I remember being a young girl, pulling out crayon after crayon from their box, trying to find the perfect shade to fill in the skin color of the coloring pages in front of me. The problem was always the same; my skin color did not exist in that box. I remember how excited I would be when I opened a gift to find a brunette Theresa doll instead of the blonde, blue-eyed Barbie. I had not been taught to prefer representations of my own color, or been told that toys and television characters that looked like me were few and far between. These were ideas I came to on my own. The absence of people who looked like me in mainstream media was not overlooked by my young mind, as I am sure concepts of race and cultural differences are not absent in the minds of children today. It was not that discussions of race were purposely ignored in our home, but my parents did not know how or why to discuss the subject. My experiences with race as a first generation living in the US were vastly different than theirs as immigrants. Compared to when they arrived, the US seemed much more integrated and concerns about race and prejudices appeared to be a part of the past.
This is not much different from the “colorblind” approach a lot of parents take today. Many people believe that if you do not talk about race or avoid showing your children racial biases, they will grow up without being exposed to racial prejudices and naturally be accepting of others. The problem with this is that although you or your family may not expose your children to issues of race and prejudices, children will still obtain some of these messages from the media, their observations, and their peers. One study in the book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism found that children as young as three years old will exclude children, when playing, based on their race. A study titled “In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality” has found that when children are taught about diversity as a value, they can better identify situations of racial discrimination than those whose parents used a “colorblind” approach. Speaking to children about race can feel uncomfortable, but by highlighting the positives of cultural diversity, speaking to your child can be a fun and enriching experience.
Here are a few ways you can start having conversations about race and diversity:
• Talk to your child about their own culture. Often we perceive culture as something that pertains to other people, but everyone comes from somewhere, regardless of whether they just moved or their family has been in a place for generations. Teaching your child where their ancestors are from, what languages they spoke, and what traditions they had can lead to a lot of fun activities.
• Read books that depict people of different races and cultures with your child, and suggest that their teacher do the same.
• Take advantage of months and holidays that celebrate different cultures to teach your child about historical figures of different races. You do not have to focus on the violence that occurred during the 1960’s to celebrate the courage and peace that surrounded the Civil Rights movement and its leaders. Instead mention how it brought together people of all colors and backgrounds to stand up for equality, so children do not get the idea that any one race is “bad” because of the way some people of that race may have treated others.
• Go to local events, such as cultural festivals, to experience different foods, music, and art.
• Encourage friendships with children from different cultural backgrounds. This allows your child to learn about other races through direct contact rather than stereotypes.
• Answer your child’s questions. Sometimes it can be difficult, especially if a child asks an insensitive question at an inappropriate time, but shushing them can do more harm than good. Ignoring or shushing their questions gives the impression that conversations about race are a bad thing. Instead, try to address it briefly but politely, and continue the conversation at home.
Remind your children that different does not equal “weird.” We should all celebrate differences and be accepting of others. As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher, so be a great one and lead by example!
Cristina Moreno is the Bilingual Outreach Specialist at Penfield Children’s Center. She graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Culture, and Minors in Spanish and Telecommunication.
The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism by Debra Van Ausdale, Joe R. Feagin Texas A&M University