How To Model Anti-Racist Behaviors And Talk To Children About Race
Existing racial tensions reached a crescendo in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and led to widespread discussions about anti-Black racism, police brutality, and overall race relations in the U.S. Although the same issues are just as prevalent and alarming almost three years later, the urgency behind many of those discussions has now disappeared and the country seems to have gone back to business as usual. But that does not mean that parents can and should not talk about issues related to race and racial relations in American.
Although children are typically not developmentally prepared to understand the concept of racism until four to six years of age, pediatricians say that awareness of racial difference can develop as early as infancy. And for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) children, being exposed to discrimination can result in toxic stress that impacts them for the rest of their lives, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in a policy statement released in 2019.
In other words, it is never too early to start raising an anti-racist child. But the first step is becoming an anti-racist parent. Here are a few critical ways white parents can model anti-racist behaviors for their young children.
Remember that infants and toddlers notice racial differences
By six to eight months old, babies begin to show preference toward learning from people within their racial group over those from other racial groups. By two to three years, toddlers use race to understand behavior. Of course, preferences found in infants and toddlers are not indicative of racial bias, but rather familiarity. However, these early preferences may support the development of later racial attitudes.
One 2017 study found that while white children between five and eight years of age did not show a negative attitude toward Black children, they did demonstrate a pro-white bias toward other white children. On the other hand, Black and Latinx children in another study showed little to no preference toward their racial group. Another, more recent study of preschoolers also found that this age group had pro-white biases, underscoring why it is critical to address racial bias even in young children.
Pediatricians suggest that learning racial bias is similar to a bilingual child learning a new language compared to a child who doesn’t start taking French until middle school. As children grow older, learning becomes more difficult. Although it might feel daunting, there are ways to model anti-racist behaviors for young children. Language can be instrumental in accomplishing this goal. For example, if a toddler is playing with a doll or toy that shares similar features to a person of color (curlier hair texture, darker skin), point out how pretty or handsome the toy is or compliment its hair.
The goal is not necessarily to make race the focal point, but to model equitable, uplifting and affirming language in front the child. By age 12, many children become set in their beliefs, giving parents more than a decade to address racial bias and improve cultural understanding. But parents must first educate themselves.
Get real about racial privilege and implicit bias
Although understanding racial privilege is an important part of developing anti-racist perspectives and raising anti-racist kids, it is a difficult and sensitive concept for some parents. There is a lot of misinformation about what racial privilege is and what it is not. Racial privilege is not a guaranteed road to riches, nor does it mean that white people do not work hard. Racial privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive and socially maintained for no other reason than your race.
For example, being given a warning when pulled over by police for speeding as opposed to being ticketed (or worse). Or, not being followed in a store by a store employee for fear that you might steal something.
Because racial privilege is not only based on how a person sees themselves but also how others see them, it cannot be given up. (Notice that the above examples describe how a person might be treated by others due to their perceived racial background, not necessarily whether or not they choose to benefit from racial privilege.) However, white people can use their racial privilege to advocate for and act as allies to those who are racially oppressed. Although the concept of racial privilege cannot be taught to a baby, awareness of a person’s racial privilege is instrumental in better understanding structural racism and identifying how to model behavior that denounces exploiting racial privilege in front of children as they grow older.
Exploring implicit biases can also help parents adopt and teach children anti-racist perspectives, and can assist parents in being more aware of their reactions to others and how those reactions might indirectly send a message to toddlers about other racial groups. Examples of ways parents might unintentionally convey bias to their children include keeping a farther distance from a person of color than is typical, crossing the street as they walk toward you or sending your child to a certain school for no other reason than that the school has a large population of students of color.
Resist color blindness
Studies suggest that adopting a color-blind ideology is not an effective approach for adults to view race or to educate their children about racial differences and racism. The idea of color blindness teaches young children that some differences are okay to talk about — such as biological sex — while others are not. This can make racial differences seem like a bad thing. Racial differences are not the problem. Treating someone differently or poorly because of racial difference is. Rather than teaching a toddler about color blindness, a more effective strategy might be to celebrate diversity by buying games, toys and books that include ethnically and racially diverse characters.
Parents should educate themselves and immerse their children in diverse environments
Racism does not always carry a large sign announcing itself. Subtle forms of racism are prevalent today, such as a Black child not being invited to a white classmate’s birthday party. Remaining aware of current and historic forms of racial oppression and injustice allows white people to develop an accurate and more contextual understanding of racism, and to better prepare to discuss similar topics with their children (once they are developmentally ready). It is equally important for a parent to immerse themselves and their child in environments that are racially, ethnically and culturally diverse. Children who are given the opportunity to interact regularly with people from different races in a positive way show weaker biases during infancy and more positive attitudes in childhood.
Push past discomfort
A 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that although the majority of Americans feel that racial discrimination is overlooked and current race relations in the U.S. are bad, 41 percent of Americans — and 50 percent of white people — believe that too much attention is paid to race and racial issues in America. These statistics imply that while a large number of white Americans acknowledge that racial issues and discrimination are prevalent and problematic, they’re still reluctant to talk about them.
A toddler might not yet be prepared to speak explicitly about racial differences, but if they are, follow their lead. For example, if your three-year-old points out that someone is Black in public, resist the urge to quickly change the subject.
Instead, acknowledge their observation as a matter of fact. Once alone, consider continuing the discussion with the toddler to better understand their perceptions of racial differences. Discussing race and racism can be incredibly anxiety-producing. It is not uncommon to experience feelings of shame, guilt and defensiveness when confronted with the devastating impact that racism has had on people of color. As a parent, process and acknowledge those feelings, then push past the discomfort and resist the urge to deny, minimize or shut down.