This article is being republished in honor of Martin Luther King Day.
Parents frequently tip-toe around the sensitive topic of race.
Does highlighting skin color differences create a further sense of otherness or division among the races? Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman sought answers to this question for their provocative book, NurtureShock.
Through their research the authors noted that many parents (especially caucasian parents) were uncomfortable talking about a person’s skin color for fear of teaching a racial construct.
Yet, to the researcher’s surprise, it was exactly this silence that was allowing already formed constructs to persist. The constructs were already there from the earliest ages!
Children categorize (i.e., make constructs) to make sense of this complex world, beginning when they are just babies.
Babies notice differences and categorize accordingly, but they don’t have preferences yet. These preferences begin as young as 3 years old. But, at no point are children color-blind toward race, like many adults hope.
Kid’s are developmentally prone to in-group preferences or favoritism. Differences in skin and hair color are like differences in shirt colors – they are visible to the eye without needing to be labeled.
It would seem that the timeframe parents think is too soon to begin discussing skin color with their children (or important not to discuss race) is the same timeframe that these young minds are forming their first conclusions about race.
Many parents quietly and subtly help their children feel comfortable and connected in this diverse world, by simply exposing them to diversity and assuming that this diversity becomes the accepted norm. That was the premise I was operating under prior to reading this book.
To my surprise, Bronson and Merryman conclude that it is critical to speak with children about racial differences in order to ensure less divisive attitudes. Simply exposing your children in meaningful and tangible ways to multi-racial people is not enough. There needs to be conversation!
A conversation with my daughter started after school yesterday when she began telling me the story of Rosa Parks refusing to sit in the back of the bus. She told the story with dramatic intonation and keen detail, just as her teacher would. Yet, when I asked her why Rosa Parks had to sit in the back of the bus, she shrugged.
I began explaining (so that a 5 year old might understand) that Rosa Parks had dark-colored skin.We looked at our own skin and talked about some friends with darker skin. I explained how people with light-colored skin used to be very mean to dark-skinned people. Before I could get very far, my daughter chimed right back in agreeing how long ago black people were not allowed to share the same bathrooms or drinking fountains with white people.
As much as I wanted to go into the ugly history here, I refrained. Little bits of information are easier to consume than long diatribes. Especially after an exhausting day of kindergarten.
Below are two children’s books that might help the conversation along: