Last night my 6 year-old came back from a birthday party and said, “It was a good party! There were a lot of black people!” At another time in my life I probably would have scolded a child for mentioning race that way, but at this point we go with it. I asked her if these were kids she already knew or if they were new friends and what they did together at the party. It no longer makes me uncomfortable for my kids to talk about race, although there are plenty of uncomfortable moments as we talk about racism or encounter children from other families who aren’t quite as used to this conversation.
This idea that kids don’t see race is so pervasive and it’s surprisingly harmful. We idealize their “innocence” without realizing their inability to talk about race has little to do with their inability to recognize that people are different and has much more to do with the socialization they receive that says it’s shameful to talk about race. In the absence of educational conversations with the adults they trust about the topic of race, they are left to draw their own conclusions or learn from the playground behavior of others. It becomes much more difficult to eventually talk to your kids about the realities of racism if you’ve spent their formative years telling them it’s impolite to talk about race or acting like race doesn’t exist.
My West African son started to verbalize his awareness of racial differences when he was about three years-old. We had a choice at that point– tell him that wasn’t a polite thing to say and remind him that we’re all the same on the inside, or affirm that God made us each beautifully unique and that part of how God made him was to be black, just like his birth family. (At three years-old, that’s obviously just the starting point of a much more nuanced conversation that will continue for years to come.)
When our white kids point to black people and say, “Why is that guy black?” we have a choice to make– are we going to shush them as though race is a shameful thing to mention or are we going to acknowledge that we’re different and that’s a positive (and remind them it’s not polite to point)? If your kids aren’t talking about race, you may have to be proactive about bringing it up. Be sure your kids watch shows that feature people of different cultures and colors. Buy your kids dolls and action figures that have different skin tones. Be sure your storybooks represent heroes of all shades.
Here’s the bottomline: When you tell me your kids don’t notice race and try to make that sound like a positive, I will assume you are uncomfortable talking about race with your children. I know your kids notice race, but now I also know they don’t think it’s okay to talk about it with you and that’s concerning to me. By normalizing race conversations with your children, you give them permission to ask the important questions and YOU get to frame the dialogue about race, not their friends or the media your children are exposed to. They are going to learn about race somewhere, where would you like that to be?
I was glad to get to share some of our experience and reasons why it’s important for ALL families to have this conversation on “Moms Everyday.” I’ve linked to the video below and beneath that are some links to resources about how young children develop an awareness of race: