How to Talk to Your Toddler About Race

Group of Children

By Sanober Bukhari

Masalamommas Award

Masalamommas Award

I am still surprised by the number of curve balls parenting throws at me. You would think by now I would be prepared for all kinds of parenting challenges. Clearly I’m not. A little while ago I overheard someone discussing when to introduce the concept of race to their Group of Childrenchildren. I was relieved that my daughter was still too young to think about that so I brushed it aside, a challenge for another time.

A month later my 3-year-old and I were coming back from the park, her soccer ball in hand we rushed into the crowded subway with barely any space to stand. Luckily a gentleman offered his seat to us and he eventually ended up sitting across from my daughter.

All the while she had been quite engrossed in the design on her soccer ball, tracing her fingers around its pattern when abruptly she looks up points to the same helpful man from earlier and simply states, “He is black” and returns to playing with her ball. My immediate reaction was embarrassment.

With only one stop left before we had to get off, and feeling the subway getting claustrophobic, all eyes looking at me accusingly, I did the only thing I thought best at the time. I pretended I misheard, pointed to the ball and said, “Yes, that is the colour black, this is the colour white and that line is the colour yellow”. Wait, did I just emphasize black, white and yellow? I turned a deeper shade of red and ran out with my daughter in tow as we reached our stop.

I admit I could have handled the situation better. I was completely mortified by my actions. Later that evening when my husband came home, we sat our daughter down and casually brought up our family’s varying skin colours and described them to her in language she understood i.e. food. She and her father were closer to a shade of vanilla ice cream and I was similar to the colour of cookies and bread.

I come from a distinct ethnic background and yet had still gotten sucked into becoming overly PC (politically correct) where one is almost afraid to mention colour as a distinction and rather be ‘colour blind’ instead.

However something about this didn’t sit right. I felt like I was stuck in the 90’s and my operating system needed a well overdue update. How was I supposed to teach my daughter about race and cultural sensitivity if I wasn’t supposed to talk about colour?

Mom, Stay-at-home, Sanober Bukhari

Parenting Writer

Erin Winkler, a Professor at the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in her publication Children Are Not Colorblind: How Children Learn Race says “There is a myth in popular culture that young children are “colorblind” or don’t notice race. By this logic, children are “blank slates” who cannot develop racial prejudices until they are explicitly taught to do so. However, current psychological research suggests this approach is all wrong. In fact, research clearly shows that children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by age three to five that do not necessarily resemble the racial attitudes of adults in their lives.”

L.A Hirschfeld, a Professor of Anthropology & Psychology at The New School for Social Research says in Handbook of Race, Racism and the Developing Child  “Children are motivated to learn and conform to the broader cultural and social norms that will help them function in society. In order to gauge these “community norms,” children have to gather information from a broad range of sources.” An example Hirschfeld used which resonated with me is if children looked just to their parents to learn behaviours and norms then we would expect them to also have the same accents as their non-native speaking parents, instead they develop the accent of the area they are growing up in.

If my daughter is going to be using her developing cognitive abilities to make sense of the world around her and inherently pick up on these biases, it would then be in society’s best interest to interrupt this way of thinking by bringing to her attention the diversity around her, placing a value on it than not acknowledging it at all. Of course this becomes an even harder challenge when within our own South Asian ethnic group the colour of your skin as ‘gori’ (fair) is given such importance. So how then should one talk to their toddlers about racial equality?

Don’t Be Afraid to Talk About Race Peace
If your child makes a race related remark, do not reprimand or overreact to it, or even ignore it, as that will make the child think there was something taboo associated with it.

Instead, as awkward as it might feel initially in public, explain the situation calmly. In my case, how I should have immediately responded to my 3-year-old stating “He is black”, was by telling her yes that is the colour of his skin, we all have different skin colours just like our hair colour is different too but that makes it nice doesn’t it, so many interesting colours!

Be Truthful and Age Appropriate
Don’t try to mask the issue of racist behaviour by blaming it on “bad individuals” or as a character flaw of a few, but rather be truthful that racial and ethnic inequality is part of a larger societal concern that needs to be corrected. Say it in words your children will understand but don’t leave out parts that you think they won’t get.

Valuing Diversity through Similarities and Differences
According to some research, young children use “transductive reasoning” where if a person is similar in one area such as skin colour, they will assume they are alike in other areas as well e.g intelligence. This happens when they are unable to categorize people on multiple dimensions. Preschoolers also use “In group bias” which is favouritism to groups they are a part of (have the most similarities) and as they grow older, a preference starts to form for socially privileged groups as well. It is important then to critically engage children right from a young age to pay attention to various attributes at the same time, valuing both the similarities and the differences. This has known to reduce bias.

For example, if your daughter is showing a preference to playing with a similar skin toned friend who likes puzzles, she may associate the skin tone with the same activity she enjoys. Rather talk to her about another friend (different skin tone) who also enjoys puzzles.

Actions Speak Louder than Words. Be a Role Model
Rather than just talking about racial sensitivity and prejudices, your actions will go a long way in influencing your child’s mind set. It is important that you, as a parent, to show positive behaviour in your interaction with different ethnic groups at every opportunity. Reach out and take them to multicultural events to help foster cross-cultural friendships. Show your children how proud you are of them when they display their own concern for the just and fair treatment of others.

How have you spoken to your child about race? Has your child ever made a race related remark? How did you handle it?

Source: Children Are Not Color Blind: How Children Learn Race, Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum, Research-Based Advice on Teaching Children Not to Be Racist



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There are 3 comments

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  1. Amna

    Wonderful article! I love how you bring light to such topics and I love how you find ways to address it rather than ignore it. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  2. Nick

    Thank you for raising such an important issue. Often the younger generation is trying to raise children that “don’t see race”, but this isn’t the reality of our times. While I think there are certainly benefits to simply discussing everyone as people with your child while very young, your post does a great job of pointing out that the wider culture will have a large impact outside of family dialogues.

    An easy to see analogy would be drugs. By not talking about drugs with our children, would they then not see them and avoid experimenting? Clearly not the case. Race is a very large issue in America and it’s important to talk about it with our children as they start to become aware of it.

    I also hope, that by teaching our children about race when young, they will become much more comfortable discussing and actually making a difference around the issues as they get older. The PC culture we grew up in has done a lot of harm to advancing this discussion, and it would be great to turn it around. Thanks for sharing.

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