by Dr. Rebecca Hains; cross-posted with permission
In recent [months], the nation has been riveted and repulsed by the grand juries’ decisions to indict neither Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, nor New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. In the ensuing national conversation, many white people are staring down the stark reality of ongoing systemic racism in the United States for the first time. The inequities exposed by Wilson and Pantaleo’s impunity in Brown and Pantaleo’s respective deaths have served as a rude awakening for countless white people, whose experiences with the U.S. justice system have been nothing like their African-American peers’.
As a result, concerned white parents are now asking: “How can we raise our children to be allies to people of color, to help put an end to racism in the United States?”
This is a crucial goal, and it’s a goal that’s within reach—but families can only achieve it by being intentional in their parenting. For decades, white families have been hesitant to discuss race with their children, fearful that they might misspeak or be misunderstood and inadvertently foster prejudice in their own children.
In fact, according to a 2007 study at Vanderbilt University of 18,950 families with kindergarteners, 75 percent of white families never or almost never discuss race with their children. This is a major problem. When white parents don’t discuss race with their children, studies show, peer and media influences fill in the gaps—often with terrible consequences. Children are not colorblind; they begin noticing race at as young as six months of age. Even though they lack racial vocabulary, they quickly begin to categorize people by color—drawing upon the most obvious of stereotypes.
This means it’s important for white parents who wish to raise anti-racist children to begin talking with their kids about race from an early age.
Here are a few suggestions, backed by the research in this area, on how white parents can raise children who are allies to people of color and who can think critically about race relations, race representations, and racism.
- Tell your children you value racial diversity.Children’s attitudes towards race are strongly influenced by what they perceive their parents’ attitudes to be. For example, studies conducted by researchers at Sesame Street showed that most preschoolers liked the idea of having interracial friendships—but fewer than half of the children in the study (who were African-American, White, Puerto Rican, Crow Indian, and Chinese-American) believed their moms would be happy about it if they actually had a friend of another race.This anticipation of disapproval can have real consequences in children’s attitudes and behaviors, even if it’s unwarranted—and research with white families, at least, suggests that this is often the case. When parents don’t tell their children that they like racially diverse people, kids’ assumptions about how their parents feel are way off the mark (Vittrup & Holden, 2011). According to a study published in the journal Child Development in 2012, even reading race-themed books to preschoolers is not enough: If moms are “color-blind” or “color-mute” during the storytelling, the children fail to understand that their mothers agree with the book’s message (Pahlke, Bigler and Suizzo, 2012). The parents in these studies are generally less prejudiced than the kids might expect, and vice-versa: without conversation, neither party really knows what the other believes, and both guess poorly.The key, then, is to be explicit. Experts such as Dr. Brigitte Vittrup of Texas Woman’s University and Dr. George W. Holden of Southern Methodist University argue that parents can’t be vague. It’s not good enough to offer platitudes like “Everybody’s equal,” “God made all of us,” and “Under the skin, we’re all the same.” Instead, we must be specific. Dr. Vittrup and Dr. Holden suggest that parents of children ages 5 to 7 can discuss race using clear statements and questions, like this:“Some people on TV or at school have different skin color than us. White children and Black children and Mexican children often like the same things even though they come from different backgrounds. They are still good people and you can be their friend. If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?”For maximum effect, though, these conversations should be meaningful—not just a brief mention, but a real dialogue that is age-appropriate, according to one study on how children develop prejudice. It’s worth working at.
- Teach your children to respect other racial groups.
To really respect other people, it helps to adopt an empathetic perspective. Being empathetic involves taking on another person’s perspective enough to understand and share their feelings. So, one way to help white children respect other racial and ethnic groups is to help them understand what being in the racial minority is like. You can ask them questions, like, “When we watch television, we are fortunate to always see people who look like us on the screen. Now imagine that there were never people who looked like you on screen—maybe that there were never people with your hair color or skin color. Wouldn’t that make you feel kind of funny, like there was something wrong with you?” Then, you can link those questions to the idea that this is the actual experience for children from other racial and ethnic groups. “For little African-American and Asian-American girls, that’s what life is really like. They almost never see television shows about people who look like them. That can make them feel sad. Almost half of the little kids in our country are from other backgrounds. It’s too bad that there aren’t more programs about people like themselves, isn’t it?”
I asked Dr. Holden for his expert advice in this area, and he suggested that white parents should also take their children to visit minority-majority neighborhoods and let them experience, firsthand, what it’s like to be “other.” “White parents can take their children to visit an African-American church,” he suggests, “or a Spanish-speaking neighborhood. It helps for children to know what it feels like to be in the minority,” he explains.
If you decide to take your children to visit a community that is not predominantly white, the key to success is emphasizing empathy. Make sure that the trips are not about gawking—not about saying, “Wow, look at all those people.” It shouldn’t be a form of tourism, a means to gawk at others or their surroundings. Instead, it should be about respectful perspective-taking—experiencing being in the minority. The goal should be to develop a better understanding of the feelings of people from other backgrounds who are often underrepresented in pop culture and made to feel of lesser value. In so doing, we can cultivate a genuine anti-racist standpoint in our children.
- Introduce your children to diverse adults.If you have friends outside your own racial or ethnic group–and you should–make sure your kids see this first-hand. If they do, they are likely to perceive people from other races more positively than they would otherwise. In fact, research suggests that knowledge of parents’ friendships is an even better way of reducing racial biases in children than attending diverse preschools. Although studies have shown that interracial friendships and cooperative learning can help reduce children’s biases, doctoral research at the University of Texas at Austin found that children’s mothers’ friendships were the much more influential factor. This can be made sense of by remembering that in the preschool years, parents are the major socializing forces in children’s lives. Our kids want to be just like us—so they’re paying attention to how we actually live our lives. That means we need to pay attention, too, and purposefully expose our children to friends of various backgrounds.
- Watch media and read books with diverse characters.Children don’t just need to see people like themselves in the media and in books They also need to see positive depictions of people from other racial and ethnic groups. So, seek them out: watch movies and television shows about a range of people. And find books that feature stories about people whose backgrounds differ from your family’s.
Make a special effort to find picture books featuring cross-ethnic friendships in particular. (This may be especially important if you live in an area lacking in diversity, where cross-ethnic friendships are not an option for your family.) Researchers have noted that children under the age of 8 are strongly oriented towards their own racial or ethnic group, so seeing a character who looks like them gives them a character to identify with. Then, when they see that character interact with people from different races, the story functions as a source of indirect cross-ethnic contact for the child—with the potential to improve their racial attitudes.
Just remember that as you and your children watch television or read books together, you need to be explicit about your own position. Children of this age range are not very good at making inferences about adults’ feelings on race, so as discussed in Tip #1, we have to be clear.
- Discuss racial and ethnic stereotypes in the media.According to media literacy expert Cyndy Scheibe, when children are about 8 years old, it’s possible to discuss racial and ethnic stereotypes with them. When movies or television programs contain stereotypes, you can explain to older children that those stereotypes are the result of decisions made by real people. When I interviewed her for my book, Scheibe explained that Pocahontas is a good starting point for conversations about how the stereotypes in media are the results of people’s decisions. “To me,” Scheibe says, “Pocahontas is probably the most egregious of all of the Disney Princesses because she was a real person in history, and she could not have had a twelve-inch waist. And she was twelve years old when she met John Smith. She didn’t fall in love with him; she didn’t marry him; she did save his life. But the Disneyfication of her story overlays a really skinny, beautiful princess whose goal is to fall in love.
“You can talk about that with your children,” Scheibe suggests, “and you can focus on other aspects of who she is. You can point out all sorts of issues, like the way that skin color in Disney movies ties to gender: Females, regardless of the ethnicity, almost always have lighter skin than the males. Jasmine is much lighter in skin tone than Aladdin; Pocahontas is much lighter in skin tone than any of the male Native Americans. Just as a noticing thing. You can say, ‘That’s an interesting thing to notice. Why do you think they did that?’ You may not always have the answers, but you can get kids in the habit of noticing that somebody made this film.”
In short, white parents who wish to be allies to people of color should actively model an anti-racist standpoint for their kids. But just modeling isn’t enough—we need to talk openly about our position, too, and call out stereotypes when we see them. By taking these steps, we can raise children who are anti-racist and willing to change our world for the better.
Rebecca Hains, Ph.D. is a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years, a book meant to help parents raise empowered, media-literate daughters. This piece is adapted from Chapter 6 of The Princess Problem: “The Problems of Race Representation and Racism.”