The “Color Blind” Myth: Have You Had “The Talk” with Your Child Yet?

16 Jul

In the wake of heightened awareness and conversation regarding race in our country as of late, I thought perhaps to use this platform to quickly discuss racism and stereotyping through the lens of child development. Despite some of our best efforts to shield our kids, did you know children begin to formulate ideas and stereotypes about race as early as 5 years old! Taken aback? So was I when I first encountered this phenomena. Around 2004, I was working in the Child Development Laboratories at the University of Connecticut as a work-study student while obtaining my degree in Family Studies. I was placed in the infant / toddler room caring for children whose ages ranged from birth to 4 years. One fall day, as we prepped the older kiddos to play outside on the playscape, I knelt beside a pretty caucasian girl as I helped to adjust her coat and put on her gloves. We excitedly talked about all of the fun things we would see once we were outside. We discussed the blue sky, the green grass, the changing color of the leaves … her attention then turned to the colors on her coat, hat, and shoes. All colors that she readily identified.

As a reply, I praised her knowledge of the colors and thoughtlessly added “yes, and now we are putting on your gloves! What color are they?” … Her reply? “They’re black …. black like you.” She then looked me directly in my eyes after her statement and waited, looking to me, the adult, for my response. Now, while my dark brown completion is, on its face, very different from the jet black gloves I had just placed on her hands, I knew what she was referring to. Admittedly, I was still a young student learning about child development theory, so I more than a bit shocked. I mean, what does a 3-year-old know about race anyway? I thought. Aren’t young children supposed to be “color blind?” Apparently not. During the seconds I took to answer her, I realized the weight of this moment. My response, either positive or negative, would be a lesson for her on the connotations of race and whether it was a good thing (or not) to acknowledge someones differences. Ultimately, I responded with a smile and replied, “Yes, I am black. We all have special colors on our skin that might make us look a little different on the outside, but inside, we have so many things that make us the same.” Not bad for an answer on the fly, huh LOL. In the end, there was nothing wrong with her statement, I felt. I was a black person. She had simply, in her youthful honestly, chosen that moment to point it out. She then returned my smiled, satisfied with my answer, running outside to play while I followed behind, deep in thought.

As highlighted in the CNN study below, both the explicit and implicit messages we send to our children about race, not only shape their thinking and interactions with their peers, but it can also have a large impact on the type of adult they become.

 

After watching this CNN special, the take away message I hope is translated to parents wishing to nurture well-rounded, culturally competent children, would be to address the elephant in the room and begin talking with your children about racial differences head on. You may be surprised at what they are already thinking. Children are sensory learners, taking in cues from their environment through the five senses and various social interactions. If we say verbally “all are created equal,” but subconsciously tense up and clutch our purses or consistently refer to “them” or “those people” with a frown / negative tone when someone of a different race approaches, what message are we really sending to our children? As one child alluded to in the video, how can he bring a friend of a different race home to play if his parents have made little to no effort to engage others of a different skin color? The message that has been translated to that child unfortunately, is that something must be wrong with embracing diversity, especially if my family doesn’t practice it. Positive parental modeling and actively correcting negative messages as soon as they appear is key to combating both the overt and covert facets of stereotyping and race. By simply saying everyone is the same or pretending ones color does not exist, not only are we ignoring clear differences that any child can see with their own eyes, but we are also hindering the chances of having a truly honest discussion about the history of race in this country. How can our children learn, if we are too afraid to admit physical differences still exist, let alone racism?

Thankfully, while fully discussing racial issues still seems to be a taboo of sorts, there are plenty examples of children and families “getting it right.” I came across a great video posted on my Facebook timeline this evening of children of all ages talking about their initial reactions to the now controversial Cheerios commercial which aired recently.

 

Clearly, an open, honest conversation about diversity is happening within these homes. Not only are these kids confident in discussing racial differences, but it is embraced as a positive thing! Ultimately, a follower on twitter accurately stated, not addressing race or racism is like not addressing or acknowledging a cancer … It’s there (and possibly growing) whether you choose to recognize it or not. Let’s tackle it together! : ])

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