Although we may think that kids don't notice race, they actually start showing signs of racial bias as early as two years old. Young children are constantly viewing, understanding, and processing the information they are bombarded with to retain for future use.
Your kid notices race and quickly absorbs information and experiences around them. Therefore, we cannot slack on educating our children about race as early as possible.
To shape the future leaders and problem-solvers of tomorrow, we need to build a strong foundation of knowledge. To help you on your journey to antiracist parenting, here are the top five reasons you should start speaking to your children about race today.
There is a common myth that children are too young to notice race; people often think that we develop conceptions about race as we become more critical thinkers.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children learn about race pretty quickly and develop biases before they hit first grade.
With these developmental stages in mind, parents have a little over ten years to help shape their children's learning process and reduce racial prejudice and enhance acceptance and understanding.
And we haven’t even made it to puberty yet!
The reality is, whether we like it or not, children learn about race quickly, often expanding their understanding and molding their biases from those around them--their parents, teachers, and peers.
Another myth is that kids are too young to understand or begin to form racist ideologies. Parents like to think that children don’t notice differences; that they love every person they meet.
Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that children, even incredibly young ones, understand and use racial stereotypes and labels.
Dr. Mamie Clark studied the effects of racism on young children. Her Master's thesis, “The Development of Consciousness of Self in Negro Pre-School Children," revealed that Black children as young as three years old had already internalized anti-Black or pro-White biases.
(Dr. Mamie Clark, her husband Dr. Kenneth Clark, and a Doll Test study participant.)
Dr. Clark and her husband further expanded on her thesis to contribute evidence for the landmark Supreme Court case Brown vs. The Board of Education.
Additional studies suggest that preschool age children of color who have contact with predominantly White people prefer White dolls over dolls with darker skin and have negative attitudes about their Black identity.
Studies show that White children learn and use racial labels at a young age, often before they can even classify things as “alike” and “different and tend to feel good about themselves because of their race.
A more recent doll play study showed that children often associated White dolls with “good” and Black dolls with “bad.” Furthermore, White children who watch a lot of television tend to associate Black people with violence and crime.
How and where does a three-year-old learn about race? They’ve rarely been around peers and they've hardly been affected by the education system.
Your child has learned what they know about race from you.
We, as parents and teachers, often unknowingly communicate our biases with children. Everything we say and do, from the way we act, the words we choose, the tone of our voice, our body language, and how we treat those who are “different”, displays our prejudices.
Every day your child is learning something new from you and the world around them. And every day, kids are learning more about race. From the time they are infants into adulthood, they are bombarded with explicit and implicit messages about racism and discrimination. Think about it.
When did you first notice race?
Families often think they can control everything their children learn about race. This isn’t the case, for obvious reasons. We all live in a racialized society, our children included. Messages about race are everywhere.
As a result, notions of race will find their way into your child’s world, regardless of your efforts to prevent it. Our actions also speak louder than our words, even if they’re unbeknownst to us sometimes.
Additionally, children attend school, meet friends, interact with teachers and school staff, spend time with their friends’ parents, and so on. They will naturally learn and develop internalized beliefs about race through these interactions and experiences.
Furthermore, our children aren’t growing up in the era where they only have access to printed children’s books and snake on their ‘90s desktop computers.
Kids are constantly learning new things from television, movies, and the internet: Hello, YouTube!
Parents and teachers might think they can protect children from the harsh reality of racism. But in fact, avoiding the subject leaves children helpless in processing the bombardment of messages about race in their everyday lives.
Choosing to speak to children early about race and racism offers guidance, support, and knowledge about a topic they are bound to come into contact with early on. This way, you can guide the conversation and empower your child to have a holistic understanding of race.
Until our kids can think critically about these sources on their own, parents and educators have a responsibility to explain that racist and discriminatory images, ideas, and stereotypes are false and unfair.
As previously mentioned, children are actively digesting messages from many different sources. Kids are not socialized passively. Instead, kids are actively learning about race and racism every day.
We need to check-in with our kids to help navigate their understanding and support their ability to think critically and process information. As children master language, begin to express their beliefs, and ultimately act on these views, we begin to get a sense of what they know.
Often, biases have already developed by this point.
If we don’t talk to them early on and see how they’re being socialized and navigating our racialized world, we might be in for an unfortunate surprise later on.
In How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi argues that we can reach our goal of becoming an anti-racist society if we focus on power instead of people and changing policy instead of individuals.
We know that policies are developed by people. These people all begin as children.
So here it is: children who form racist biases grow to be policymakers who perpetuate discriminatory systems; this is what we call the cycle of systemic racism.
If kids don’t learn about race and equity from a young age, they will inevitably repeat the same injustices that already exist, continuing to privilege some and disempower many.
Growing up in a segregated, racist society influences all children’s development, albeit differently.
(Source: The Higher Learning)
Political bodies, such as the majority older White male federal and state legislatures, consist of folks who likely never had explicit education about racism and equity. They also likely grew up watching racist cartoons and internalizing racist ideas from their families, schools, and communities.
Additionally, many White folks simply don’t learn about anything other than White, European values in school and at home. This makes it even more difficult to understand and respect the views and perspectives of others.
Failing to teach children about race and racism harms us all.
On the flip side, teaching about race isn’t all doom and gloom; conversations don’t have to be challenging or scary. There are plenty of educational tools and resources for parents and teachers available that are engaging and thought-provoking.
This explicit knowledge and understand works to empower all children to be critical thinkers who grow to challenge and dismantle discriminatory systems and practices. Improved equity in our social systems, policies, and practices ultimately creates a healthier, happier, and more knowledgeable society.
We must actively teach our children. It’s never too early.
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