What do young children see?
Children are sponges, absorbing information about the world through everything they see, smell, hear, and touch. Around ages three and four they "notice differences, view things through eyes of openness" (Sue, 2015, p. 211) and their reception of what they observe is more or less neutral until they see how their parents respond and feel. Over time, children start to form conclusions about they see and hear with confirmations of how to believe from their friends, teachers, the media, and more.
"In most cases, these differences are associated with what the dominant society considers to be desirable and undesirable" (Sue, 2015, p. 211).
During this early age, when children are overtly observant, curious, and open-minded is the ideal time to have conversations with them about these differences they observe.
Being Colorblind & Colormute
The concept of color blindness is the claim that one does not see color or differences and therefore attempts to treat everyone exactly the same. However, doing this is an extremely privileged mindset that diminishes and denies the distinct reality of trauma, pain, and discrimination that people of color experience.
"'That blindness to skin color and race remains a 'privilege' available exclusively to White people.' It is the refusal to acknowledge the costs and benefits associated with one's racial and cultural identity. It provides cover for many Whites, who by claiming color blindness are able to dismiss their complicity in racial hierarchies" (Ullucci & Battey, 2011, p. 1196).
Educators who profess to be colorblind are going to miss the biases and prejudices that influence their actions, their treatment of students, their expectations, and "even the way a teacher addresses students of color" (Scruggs, 2009).
What should be done instead?
Preventing the formation of biases is much easier than unlearning them as adults. However, in order for us to succeed in teaching children about diversity and anti-racism we need to 'unpack our privilege'. Otherwise, we may be too fearful of offending or of saying the wrong thing and fail by not doing or saying anything at all.
"... as adults, out biases are already invisible and embedded in our identities; we fear exploring the topic of race. Unlearning our prejudices and becoming aware of them through exercises that confront our biases and fears must be remedial in nature; a task much more difficult than if we were to prevent them from forming in the first place" (Sue, 2015, p. 213).
Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it is awkward and uncomfortable. Yes, you will feel guilty and ashamed and defensive and angry. Good. Don't stop there. Keep going. If this internal work isn't done, then when we do talk to our kids we will do so without recognizing our existing biases and prejudices. If we want to even begin to dismantle the systemic oppression and racism in America, we need to start with ourselves and in our own homes; by confronting our own prejudices and biases head on.
This learning process does not mean that you should contact your black friends or find black people online and ask them questions. Stop. That puts the burden of effort on them not you. AND you're asking them to spend their time for free to educate you. Once again, stop. There are so many resources and books that already exist, written by people of color.
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum Slavery by Another Name by Douglass A. Blackmon
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
I encourage you to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Be uncomfortable. Recognize that you will never fully understand the experience of people of color in America. But that you should push yourself to try anyway.
How do we talk to children about diversity?
First, choose books written by people of color. The representation of children of color in children's books is sparse and sad but by purchasing books about diverse children written by diverse people, we are telling the publishers that we want people of color to write about their own experiences. Visit the following websites to find lists of resources and diverse books:
Use diverse books as the catalysts to conversations with children. Use the words, the stories, and the illustrations to have specific conversations with them.
"... a developmentally appropriate approach to diversity education for very young children should include the intentional introduction of conversations about those observable physical differences associated with race: hair color and texture, skin color, and facial features. These are highly noticeable features, and are therefore what young children quickly ... notice" (Kemple, 2016, p. 100)
We've all been there. Your teacher tells you that your child said, "You have big boobs like my Mom" to another adult or you're out at the grocery store and your child says, "Why is that man in a wheelchair?" Having intentional conversations with children using diverse books will allow you to practice your responses and potentially address these kinds of questions in a more controlled setting.
"To ignore or discourage children's curiosity, comments, and questions is not only missed opportunity, but sends a confusing message" (Kemple, 2016, p. 100).
It is critical that you do not discourage or shush children's questions or curiosity. By ignoring children or telling them to be quiet, you are telling them that having these thoughts and verbalizing them is shameful. It is perpetuating a privileged colorblind and ignorant mindset and you might as well be saying, "If we don't talk about it, then we can pretend it doesn't exist". This perpetuates racism and prejudice and, in the mind of children, reinforces what the dominant society says about people of color. Silence, in all of its forms, is compliance.
Adult: What do you notice about the three girls? Child: They gots different colors of skin (points to each girl). Adult: The title of the book is "The Colors of Us". Can you all say that? Children: The colors of us. Adult: What do you think the book might be about? Child: The beach! Colors.
Adult: I wonder what color we would call my skin... Child: White. Adult: Is my skin white, like this piece of paper? Children: Yes. No. Adult: Some say yes, some say no. Is it more tan, like this doll? Children: Yes. Well ... sorta. No.
Adult: They're all the same... Child: No! Adult: Some things are alike; They are sort of the same. What's alike here (points to page)? Children: All shoes. Adult: They all have shoes! What is different? Children: Those are fat. Those ones are skinny. Those legs are beige. Those are black. Adult: All legs for walking. Some short, some tall, some wide, some thin. All different shades of brown.
Additional Resource: Presentation
While in my last semester of my Master's degree, I created and gave a presentation about talking to children about diversity using diverse books to a room full of primarily white parents. Those parents were sending their children to a childcare center where I had my assistantship for a year and a half. Attached here is that presentation so that more people can read through it and utilize it for whatever purpose.
Want to go even deeper on this topic? Follow this link to read an article that includes many amazing resources: Your Kids Aren't Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup
In fact, they have some pretty great graphics that further emphasize the points made in my blog post: https://www.prettygooddesign.org
Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897-909. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.58.11.897b
Kemple, K. M., Lee, I. R., & Harris, M. (2016). Young children’s curiosity about physical differences associated with race: Shared reading to encourage conversation. Journal of Early Childhood Education, 44, 97-105.
Pahlke, E., Bigler, R. S., & Suizzo, M.-A. (2012) Relations between colorblind socialization and children’s racial bias: Evidence from European American mothers and their preschool children. Child Development, 83(4), 1164-1179. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01770.x
Scruggs, A.-O. E. (2009). Colorblindness: the new racism? Teaching Tolerance, 36. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2009/colorblindness-the-new-racism
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race talk and the conspiracy of silence : Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons
Ullucci, K., & Battey, D. (2011). Exposing color blindness/grounding color consciousness: Challenges for teacher education. Urban Education, 46(6), 1195-1225. doi:10.1177/0042085911413150