Ever ask an American child what they think about racial differences? A recent MTV survey found 89 percent of millennials believe everyone should be treated the same -- no matter their race. It's good news ... but it's also news that's masking a big problem in America.
Only 37 percent of the young people in that same MTV survey said they were raised in a home where their families talked about race. And when researchers at the University of Texas at Austin looked at how racism is discussed in families back in 2012, they found most white moms take a colorblind or colormute approach to the subject -- that is if they talk about it at all.
Why is racism something American families are largely ignoring?
According to Erin Winkler, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the answer goes beyond parents.
"Our society as a whole is not comfortable having a national conversation about race and racialized inequality in the contemporary moment," Winkler explains. "As such, these conversations are not cultivated in school, in media, and in the public realm in general. So, it stands to reason, then, that many parents are uncomfortable talking about these issues with their children."
Unfortunately, ignoring racism doesn't work. It still exists in America, and as one study at the University of Washington found, children as young as 15 months old can show racial bias.
So what should parents be doing?
Winkler gave us some tips to help parents manage this tough conversation:
1. Get comfortable talking about race by talking to other adults. If you can't have the conversation with other adults, it's going to be much harder to have it with your kids, Winkler warns. Reach out to experts or other parents for support and/or practice.
2. Start young. "Research shows that parents have no problem talking to their children about gender at a very young age, but hold off talking about race until a much older age, if ever," Winkler notes, calling it a mistake. "What holding off the conversation does is simply (a) teach children that we do not talk about race (although they can clearly see through media, curriculum, and the world around them that it seems to matter), and (b) leave children to come to their own conclusions about why the racialized patterns they see in the world exist." Parents should start talking about race when their kids are as young as 3 or 4 -- preschool age.
3. Build off what you see. Teachable moments really are all around us, Winkler says. "Racialized representations in children’s movies and books are a good place to start. Which characters -- animals, cars, planes, etc. -- seem to have which kind of accents? Do the children think real people with those kinds of accents act the same way as the characters in the movie with those accents?" she says.
"Research also shows children are likely to transfer or apply linguistic connotations to people, so if you read books with your child that associate positive things with white -- 'Snow White,' 'the good witch,' 'pure as the driven snow' -- and negative things with black -- 'evil,' 'sin,' 'dirty,' 'the wicked witch' -- it is a good idea to talk with your child about, for example, good things they associate with darker colors or bad things they associate with lighter colors. All of this is to get them into the mode of critical and complex thinking, which research shows above all else helps reduce prejudice in children."
4. Be a good role model. Teaching your kids to be open and accepting is not just about what you say; it's what you do. If you tell them to accept diversity, but they don't see a diverse group of adult friends at your home, for example, you're not practicing what you preach, and it won't hit home.
5. Don't treat racism as something from the past. "Unfortunately, when talking about racism with children, adults often tend to focus solely on heroic figures of the past," Winkler explains. "While it is critically important for children to understand this history, research has shown that when we only present the history without helping children connect it to contemporary issues, children can actually have higher levels of prejudice." Teach history, but also talk about current issues, especially those in your own community.
6. Don't ascribe racist actions to "bad" or "sick" people. "This teaches children that the unfair, racialized conditions in today’s society are caused only by individual 'bad people,' when in fact this is a structural, societal problem that requires that it be addressed at a societal level," Winkler notes. Kids need to know that people they may love or like may say or do racist things too -- and that it's something we can all work to address, including them.
7. Avoid colorblindness. It may seem like a positive thing to teach kids to ignore race, but Winkler says research shows it actually backfires. It can increase racial prejudice and make it harder for kids to recognize racial inequalities.
8. Don't stop your kids from talking about race. "Parents 'shush' their children when they make observations related to race rather than using those comments as an opportunity to open a dialog," Winkler says. Instead, use your child's comment to open the door. Explain to them why what they said was inappropriate (or not).
9. Get your kids involved. Kids don't have to wait until someone drops a racial epithet in front of them to be an agent of change. Winkler suggests taking your kids to meet someone in your area who is working for social justice or getting your child thinking about things they can do to make their town or school a fairer place.
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