Whenever I speak, one of the most common questions I get is “When should be begin the conversation on race with our children of color.” From that popular question I developed a 6 hour training course that fuses my experiences as a transracial adoptee together with research about race, childhood development, and racial awareness. It took over two years to get the format and content right so that I would be able to present to families and professionals as a trainer in Ohio. It was the most frustrating and rewarding experience I have had to date. In the end I learned so much about how children see race as they develop and that knowledge has been invaluable. I thought it would be great to share some of what I learned with parents who are raising children of color. I took pieces of a few studies I use to show how race awareness develops and then after each stage I give suggestions as to what the talk on race may look like at those stages.
Children, Race and Racism: How Race Awareness Develops
By Louise Derman-Sparks, Carol Tanaka Higa, Bill Sparks
Parameter of Study: Two-part study conducted in Southern California during 1978-80.
In one part, pre-school, day-care and elementary workers recorded children’s comments about racial identity and racism. In the other part, interviews were conducted with 60 parents of children ranging from three to twelve years of age and representing a range of racial and economic groups. (Interviewers were of the same racial or national identity as the persons they interviewed.)
Three- to Five-Year-Olds
We found that preschoolers indicate most interest in physical characteristics of themselves and others; their second area of interest is cultural characteristics that are readily observable, such as language and dress. While young children are excellent observers, their experience of course is limited. When faced with a new experience, children will attempt to explain it in terms of a previous occurrence, even though it may not be applicable from an adult’s perspective. (This approach Piaget describes as “egocentric,” i.e., the child’s explanations make sense from the child’s point of view, but may not be accurate from an adult’s point of view.) It is difficult for them to understand that people who look and act differently are part of the same group.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to clearly separate the influence of ethnocentric and racist attitudes heard or seen by young children in their contacts with parents, relatives, neighbors, other children, books, TV and movies from their lack of experience and egocentric thinking. It is also highly possible that what starts out as the latter can, with inappropriate handling, quickly become prejudice.
Whatever the source, inaccurate stereotypic and caricatured images and information about racial/cultural groups are particularly harmful at this age. Having not yet fully formed clear concepts of themselves or others, preschoolers are still in the process of learning to determine what is authentic and what is not. 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.
It is important to realize that children notice race much earlier than most adults think. Some studies suggest children notice racial differences as early as when the child is 6 months old. Unfortunately, many adults assume that if we don’t recognize racial differences they remain invisible. This would be like me refusing to recognize to my sons that girls exist and the denial of their presence will render females transparent. But as soon as someone utters the words, “she’s a girl,” then and only then will my sons be aware of the female presence.
The studies clearly state children notice differences in pigment levels early. Between the ages of 3-5 children, children easily notice physical characteristics. Just as a child notices there are children who weigh more or less than them, they also notice different skin tones. It is during this period that children digest the world through their eyes and their experiences(egoncentric ) If a child has limited contact with other children that look like them, how do they decipher what being a child of color means. Visually they see the difference but intellectually how do they define what the difference means. Unfortunately, TV, movies, and magazines provide the wrong definitions. Often the children around them that don’t look like them will define what that difference means and rarely is that a positive definition.
(This is me at 5 years old with friends. I knew I was different.)
Parents, I implore you to be the ones during this period of development to define for your children what being a child of color means.
When I was young my parents didn’t talk to me about sex. I depended on the older boys in my neighborhood to define and interpret what sex was and how the female anatomy was constructed. My definitions come from boys that had no clue as to what they were talking about. But because they said it with conviction and authority I was convinced they knew it all. Later I found out THEY HAD NO IDEA WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT. Simple anatomy was misplaced, relocated and just plain wrong. As parents, we need to be the ones who define race for our children and it begins as early as 3 years old if not earlier.
At this early stage confirm what your children are seeing. Note the differences in skin tones, and hair. Reinforce for them that their skin is beautiful. Reinforce for them that although there are differences in skin tones and hair, their skin and hair is just as good as anyone else’s. When you are giving them a bath or putting lotion on their skin comment on the differences in skin color. Make it a natural conversation so the message is sent that race is alright to talk about. This will help them later in life when race becomes as issue.
Five to Eight Year olds
This is the period when children’s sense of individual identity evolves into group identity both cognitively and emotionally (Piaget describes thisstage of development as “socio-centric”). Children become conscious ofbeing part of a group different from other groups. They want to know moreabout their own group and have public expressions of their groupness, andthey develop a sense of pride in their identity and identify with well-knownrole models.
At the same time, in a racist society, five- to eight-year-olds’awareness of racism against their group is heightened. And conversely,personal prejudice can become an integral aspect of a child’s attitudes andbehavior. It is important to note that we do not think it is the crystallizationof group identity per se that is responsible for the development of prejudice,but the fact that it develops in a racist and prejudiced society. A common expression of personal racism at this age is racial name-calling, whichchildren begin to use against others with intent to hurt.
As children grow not only do they notice differences but as they mature they begin to group with those similar to them. Group favoritism begins to form intellectually but not yet physically.
It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences. Vittrup’s mentor at the University of Texas, Rebecca Bigler, ran an experiment in three preschool classrooms, where 4- and 5-year-olds were lined up and given T shirts. Half the kids were randomly given blue T shirts, half red. The children wore the shirts for three weeks. During that time, the teachers never mentioned their colors and never grouped the kids by shirt color.
The kids didn’t segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. “The Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “It was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.’ ”When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” Asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.
Bigler’s experiment seems to show how children will use whatever you give them to create divisions—seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue. So why does Bigler think it’s important to talk to children about race as early as the age of 3?
Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. ( http://www.newsweek.com/even-babies-discriminate-nurtureshock-excerpt-79233)
During this stage in development, the children cognitively begin to associate those like me are better than those unlike me. It’s interesting that the children still played freely together but held strong beliefs about those different from them. An outsider looking in would see the children playing together and inter-mingling and never realize what is happening subconsciously. It is here too where racial name calling begins. The first time I was called a nigger was when I was 7 or 8. The first time my son was called a nigger he was 9. The study is pretty accurate even in a world where our President is a person of color. It is at this stage that you begin to reap the rewards of talking about race at 2-3 years old. Now the children are comfortable talking about race and share with you when the racial slurs begin. Here is where you continue to tell your children of color that they are just as good. You provide everyday role models that look like them that they have access to on a regular basis to help create a solid base for the racial identity that is beginning to form. The conversations continue and racial prejudice and racism are introduced all with the same message. NO ONE IS BETTER THAN YOU. If it is during this age that this is the first time you are talking about race, you begin as laid out above. You continue with honest conversations that may be something like this. “You know what I’m afraid of as your mom/dad. I’m afraid that not everyone will see the beauty that we see in your skin and hair. I’m afraid children will tease you because your skin or hair is different because this could happen. Do kids your age ever make fun of other kids because they are different? Do they make fun of the kids who are overweight or have physical challenges? That isn’t right is it? They shouldn’t do that because although kids are different no one is better than another. You and your beautiful chocolate skin are just was good as anyone. If anyone ever does make fun of you because you’re different I want you to know you can tell me.”
When they do come home and tell you. Take a deep breath. Parental instinct will tell you to go medieval on the perpetrator. DON’T! Tend to your child now and fight injustice later. Ask your child how they want it handled. You going up to the school or to the other kid’s parents and dropping an Atom bomb may only traumatize your child further. Remember group membership is important at this stage and you turning over the school may be cause for their membership to be revoked.
Nine to Twelve year olds
Pre-adolescents deepen their understanding of the various factors defining racial/cultural identity. Children at this age begin to understand historical and geographic aspects of racial identity, as well as the concept of “ancestry.” Feelings and knowledge centered on cultural values and personal struggle against racism become more complex. A deepening awareness of cultural/political values also occurs. Children in this age group can achieve what Piaget calls “reciprocity,” i.e., understanding the interaction between individuality and group membership and the concept that we are all simultaneously humans and members of specific sub-groups, meaning that we have both similar and different needs.
It is usually during this stage of development that schools assign the family tree assignment as children begin to understand deep concepts of ancestry and history. These projects are often misguided and can cause a lot of hurt to children who are not from a “traditional family.” (Here you can read about our experience with the such a misguided project-Click here). Talking about ties with biological parents and family at this stage is important as they wrestle with their own ancestry.
Typically during this stage the children begin to separate physically and the playgrounds are much more segregated than in previous years. Group favoritism becomes even more pronounced. Yet children also begin to develop the ability to understand that you can be individuals as well as members of groups. As they mature, children become more and more aware of racism and how it impacts their lives especially children of color.
The talk about race continues and becomes more layered. Prejudice and racism are explained in more detail. Matching TV with your children and pointing out stereotypes and racism is a good way to talk about race in a less personal way. Again, the work you have done with these conversations in the past will make this much easier. If this is the first time you discuss race with your child the conversation above can still apply with the inclusion of deeper conversations on racism and prejudice. Enlisting the help of friends who are of color may help. As always you reinforce the system of institutional racism is broken NOT your child.
The study on race awareness and development only studied children up to twelve years old. I have included an additional piece that includes how race impacts teenagers, especially teenage boys.
Based on their fieldwork in U.S. high schools, Fordham and Ogbu indentified a common psychological pattern found amount African American high school students at this stage of identity development. They observed that the anger and resentment that adolescents feel in response to their growing awareness of systemic exclusion of Black people from full participation in U. S. Society leads to the development of an oppositional social identity. This oppositional stance both protects one’s identity from the psychological assault of racism and keeps the dominant group at a distance.
Sometimes the emergence of oppositional identity can be quite dramatic, as the young person tries on a new persona almost overnight….We need to understand that in racially mixed settings, racial grouping is a developmental process in response to an environmental stressor, racism. Joining with one’s peers for support in the face of stress is a positive coping strategy. What is problematic is that the young people are operating with a very limited definition of what it means to be black, base largely on cultural stereotypes.–-Dr. Beverly Tatum-”Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?”
During the teenage years I can remember when the weight of racism and oppression hit me. I understood this was a battle I could not defeat on my own. With that realization came anger and my oppositional identity showed up complete with fireworks. It is here where I became everything I thought black was not realizing I had become the stereotypes I was raging against. Peace came to me from other black children who intimately understood what we were up against. Here is where children of color need a place to exhale and share what they are feeling. If the conversations have been set up correctly some children will feel comfortable sharing with their parents what they are feeling. But some teenagers may not. Enlist the help of people of color around you who can share with them their experiences and provide them a place to exhale. This period of development may be a struggle from some transracial families because the anger and frustration may appear to be directed towards the family. BREATHE. Their anger is more about the system of racism than about their colorful family. They still are able to distinguish individuals from groups Carefully, create a way for them to express themselves and their frustration. If this is the first time race is discussed again share with them your fears and clearly let them know home is a safe place to talk about the complexities of race.
The assumption of this piece has been that you all have contact with and regular interaction with people of color. I know for a lot of you this isn’t true. My prayer is that in 2014 you will proactively find ways to give your children access to people who look like them on a regular basis. The contact I had with people who looked like me growing up built a solid foundation on which I erected by racial identity. It helped my caramel skin fit better.