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The talk we’re not having, and how to have it

Opening a dialogue about race with our children

When we reference “the talk” with our children, most parents immediately think about the birds and the bees. But there is a much more infrequently discussed “talk” that is just as important: the one about race.

Just like the birds and the bees, if we don’t talk to our children about it, they’re going to get uncensored and potentially damaging information elsewhere.

To be honest, even having a talk about “the talk” with other parents was difficult for me.

To prepare for this article, I reached out to parents I knew in the neighborhood and in online forums, and asked about their experiences talking to their young children about race. Most said they hadn’t had that discussion with their children yet. The main reason they cited for not having a conversation with their children was that they did not want to highlight differences. Instead, they wanted to teach colorblindness, the idea that we are all the same.

Experts now say that this approach is detrimental.

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We’re not all the same

According to combined study from researchers at Northwestern, Stanford and Tufts universities, taking a colorblind approach with young children — such as instructing them to “focus on what makes us similar” rather than dealing constructively with difference and challenging bias directly — actually reduces the likelihood that those young people will recognize discriminatory behavior when it occurs, or seek to do something about it.

"In many ways, the logic behind colorblindness is understandable, that downplaying racial distinctions should limit the potential for bias," said Evan P. Apfelbaum, a professor at Northwestern and one of the three researchers for the 2010 study. "However, our research suggests that exposure to colorblindness can actually reduce individuals' sensitivity to meaningful racial differences. And as a result, when discrimination does occur, individuals with a colorblind mindset often fail to see it as such.”

Teaching our children “colorblindness” when it comes to race often ignores something kids already see: they notice differences right off the bat.

“I think that parents shouldn't worry so much about ‘pointing out differences.’ The research shows that kids notice the differences already,” says Melinda Wenner Moyer, a writer on parenting and health topics who lives in Cold Spring.

Not talking about differences or about skin color actually puts the subject in a taboo space, as if we don’t talk about the topic because there’s something illicit about it. “When parents don't ever talk about differences, kids start making inferences or assumptions, and that's how prejudices start,” she says.

Read more: Child Behavior: What makes a "great" kid?

We are their first teachers

Avoiding the topic also reinforces the status quo. Peter Heymann of Rosendale, who works to organize Undoing Racism workshops in the Hudson Valley, says parents must ask themselves what sort of values they are teaching by not having the discussion. He says just standing passively by without having a discussion counts as “taking a stand,” one that supports the racial inequalities in our society, which is probably not what most well-meaning parents want to do.

Heymann says it is critical that, as parents, we examine ourselves first, and ask what prejudices we harbor, and what kind of a role model we want to be for our children. Ask yourself, do I have friends of other races? If most of your friends are from your own race and culture, you may want to consider opportunities for you and your child to interact with other races and cultures. Visit a church that worships in a different language than your own on Sunday. Observe how they worship. Find something to appreciate about it and comment on it to your child. You may find yourself asking, do I openly and verbally appreciate other races and cultures in front of my child? We are, after all, their first teachers.

So how do we open this subject with our children?


Follow their lead

Little ones are trained to notice differences, and to name them. Think of all those times your child excitedly pointed out a bulldozer or a dump truck while driving by a construction site. It should not be a surprise, then, that kids naturally see and want to label the differences around them, including the way their peers look.

You may hear your child talk about what makes a peer different, and that may be the color of the other child’s skin. You may hear your son say he doesn’t like playing with another child, and this is an opportunity to ask him why.

READ MORE: More important talks to have with your children

Anita Mambo Cohn, LCSW, MA, a psychotherapist who practices in New Paltz and works with individuals, couples and families of diverse backgrounds in New York City and throught the Hudson Valley, says it is critical that as parents we do not shut down those questions.

“Young children are naturally curious and this is something that we want to encourage,” she says.

Instead, use these comments or questions as an opportunity to open a dialogue. It is important that during such a dialogue we not only acknowledge differences, but also point out similarities among people who perhaps look different. For instance, a parent could say: “Even though you and Eli have different colored skin, you also both have a lot in common. What kind of things do you think you have in common?

Moyer says another approach would be to highlight the fact that everybody has differences: “He does have darker skin than you. Johnny’s hair is lighter than yours. Annie has blue eyes! Everyone is unique — there are so many different skin, eye colors and hair colors. What do you think about that?

The bonus is that this allows you to open the door to speaking about not only racial diversity, but all kinds of diversity, according to Cohn.

“This is an opportunity to acknowledge that we live in vast world, where there are many different kinds of people with many backgrounds, cultures, languages and religions and ways of thinking and encourage dialogue about this,” she says.


Intentionally expose them to diversity

Portions of the Hudson Valley are diverse. According to the 2010 census data, in Orange County, black residents accounted for 10.2 percent of the population, and Hispanics accounted for 18 percent.

On the other hand, in Ulster County, the census data showed that only six percent of residents were black and 8.7 percent were Hispanic.

It is up to parents in these areas to show a wide range of differences to their children. This can be done through age appropriate picture books, such as “Whoever You Are” by Mem Fox or “The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz.

Moyer also recommends magazines such as High Five by Highlights, which features diverse characters.

You can also do this through TV shows. The classic stand-by is Sesame Street, but cartoons like Little Einsteins, Ni Hao Kai-Lan, and Dora the Explorer also feature different cultures and races. Such television shows provide other opportunities to open the discussion of race if they do not present themselves naturally.

Moyer suggests watching such shows with your child and listening to see if they point out any differences. You can use the opportunity to discuss a different way of life and worldview. Find one thing you like about it and state it out loud. You can also use this to begin introducing your child to what race is, asking perhaps, “Do you know why his skin is a different color? It's because of where his family came from a long time ago."


When kids are older

Part of what allows racism to be systemic is the lack of discussion about the history of race and racism, according to Heymann. It is the old adage that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. In an age appropriate manner, Heymann suggests having a conversation with your older children about the history of racism in this country.

You might read with them appropriate young adult literature, such as “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson or “The Watsons go to Birmingham” by Christopher Paul Curtis. While you’re at it, reading biographies of many different racial and cultural backgrounds who have made positive contributions to society helps to do away with a monochromatic view of American history.

Whatever your entry point: your children’s observations, an episode of Sesame Street, or your own questions, it is a critical talk to have, and one to continue to engage in as your child grows.

Dawn Green is a freelance writer a mom of two boys who lives in Saugerties.