left unchecked, these racial biases lead people to see Black men as threats and interpret benign actions as aggressive, turning cell phones and Skittles into weapons that require deadly force.

The result is a culture with a serious anti-Blackness violence problem that lacks the tools to fix it. Race does not disappear if we don’t talk about it. Silence just allows racism to go on unchecked.

4. Racial Ignorance Erases Racial History and Denies Lived Experience

Race may be a social construct, but it is a persistent one with real consequences.

Aside from creating room for bigotry ignorance when we are “color-blind,” we also tend to discount or dismiss other people’s experiences of race, racism, and bigotry.

My oldest daughter was upset the other day when she was told by one of her Latina friends that the other Latina girls didn’t trust her because she was White.

“It’s not fair, Mom.”

“No, it’s not fair; but to them, it’s justified. It’s a survival tactic for them to be wary of White people.”

“But why? I never did anything to them.”

“No, but because of their ethnic background, they are targeted more by teachers, by police…”

I reminded my daughter of her friend whose family had moved to Mexico in the middle of the year when his father was taken by White immigration officials and deported without warning.

I reminded her of another friend who came to school in tears after her father was arrested by White police and she was taken by White social services people to live with a White foster family until a White judge decided she could go home again.

I reminded her of a couple of boys in her class who tended to be goofballs and how the teachers tended to discipline the Latino boys more often than the White boys.

I reminded her of how the school’s dress code seemed to apply differently to Latina girls who get in trouble for wearing the same shorts my daughter wears every day.

To ignore the factor of my daughter’s race in these Latina girls’ wariness — to argue that, from a racially ignorant perspective, those girls were totally out of line — would be to imply that they have no valid reason to be suspicious of White people. It would be to invalidate all of those daily pressures, fears, and aggressions.

We need to discuss the ways that various racial groups have interacted throughout history in order to understand the ways those echoes might be affecting relationships in the present.

5. Educating Our Children about Race Helps Them Fight Racism and Create Change

Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Pretending we are “color-blind” allows us to assume that everyone begins at the same starting line. It allows us to blame individuals for any hardship they encounter. It allows us to scapegoat them rather than to look in the mirror at our own complicity in a system that still engages in the oppression of others.

When my oldest daughter heard and understood how her Latinx friends experienced the world, she was appalled. She had assumed, as many of us do, that everyone experienced the world mostly the same, that we were all treated more or less equally.

Once her mind was opened, she began to see that her Latina friends were slut shamed much more often than her White friends, even when they were both engaging in the same behaviors and wearing similar clothing. She noticed that her Latino friends were indeed disciplined much more often, and much more harshly than her White friends.

And she began to challenge it.

She began by challenging her peers when she saw them treating people differently based primarily on their skin-tone or ethnicity. She became much more attuned to ethnic slurs and much more willing to call them out.

As her courage — and perhaps her outrage — grew, she also began to challenge the teachers to be more consistent. If they reprimanded a Latino boy while letting a White boy slide, she would raise her hand and mention that the White boy had also been engaging in similar behavior. When one of her Latina friends got in trouble for wearing shorts that were the same length as my daughter’s, my daughter told the teacher she would have to punish her as well.

Once she saw that race and ethnicity colored every aspect of her friend’s lives, and that her own race helped her glide through situations that tripped other people up, she began to seek solutions and push for change.

By educating our children about race, we help them to be more compassionate toward people who are living under the burden of America’s racial systems.

We help them to see the areas where they are privileged – and thus where they can help to push the lever toward true equality.

We help them to put race into a context that allows them to see past the superficial outer-differences, while still acknowledging the ways that race affects people in the real world.

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Race can still be a tricky topic in America. For all that we would like to live in a post-racial utopia, we aren’t there yet.

Many parents worry about talking to their kids about race because they don’t want to say the wrong thing or accidentally inspire or create a racist child.

Many of them are worried about being embarrassed if their child says the wrong thing or are worried about being accused of being a racist if they point out racial differences to their child.

Knowing why you need to talk to your child about race isn’t the same as knowing how, so come back next week to learn the six steps every adult can take to help encourage racial consciousness in the children they care for.

Bree Ervin is a feminist writer, political commentator and book reviewer at Think Banned Thoughts.  Her proudest achievement is being the co-parent of two up and coming rabble rousers and remarkable young “upstanders” who are already working for social justice. Bree has a degree in history with a focus on comparative religion which she uses to dismantle the idea that patriarchy is the natural order and to poke holes in cultural ideas of static gender and sex-based binaries.  She recently became a certified sexual health instructor and is debating whether she should go back to school to become an abortion provider, or become a politician in order to turn back the tide of reproductive restrictions sweeping the nation. When she’s not suited up in her ranty pants writing stories to inspire change, you can find her climbing mountains or stirring up smiles in the kitchen. You can follow her on twitter @thinkbanned or on Facebook/bannedthoughts.