We may think they don't, but children do notice race, and they need your help navigating an issue that has many parents burying their heads in the sand.
Children are colourblind – a refrain hopeful parents repeat as we watch our rainbow-nation children playing with their rainbow-coloured friends, seemingly free of the nasty apartheid baggage we remember from our childhoods. Many of us have hopes of our children growing up suspended in that “colourblind” stage, finally free of the ugly racial stereotyping, the anger and the guilt that dogs our country’s history. But of course children do notice colour. Who hasn’t been embarrassed by their child exclaiming, a bit too loudly, a bit too publicly, “Mom, that doctor is brown!” or “What? A white beggar?”
The meaning of it all
Children between two and up to the age of around five to seven are in what Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget called the preoperational stage of childhood development. Their thinking has become symbolic (they know pictures represent things) but they are still egocentric and struggle to see things from others’ perspectives, and they lack enough experience to accurately spot trends and patterns and predict events reliably. While they are trying to make sense of the mystifying adult world, for example, they may believe that it is possible to change their gender or race. Your under-seven may tell you all children become black as they age, or that he is going to become white so that he can look like a favourite friend.
The difference is that children below a certain age do not attach any meaning onto skin colour, it remaining, for a short part of their lives, as inconsequential and devoid of moral judgement as height or hair colour. But that age is younger than we imagine.
However, by the time we are adults, we struggle to grasp the race nettle. We wonder, is it acceptable to describe someone as “the white lady” if we want to point them out to our children? We sush our children when they describe someone as “fat” or “ugly”, explaining that we don’t want to hurt that person’s feelings. But being “brown” or “pink” isn’t “bad”... so why the embarrassment when a white child is surprised by the “brown” doctor?
White parents may feel guilt, and black parents anger, if they think their child’s comment suggests they expect that only white people can be successful. Or parents may be shamed because the child is putting his finger uncomfortably on the adult world’s hypocrisy (he is right, more doctors are white than black, despite the world we wish to paint for our children, racial equality is still far off). Alternatively we worry about loading an entirely innocent remark, akin to noticing the doctor’s waiting room chair colours, with our own issues.
Children look to us to make sense of their worlds. For instance, researchers have found that simply by greeting children with the seemingly innocuous “good morning, boys and girls”, we are teaching them that a crucial classification we make in our world is between the genders (and that boys generally come first). It is tempting, then, to ignore race and hope our children do not draw racist conclusions.
It gets incredibly complex. No wonder the ostrich’s approach has started to win out in the race debate. In a tone-setting 1980 review-of-research article, Louise Derman-Sparks, Carol Tanaka Higa and Bill Sparks say US professionals such as teachers and psychologists used to be taught that children were “colour-blind” (meaning: “unaware of race and racism”), and further, that children would grow up into non-prejudiced adults if adults maintained that racial “blindness” lifelong, by never discussing race with children. Denial and avoidance were the order of the day.
Silence isn't golden
But that was never going to work, was it? We already know how good children are at understanding our non-verbal as well as verbal cues, and are often caught wrong-footed by their difficult questions, like, “Mom, why do white people drive everywhere?” as one five-year-old asked her mother.
In fact, the authors state, “a considerable body of research demonstrates that children in the US are aware, at a very early age, of physical and cultural differences among people, and they learn the prevailing social attitudes toward these differences whether or not they are in direct contact with people different from themselves”.
Mary Ellen Goodman, author of the 1952 book Race Awareness in Young Children, studied 100 black and white children aged three to five, and found that “25 per cent of the children were expressing strongly entrenched race-related values by the age of four.” And in her groundbreaking book, The Shortchanged Children of Suburbia (1967), Alice Miel argues that when we teach our children to ignore race, we actually teach them that our prejudices exist, but that it is not nice to talk about them.
The world is more complex than caricatures and Barney
Because a preschooler is busy forming the concepts of race and culture, racist messages can find especially fertile ground at this age, the authors warn. “Especially when children do not have many opportunities for feedback about their ideas through direct interaction with people different from themselves, caricatured images can form the basis of their thinking.” Your opinions help shape your child’s view of the world. If anti-racism is important to you, that alone is a good reason to talk to your children about race.
Children’s television often presents an anodyne adult world (think Barney) where everyone is constantly in a good mood, all adults are safe, and complex questions are never addressed except in the most peripheral of ways. This models a world that not even remotely resembles the complex societies we inhabit, and television programmes like that can further feed the child’s budding realisation that “we are only allowed to talk about nice things”. Don’t be scared to counteract this by answering your child’s comments and questions at a more appropriate, more complex level.
When we feel we must ignore or deny difference, it is a short leap to making a child feel that being different to the majority, or those most vocal and powerful, is bad. Clearly this is detrimental to the self-confidence of those who do not resemble the majority, or the disproportionately powerful minority, like in South Africa, where white voices receive airtime that is disproportionate to their proportion of the population. So for example, if talking about race is a no-no, a black child in an overwhelmingly white school could be denied the vocabulary to explain to her white friends her experiences of racism. By not speaking about race, we allow children to imagine themselves in a racism-free world that they will soon enough realise is simply not accurate. Is this a good way to live in a multicultural society?
Instead, you can try to model a positive attitude towards your own race group. This allows your child to feel good about himself and can undo some of the damage of living in a world where racist messages abound. Children in the preoperational stage can struggle with the concept that they belong to a “group” (a race group), but you could explain that your race or cultural affiliation is like being part of a larger “family” (a concept a child understands), the authors suggest.
If, particularly as a white person, you struggle to imagine what racist messages a child might be getting, perhaps you might think about it analogous to the sexism debate. If you are a mother to a daughter, it is likely to have given some thought to your daughter’s body image, how you will protect her from sexual violence and counteract negative messages about girls and women at school. A man may be less able to “see” the sexism that is so obvious to you. At least think about the fallacies in reasoning you may be employing to help you maintain the notion that we live in a racism-free society: perception bias or motivation bias, for instance.
Having a good relationship to your culture of origin is important because, if children hold negative beliefs about their own race group, it can affect their academic performance in a self-fulfilling prophecy even by the age of five, a study in Child Development (Nov/Dec 2009) (and many other studies) have found.
It isn’t racist to notice difference. It is racist to attach an unjustified label to race. But if we constantly deny the differences between us, saying it is racist merely to point out racial difference, we lose the opportunity to speak about why and how racism works. As Derman-Sparks et al put it, “The ideology of ‘color-blindness’ permits people to deny the role of institutional racism. By asserting that racism is caused by acknowledging differences, rather than by a social system which exploits certain racial groups for economic profit, ‘color-blindness’ actually supports the racist status quo.”
If we instead allow that race “exists”, we can also allow our children to stretch their and our own minds open from time to time, like when Liam Wray, 5, asked his father, “Daddy, if everyone is equal, why do the black people still live in small houses?”
Don’t we owe him an honest answer?