Talking about Race with My Four-Year-Old

“I’m only friends with people who have light skin.” This may be the most horrifying and disturbing thing that I have ever heard my four-year-old son say. We have a lot of conversations about difficult things—including sex and violence and one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people-eaters—but this comment nearly knocked me off my chair. We had been talking about who his friends were at preschool. When I asked about one particular boy—let’s call him “Joseph”—Declan said he wasn’t really good friends with him. I asked Declan why he thought that was. That’s when he made this statement.

Not only is the statement disturbing (when and how did my son become a racist??), but it’s actually not true. He has several friends with lots of different skin colors. But he hasn’t really developed a friendship with Joseph, and for some reason, he attributed this fact to skin color. Well, it was time to crack open my favorite collection of parenting-related essays, NutureShock: New Thinking about Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman—a book rooted in insights from social theory, summarizing studies in an admirably accessible manner. What did that chapter on race say, again?

Nurture Shock (Cover)

As it happens, Declan’s disturbing statement is actually developmentally normal, so say Bronson and Merryman in their chapter entitled, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” The authors write that white liberal parents (ahem . . .) generally don’t like to talk about race with their children. They try to raise their children to be “color blind.” Think Stephen Colbert: “Now I don’t see race, people tell me I’m white and I believe them because I belong to an all-white country club.” Race is merely a cultural construct. If we don’t raise our kids to think that race matters, they won’t notice it, right? Wrong. Race may be a cultural construct, but skin color is not. Bronson and Merryman don’t quite say it like this, but I will: race is the meaning we attribute to skin color. Kids may not understand the genealogy of modern racial stereotypes, but they do notice the color of skin and try to make meaning out of it . . . at a very young age, perhaps before we feel it is an “appropriate” topic of conversation. Bronson and Merryman note that kids instinctively self-categorize. They look for ways to group themselves with others and then look for ways to think of their group as better than other groups.

One of the studies that they cite is one in which Rebecca Bigler observed the attitudes of children divided into group by different colored T-shirts (see the article discussing the findings). When children are divided into groups based upon an otherwise arbitrary classification, they then showed favoritism towards those within the same group. They still played with each other at recess, but thought that the kids in their own group were better, faster, smarter.

Bigler’s experiment seems to show how children will use whatever you give them to create divisions—seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue. So why does Bigler think it’s important to talk to children about race, as early as age three? Her reasoning is that kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. Bigler contends that once a child identifies someone as most closely resembling himself, the child likes that person the most. And the child extends their shared appearances much further—believing that everything else he likes, those who look similar to him like as well. Anything he doesn’t like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random. We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors. (53-4)

The chapter also talks about the importance of being explicit about discrimination black people have faced from white people. For example, in another study by Bigler, children were read a book on the Jackie Robinson story. Some were told the story with more historical context including the discrimination that he faced, while others were read a story without that context that merely celebrated him as the first African American baseball player in the major leagues. “White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks than those who got the neutered version” (63). Bigler noted, “It knocked down their glorified view of white people.” And Bronson and Merryman reflect, “They couldn’t justify in-group superiority.

The authors also underscore that simply reading multicultural books or showing multicultural television programs doesn’t do the trick on its own. Parents need to have real conversations about these topics with their children for it to sink in, perhaps using “multicultural” books as springboards.

From "This Land Is Your Land"After reading this, I was determined to have a healthy conversation with Declan about skin color. Thankfully, he chose a bedtime book that was perfect for just such conversation, This Land Is Your Land, with Woodie Guthrie’s lyrics accompanying wonderful (multicultural) paintings by Kathy Jakobsen. On one page, there is a beach with people of many different skin colors. “You could even call their skin ‘black,’” my son noted of one family on the beach. We stopped to talk about how they are all sharing the same beach. On the last page, you can see Martin Luther King, Jr. (a black man holding a sign that says “I have a dream”). I talked about how MLK had a message about how we should all treat each other with respect and care and love, that we wouldn’t treat other people any differently just because of their skin color. I told him that this was an important message because people with lighter skin—”skin like ours,” I said—had often hurt people with darker skin very badly. (I wanted to stick to the “light skin” and “dark skin” lingo, since that’s what my son had been using.)

“Oh,” he said. “I wish I had dark skin.” Surprised by this sudden and radical shift, I asked, “Why is that?” “Because I don’t want to hurt people.” Wow. He also asked if MLK was “nice.” I decided not to go into his extramarital affairs in that moment and just said, “Yes, he was nice.” He then pointed out another person on the page with dark skin and said, “Oh, he has dark skin, so he must be nice.” We talked about how most people, no matter what their skin color is, are both nice and mean at different times. I told him that not all people with “light skin” hurt people with “dark skin,” but it’s important to remember the pain that many people with darker skin have had to experience.

I was astounded at how accurately the studies summarized by Bronson and Merryman reflected my conversational experience with my son. Also, for me, this is directly related to my own academic efforts in trying to figure out what “identity” is. Based on my reading of critical social theory, I do believe what we commonly call “identities” are merely discursive constructs—just stuff that we say and not actual “things.” That is, “race” or “ethnicity” or “nationality” or “gender” are not self-evident or intrinsically “real,” but social categories that we collectively invent and reinvent. Some of these discursive constructs and social categories are based upon the tangible, visible differences that we observe. I suppose it’s just important to have honest conversations about these observations, trying our best to strip through the discursive nonsense. And I’m glad I have an insightful and curious four-year-old to keep me honest.

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Posted in Identity, Parenthood, Race, Social Theory
  • brianleport

    Very interesting. I don’t have children yet, but my wife is Latina, so we’ve pondered aloud what future s/he (they) may face. She is lighter skinned, so it is possible that our child(ren) won’t face the bigotry associated with darker skin in our country, but they will be faced with these questions, navigating their identity formation as they relate to family members who are white and family members who are Latino. If/when we have children I will want to read that book, so thank you for bringing it to my attention. It is apparent that parents must be very intentional as regards combating the tendency to stigmatize those who are different from one’s self.

    • Pat McCullough

      Best wishes in that journey, my friend. So far, I have found the best tool for talking with my son about difficult issues is just to really listen to and try to understand him, and then be as honest as I can about the world around him.

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