When Do Kids Understand Race?
When Do Kids Understand Race?
Race researcher Erin Winkler tells the story of a Latinx boy who, one day, said to his parents, “I want to be White.” “His parents were upset and thought that he was internalizing racial self-hatred,” says Winkler, who is an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Winkler’s advice for the parents was to prod deeper. Instead of telling the boy that he was wrong or being dismissive, Winkler encouraged the parents to ask him why he said that. “It turns out that he wanted to be a physician,” says Winkler. “And he had seen only White physicians.”
For parents, talking to children about race and racism can get complicated quickly. And as America is learning how to have these conversations, parents need to address systemic racism with kids much sooner than they think, says Winkler. Her book, Learning Race, Learning Place, looks at how children develop their ideas around race, and she discovered through interviews and research that kids also learn about race through their environment, as well as media and larger societal structures, despite parents’ best efforts and good intentions. “Parents often want to know how to talk to their children about race, and that’s important, but it’s more than talking,” says Winkler. “It’s about what parents do to teach their children about race, which is more than what they say.”
So how did the parents of the Latinx boy help him understand that he could also be a physician? By showing him Latinx physicians in media and having him meet them in real life. Ultimately, talking and language is just the start, says Winkler. It is through action that kids will truly understand how to be anti-racist. Explains Winkler: “Bring it up, address it directly, and avoid colorblindness. Don’t always feel like you need to have the answer right away. Try to explore your child’s question first and allow for critical thinking.”
A Q&A with Erin Winkler, PhD
Studies from the ’90s and early 2000s show that infants categorize people by race at three to six months old. These studies found that infants gazed longer at new faces of people who were the same race as their primary caregiver than at those of a different race, so this is how we know that they’re nonverbally recognizing and categorizing based on race. In the general public, people often use the words “categorize,” “stereotype,” “prejudice,” and “racism” interchangeably, but developmental psychologists use those terms very differently. Categorizing doesn’t necessarily mean having negative ideas and is not the same as making assumptions about people based on the category in which they’re being placed. It just means that children are learning, sorting, and categorizing things like shapes and colors, so we shouldn’t be surprised by this with young children.
At around two years old, children start using racial categories to reason about people’s behaviors. The scholarly literature shows that when children are given a scenario and asked to figure out what’s going on, they may use skin color along with other categories as a way to try to reason about what’s happening and why. When we see this in two-year-olds, they’re not necessarily mimicking or reproducing broader societal racial stereotypes yet.
“A study that was done in 1997 followed a group of 200 children, roughly half of them Black and half of them White, and when they were two and a half years old, a majority were showing an in-group bias toward their own race. But by three years old, most of the kids were showing a pro-White bias.”
It’s when kids get to three to five years old, at preschool age, that research shows that they are consistently expressing bias based on race. It starts out as what psychologists call an in-group bias, and psychologists think that this partially has to do with cognitive brain development.
An in-group bias is favoring the group in which you are a member. A study that was done in 1997 followed a group of 200 children, roughly half of them Black and half of them White, and when they were two and a half years old, a majority were showing an in-group bias toward their own race. But by three years old, most of the kids were showing a pro-White bias. This can’t just be explained by the children thinking, You know what, I’m good, so people who look like me must be good, because if that were the case, we’d expect that bias toward one’s own race to hold. What we start seeing as the kids get into preschool years is that the in-group bias holds for the White kids, but the in-group bias does not hold for the children of color.
Children have immature cognitive structures, which means that they have trouble categorizing people using multiple dimensions at once. This means that when they see people are alike in one way, such as skin color, they think they’re alike in other ways, such as abilities or likes or dislikes and things like that. That’s one reason why we think we may see this in-group bias in young children, but it’s not the only reason. If it were the only reason, then we would expect to see bias based on all kinds of categorizations that kids are making. We don’t see the same bias based on who wears glasses and who doesn’t or who is left-handed and who’s right-handed or other things they may be noticing, like height or hair length. This is where researchers believe that those societal messages or external factors are getting in.
“Most parents believe that they’re protecting their children by delaying the discussion about why these patterns exist in society. They’re doing it for the right reasons, but what research shows us is that silence does not protect children.”
What researchers think is happening is that kids are seeing from society that race—although three-year-olds wouldn’t be able to articulate race in the same way adults would, so they’re more likely to rely on skin color—seems to be a social category of significance. Meaning that when they walk through their neighborhood, they see people who wear glasses and people who don’t and they see people who are tall and people who are short and they see people with long hair and people with short hair. Those don’t seem to be categories that structure who lives in their neighborhood, for example, but they are likely to notice that maybe most people in their neighborhood or the people who come and visit their household or the people who are the fairy princesses in their favorite movies seem to have the same or similar skin color.
They’re picking up from society that this seems to be a pretty important category. They’ve learned lots of categories, and this seems to be one that dictates who has what jobs at their school or at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office or who seems to live in in their neighborhood.
Adults often think that when they’re silent about race, they’re protecting their children, but unfortunately our society is so permeated by racialized inequities that racialized patterns are obvious to children. When adults are silent about why those patterns exist, they’re allowing bias to become solidified in their children.
White parents and parents of color want to protect their children from harm and from the evil in the world; they want to protect children’s innocence. For parents of color, there’s also the added concern that this information about the unfairness that exists in society based on race will be devastating to the psychological well-being of their children, that it will make them fearful or hopeless. Most parents believe that they’re protecting their children by delaying the discussion about why these patterns exist in society. They’re doing it for the right reasons, but what research shows us is that silence does not protect children. It increases bias, because kids see patterns, whether it’s in their everyday interactions or in media. Even if parents try to protect their kids from media, if your child goes out into the world, it’s very difficult to protect them from marketing. So when they see those patterns, if adults don’t help them figure out why they exist, children will attach meaning on their own and they’ll think: Well, there must be a good reason for these patterns I’m seeing. Often what kids are being taught is that there are consequences for their actions and that people earn what they deserve, and so kids will apply that to the patterns that they’re seeing. If no one helps them understand those patterns exist because of unfairness that’s built into our society, then they end up thinking that those patterns are justified or deserved or earned.
“Parents often use colorblind language because they want to teach their kids that race doesn’t matter. This doesn’t help kids be less racially biased; it teaches them that their parent is uncomfortable talking about this.”
Parents think they’re protecting children by remaining silent, but they’re basically giving up the reins to society. You’re essentially saying, okay, society gets to teach my kids what to think about race.
Sometimes it’s unintentional, but parents tend to use colorblind language even when something comes up that’s racialized. So if there’s unfairness going on—if a friend is being excluded or if a child says something that a parent perceives as bias—parents often turn to language like “That’s not nice” or “We don’t want to hurt her feelings” or “She might feel sad if you say that,” without getting at the racialized question or unfairness behind the issue. Parents often use colorblind language because they want to teach their kids that race doesn’t matter. This doesn’t help kids be less racially biased; it teaches them that their parent is uncomfortable talking about this. It could be a benign question, for example, a child who’s grown up around only people of their same race and they see someone of a different race and ask, “Why do they look like that?” Parents will often shush the child or reply with a colorblind answer. If the child is silent about the topic after this, it doesn’t mean that the question has gone away. It means the child is learning that we don’t talk about this directly.
Another thing that parents often do if they do address racism is put it in terms of a sick person or a bad apple. They’ll say that only sick people want to hurt other people based on their race or on how they look. Again, this is an understandable message, but what we’ve seen is that it can make the situation seem like something that is isolated, or for White children, the takeaway message can be: “We are not part of the problem because we are not sick or bad people, and therefore we don’t need to worry about this.”
There’s a quote from a 2001 book by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin, The First R, that’s about preschoolers and race. They say, “Talk about the fact that the social world we live in is often unfair to people of color simply because they are people of color and that persisting racial-ethnic inequalities are unjust and morally wrong. Make it clear that racial-ethnic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform and not just something that individuals do.”
It is important that parents couple this discussion of unfairness with a discussion of resistance and empowerment. Otherwise, it can be frightening and crushing for children—especially children of color—to learn about this unfairness. Therefore, it’s important to talk with children about people in your community (and beyond) who are working to fight against this unfairness. Introduce them to these people and model for them the importance of this fight against racial inequity.
“What choices are you making about your environments and theirs? What environments are they in every day? Who is present and in what roles? Whose experiences and perspectives are being centered and valued? What are they observing when they witness you reacting to racialized situations? What you do matters.”
One example that comes to mind came from a White mother who spoke to me about her young White son asking something along the lines of “Why don’t Black people get grocery stores?” based on patterns he saw while riding through their city. Here, it was important for her to help her child understand that this was the result of unfairness toward Black people as a group and that it was not right. But it was also important for this parent to make sure to bring in the empowerment element, talking to her child about people in the community who also recognize this same unfair pattern and are working to make change through advocacy, community gardening, and more. Remember that young children learn through concrete experiences, so it is important to introduce them to anti-racist role models and activists in person and get involved to show them that we all must be a part of the change.
Parents also should not wait for kids to ask questions because research shows that children are getting the message early that they aren’t supposed to talk about race. Parents should raise these issues and work to normalize these discussions about race. What research has shown is that parents bring up fairness around gender with very young kids, but they do not and are not comfortable bringing up race. Black and Latinx parents are more likely to bring up cultural identity and pride with young children, but parents of all races are unlikely to talk with young children about racial inequity or unfair racialized patterns that kids might see. Bring it up and don’t wait for kids to ask questions. If they do ask questions, answer them directly if you can. If you can’t, I encourage asking the follow-up question, “What makes you say that?” If a child asks a question that sounds biased, sometimes parents want to shut them down and say, “That’s not nice. We don’t say that.” But asking, “What makes you say that?” can help explain their thinking and help you understand the best way to respond.
You are teaching children about race all the time, even if you’re not talking about it. They are observing your choices and behaviors and learning from that. What choices are you making about your environments and theirs? What environments are they in every day? Who is present and in what roles? Whose experiences and perspectives are being centered and valued? What are they observing when they witness you reacting to racialized situations? What you do matters. It is not just about what you say because kids don’t buy the whole “do as I say, not as I do” thing. So if you say that this is important but then your actions don’t match it, kids will notice. If you say, for example, that it’s important to have a diverse group of friends, but then you put them in a racially homogenous school or have only people of your same race over in your house, then kids see that it’s not that important to you. Do the the books you’re reading and the artwork on the wall and the media you consume reflect the anti-racist values you are talking about with your children? What about your actions within your own realm of influence? If you tell your children that anti-racism is about more than just being individually good people—that it’s about working to make change—are they seeing you modeling that, at least within your own realms of influence? Talking is important, but it has to be more than talking. Kids are learning from your actions.
Parents have to take the initiative to educate themselves and get comfortable talking about race and racism and racial inequality, period. Meaning they have to be able to do this with adults. It’s going to be extremely difficult to talk about it in an age-appropriate way with a two-year-old or a five-year-old or an eight-year-old if you’re not comfortable talking about these things with peers. Given the way our educational system has worked in centering the experiences of White Americans with a Eurocentric curriculum, today’s adults do not necessarily have the full knowledge of how racialized inequity got built into our society. It’s not a central part of the core kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade curriculum. If people want to do the work to raise anti-racist kids, they have to educate themselves first.
“There tends to sometimes be an assumption that it’s White parents who need help with this and that parents of color have it all figured out. While it’s true that parents of color know that they need to prepare their children for racism, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.”
Once I had a White parent ask me how to answer a White child who asked, “Why are Black people poor?” First you want to help them think in a more complex way and problematize why they are making this direct connection between Blackness and poverty and complicate that because, of course, it’s not true that all Black people are poor. But if what this child is noticing is the disproportionate impact of poverty on Black people or the wealth gap or these things that are very real forms of institutional racism in our society, then I first asked the parent, “How would you explain that to me as a peer?” She didn’t know; she wasn’t sure. She didn’t have all the information on how these inequities got built into our society. She said something about education, but the wealth gap is about a lot more than access to education. That’s an example of a complex problem that’s difficult to help a seven-year-old unpack if, as an adult, I don’t know how to unpack it at my own intellectual level. That’s a matter of knowledge, but then there’s also the issue of discomfort and people wanting to avoid rather than engage. So it’s both about education and also about practicing. You have to think and read and talk about this stuff every day.
This is also a reminder that parents don’t always need to have the answer. One thing that happens is that parents avoid talking about this because they’re scared of either not having the answer or having the wrong answer. It’s okay to say to a child that you don’t have all the answers right now but that you will research and the two of you can learn together. And you can model for them when you are frustrated about not having answers because what we are taught has a lot to do with racial power, privilege, and inequity. For example, a parent might say, “You asked me this good question about why we live where we live and why most people in our neighborhood look like us, and I’m frustrated that I don’t have a complete answer for you because I didn’t learn about this when I was in school. Our curriculum didn’t teach us about how this unfairness came to be either. I think the fact that I don’t have an answer for you is part of that same unfairness we’ve been discussing about what is taught and what is not taught in school, and you’ve inspired me to do some more learning.” And you can say, “Let’s learn about this together.”
I love the website EmbraceRace.org. They do an excellent job of bringing together resources and making sure that they are speaking to the experiences of parents of children of color as well as parents of White children. There sometimes tends to be an assumption that it’s White parents who need help with this and that parents of color have it all figured out. While it’s true that parents of color know that they need to prepare their children for racism, that doesn’t mean that it’s easy, for example, for Black parents to explain to a five-year-old about racialized police violence against Black people. Embrace Race does a great job of giving advice for a broad range of parental experiences. Oftentimes people say they want to help “parents,” but then they implicitly center White parents and normalize White parent experiences and the experiences of parents of color gets left out.
Here are more resources that do a great job of helping parents:
• Parent Toolkit’s article “How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism”
• The National Museum of African American History & Culture’s Digital Resources Guide
• Center for Racial Justice in Education’s Resources for Talking about Race, Racism, and Racialized Violence with Kids
• Teaching for Change’s guide Teaching Young Children about Race
• Brightly’s How to Talk to Kids about Race: Books and Resources That Can Help
• The Girl Scouts’ article “Help Your Kids Take Action against Racism”
Erin N. Winkler, PhD, is an associate professor of African and African diaspora studies and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she is also affiliated faculty in women’s and serves on the advisory boards of childhood and adolescent studies, ethnic studies, and Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latinx studies. She earned her PhD in African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley and was a postdoctoral fellow in African American studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of Learning Race, Learning Place: Shaping Racial Identities and Ideas in African American Childhoods.
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