Let’s dispel the ideas that people should be colorblind and that openly talking about race is problematic. People come in a variety of appearances and skin tone is simply one of those variables. It is the inaccurate and hurtful associations with skin color that is problematic, not the noticing of the differences themselves.
-Susan Eisman, Director & Children’s Teacher, Hawthorne Family Playschool
Amy Dudley summarizes a portion of Katie Kissinger’s Anti-Bias Class. Katie is an educator and author of All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color.
1. The time to talk is earlier than you think. For most kids by 4th or 5th grade, they’ve pretty much figured out what they believe in terms of identity (race, gender/sexual orientation, class/socio-economic status, and ability). Stereotypes and slurs relating to these identities are rampant in our world, media, and schools, and so unless kids are consistently presented an alternative, or have a significant event later in their lives, they are already set on a path that is not likely to get interrupted. They will believe that some people are better than others and they will internalize those messages about themselves as well. These messages are as impossible to avoid as the air we breathe, so if we want to eliminate these systems of oppression, we all need to learn skills for resisting these messages.
By 2 years old, kids are interested and noticing differences. From this time forward we want to help children feel positive about themselves and people who look differently than themselves. Unless kids feels OK about themselves, they won’t be able to feel good about others. Bullies and teens and adults who choose hate, are hurting and especially need tools to feel better about themselves, and who they are, not better than others.
3 years old is a peak time when kids are trying to sort their world into clear categories, so it can be a prime time for imitating and engaging with, and also to for adults to be there to challenge, stereotypes. By 4 and 5 years old, kids are ready for the “critical thinking” goal of anti-bias curriculum – gaining tools to question their world and empowering them with tools of action.
2. Kids are not colorblind. They notice everything, so of course they notice skin color, people in wheel chairs, and languages other than the ones they speak. The cost of perpetuating the myth that kids are colorblind is that we enforce the systems of domination and oppression that make one identity the “norm” and everything is “different” and by extension “wrong”. These one-up and one-down systems are known as white supremacy (race), patriarchy (gender and sexual orientation) and capitalism (class and socio-economic status). This myth and these systems of oppression hurt not only people targeted by them, but also those who receive benefits or privilege from them because they separate us all from our shared humanity.
3. No mistake you could make when talking to your kids about race and skin color, is as damaging as silence has been. Silence sends the message that difference is wrong. Noticing difference is part of noticing our world. The only reason we have different skin color is to protect us from the sun. Difference is not the problem. The problem is that in our society we’ve valued certain differences over others. And in the case of race, that darker skin color was first used to justify slavery and then to continue to oppress different groups of people.
Sometimes when our kids notice difference and say something about it, as adults we feel uncomfortable and unsure what to say. We need to get over that and appreciate these moments as gifts and opportunities to have the conversations we want to have. Young kids are the least defensive and most curious people to have these conversations with. Collectively we are failing kids in this area. Kids really need adults to stay present and respond. You don’t have to start with a history or politics lesson though, just affirming that differences exist and that people have darker and lighter skin, and come in all sizes, have different abilities, etc. gets kids on the path to appreciating a full range of “normal” human expressions.
4. If we’re going to teach kids to recognize how the world is unfair, which is an important part of developing their own critical thinking around fairness, we‘ve also got to teach them to speak up for themselves and others to make the world fair. We owe this to them. And we owe them the benefit of hope in change, not our cynicism at how tough making this change really can be.
Kids are also masters at calling out unfairness. From about 3 and a half years onward, you can begin to talk with kids along these lines in relationship to people. For example, you could ask, “Did you know that some people are treated differently because of the color of their skin?” Following up the conversation with your belief that that’s not OK and sharing ideas of what we could do to change that. You could also ask of a certain situation, “What’s unfair here?” for example, if there is access to a building that excludes wheelchairs. This recognition of unfairness helps to build a foundation of empathy in your child.
5. When people feel connected across differences with a shared goal of ending oppression, whether you win or not, you realize your capacity for genuine human experience. It gives us hope and creates opportunities to see how the world could be.
For preschool and elementary school age kids and on up, activism projects as a family and with other kids and families or as a school group, are a great way to take on a project to collectively try to address an unfairness that is important to your children. Whether you succeed or not, taking action together to make the world more fair for everyone sends a powerful message to kids that they can be part of making change.