The world around us is literally burning, and our country is in a crisis. As uncomfortable as it can be, research tells us we must talk to our young children about race and racism honestly and openly.
Dr. Erin Winkler is an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, and the author of "Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race."
We've outlined some of the main points from her work below:
1. The research is clear - young kids show bias.
The results are in. Babies begin to notice racial differences at 6 months. By four years old, children have begun to show signs of racial bias.
Dr. Winkler writes: "Numerous studies show that three- to five-year-olds not only categorize people by race, but express bias based on race (Aboud, 2008; Hirschfeld, 2008; Katz, 2003; Patterson & Bigler, 2006). In a yearlong study, Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) found that three- to five-year-olds in a racially and ethnically diverse day care center used racial categories to identify themselves and others, to include or exclude children from activities, and to negotiate power in their own social/play networks.
Researchers have found that even very young children develop what psychologists call “in group bias,” or favoritism towards the groups in which they are members (Patterson & Bigler, 2006). However, as children become more aware of societal norms that favor certain groups over others, they will often show a bias toward the socially privileged group. In their study following a group of black and white children over time, Katz and Kofkin (1997) found that all of the children expressed an in-group bias at the age of 30 months. When asked to choose a potential playmate from among photos of unfamiliar white and black boys and girls, all of the children chose a same race playmate. However, by 36 months, “the majority of both black and white children chose white playmates”.
Moreover, caregivers should know that this is an important issue in all classrooms, even (and perhaps especially) if there is no racial or ethnic diversity in that classroom or local area. Children pick up ideas about race from our broader popular culture – remember the “smog in the air,” and the less actual, meaningful contact they have with people from other racial groups besides their own, the more likely they are to retain higher levels of prejudice (Allport, 1954; Aboud, 2008; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006)."
2. Children make conclusions about race independent of their parents.
Children are naturally motivated to learn from their culture and the social norms that surround them in order to function in society. They gather information from a broad range of sources – not just their own families. Their immature cognitive structures make stereotyping a natural conclusion. They conclude that if one characteristic is the same (skin color), then so are other characteristics (intelligence, abilities, etc.).
3. Children see patterns in their world.
According to Dr. Winkler, "Starting at a very young age, children see patterns — who seems to live where; what kinds of homes they see as they ride or walk through different neighborhoods; who is the most desirable character in the movies they watch; who seems to have particular jobs or roles at the doctor's office, at school, at the grocery store; and so on — and try to assign "rules" to explain what they see. "
4. Silence from adults leads to bias.
"Adults often think they should avoid talking with young children about race or racism because doing so would cause them to notice race or make them racist. In fact, when adults are silent about race or use "colorblind" rhetoric, they actually reinforce racial prejudice in children.
Adults' silence about these patterns and the structural racism that causes them results in children concluding that the patterns they see must have been caused by meaningful inherent differences between groups.
Let go of the notion that you are “putting ideas in their heads” by talking about race; as we have seen, research shows that young children notice race and draw conclusions about difference on their own. Scholars point out that avoiding conversation about race only encourages “prevalent stereotypes [to] remain unchanged” (as cited by Katz & Kofkin, 1997, p. 56)."
5. Honest and frequent conversations are associated with lower levels of bias.
"If a child makes a remark about race, offensive or not, do not shush children or shut down the conversation. Instead, engage in open, honest, frequent, and age-appropriate conversation about race, racial differences, and even racial inequity and racism. Research has shown that such conversations are associated with lower levels of bias in young children (Katz, 2003)."
6. Kids are ready to understand systemic racism.
"Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) offer the following advice to caregivers of preschool age children. [D]on’t encourage children to believe that negative racial talk or discriminatory action is the conduct of only “sick” individuals or that it indicates a peculiar character flaw or just “bad” behavior. Talk about the fact that the social world we live in is often unfair to people of color simply because they are people of color and that persisting racial-ethnic inequalities are unjust and morally wrong. Make it clear that racialethnic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform and not just something that individuals do. (p. 208)"
7. Kids should understand that racism is happening now.
"Educational resources for young children often present the issue of racial discrimination as something that happened in the past. Ironically, these resources can actually reinforce racial prejudice in children (Hirschfeld, 2008) because the take-away message can be that any remaining inequalities we see today are either natural or the fault of people who suffer from them, and that racial inequity is not the responsibility of “good, normal people.”
8. Children can be taught nuance.
"When children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once (e.g., not just race), reduced levels of bias are shown (Aboud, 2008). So, in addition to giving accurate information about race and racism, caregivers should focus on teaching children to think critically (Tatum, 1997)."
9. Anti-racist role models help empower children.
"Perhaps the most important thing caregivers can do is provide children with ideas about how to fight against the continuing racial inequity and discrimination in our society (Tatum, 1997; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001). Empower the children! Actively seek out anti-racist role models in your community and in the broader society, and expose young children to these role models (Tatum, 1997; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001). Show children that, while we do face troubling problems as a society, there are people and organizations that are invested in making positive change. Show children they can help too! Involve them in projects that allow real participation in the process of change."
10. Parents must be educated and comfortable talking about these issues.
"In order to address issues of racial bias and prejudice with children and help them understand race and inequity in our society, caregivers must first be comfortable addressing these issues themselves. After all, adults have also been socialized into a culture that silences conversations about race and a culture in which subtle racialized images are all around us. Van Ausdale & Feagin (2001) remind us that educating children about these issues “requires that we rethink our ideas about several dimensions of everyday life, including the nature of racial and ethnic oppression, the intellectual capacity of children, our willingness to effect changes in oppressive social conditions, and the extent of children’s social skills” (p. 199). This is difficult but important work, and early childhood educators play a critical role."
To read Dr. Winkler's full essay, click here.