_ If race is largely a social construct, then teaching children about
it will only perpetuate racism — right? Wrong: Studies show
precisely the opposite. _
credit: Fran Caballero/New York Times,
Open conversations about race and racism can make white children less
prejudiced and can increase the self-esteem of children of color.
If states ban the teaching of critical race theory
as conservative lawmakers in many are attempting to do
or if schools don’t provide consistent education about racism and
discrimination, it’s imperative that parents pick up the slack.
Even if we don’t want them to, children do notice differences in
race and skin color. And that means that attempts to suppress
discussions about race and racism are misguided. Those efforts won’t
eliminate prejudice. They may, in fact, make it worse.
So-called colorblind parenting — avoiding the topic of race in an
effort to raise children who aren’t prejudiced — is not just
unhelpful, it actually perpetuates racism. That’s because racism
isn’t driven solely by individual prejudice. It’s a system of
inequity bolstered by racist laws and policies — the very fact that
opponents of teaching critical race theory are trying to erase.
Some people, especially white people like me, may shy away from
talking to their children about race, either because they’ve been
socialized to treat the subject as taboo or because they fear that
instilling an awareness of race is itself problematic. That’s a
privilege that nonwhite families often don’t have — racism is a
fact of life that many can’t ignore. While parents of white children
may be able to choose if, when and how they have these conversations,
parents of children of color often have no choice but to discuss the
subject as it arises.
Parents may believe their children are too young to learn about topics
like prejudice, discrimination and violence. But it’s possible —
advisable, actually — to have age-appropriate conversations about
race and racism throughout children’s lives, including when they are
I asked more than 80 parents about how they think their children view
race. Many said their children are oblivious to skin color. Yet
research strongly contradicts this notion. Babies as young as 3 months
old discern racial differences
[[link removed]], and they
prefer looking at faces that share their caregivers’ skin color.
Racial awareness and prejudice continue to develop during the
preschool and grade school years. A 2012 study
[[link removed]] showed that many white
parents of preschoolers believed that their children harbored no
racial prejudice. When the researchers tested the children, though,
some said they wouldn’t want Black friends.
Children learn from what they see. They notice that in American
culture, race and power intersect in a clear way. Children may
observe, for instance, that all but one president has been white, that
many of the wealthiest people are white and that more working-class
[[link removed]] are
people of color.
When children aren’t presented with the context required to
understand why our society looks the way it does, “they make up
reasons, and a lot of kids make up biased, racist reasons,” said
Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist who studies the
development of prejudice. Children often start to believe that white
people are more privileged because they’re smarter or more powerful,
Dr. Bigler says.
Parents should explicitly challenge these wrong assumptions and
explain the role of centuries of systemic racism in creating these
inequities. Brigitte Vittrup, a psychologist at Texas Woman’s
University, and George W. Holden, a psychologist at Southern Methodist
[[link removed]] that white children
whose parents talked with them about race became less prejudiced over
time, compared with children whose parents didn’t have such
Another study co-written by Dr. Bigler found
[[link removed]] that white children who
had learned about racial discrimination had more positive attitudes
toward Black people than children who were not exposed to that
curriculum. The same researchers later found that classroom
discussions about racial discrimination also had a positive impact on
Indeed, children of color also benefit from conversations about race
and racism. In particular, Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor and Nancy E. Hill
at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found
[[link removed]] that
when families of color regularly talk about their culture’s values
and traditions, children develop a strong sense of identity and pride,
and they fare better in terms of self-esteem, psychological health and
But talking about race isn’t enough. Parents should also foster
respect for diverse cultural backgrounds by ensuring their children
interact with people who are different from them. If you can choose
where you live or where your children go to school, it helps to
prioritize diversity. And consider the curriculum: Children who hear
teachers talk explicitly about race are better at identifying bias
than students who are given vague messages about kindness and
At home, choose books, TV shows and movies with characters from a
variety of backgrounds — and discuss the characters’ race and
ethnicity with your children. When all of the characters are white,
acknowledge it. Start a conversation about why that might be the case,
and why it’s not representative of the world we live in. Point out
racist tropes in books, movies and TV shows when you see them.
Encourage your children to be friends with children of different
races, too. “Friendships are a major mechanism for promoting
acceptance and reducing prejudice,” explained Deborah Rivas-Drake, a
psychologist and educational researcher at the University of Michigan.
But if you’re white, don’t expect people of color to do the labor
of educating your children about race.
If you’re like me, you may struggle with conversations about race,
but they get easier. If your children comment on someone’s skin
color, instead of shushing or scolding them, explain the science of
skin color — that we all have a pigment in our skin called melanin
that protects against ultraviolet radiation. Your melanin levels
depend on how much your parents have and on where your ancestors
If your children make racist or insensitive comments, gently probe for
more information before responding. “Get a sense of what they
understand it to mean from their perspective,” said Howard C.
Stevenson, a professor of urban education and Africana studies at the
University of Pennsylvania. “Where did they hear it from? How is it
being used in the social context they’re in? Then you have a better
angle to how you can speak to it.”
These conversations can feel awkward, but remember that whatever your
children don’t learn about race from you, they’ll learn from the
media, their friends or their own imaginations.
Racism won’t end until parents — and children — see prejudice,
recognize its perniciousness and unravel the system that fuels it.
_[Melinda Wenner Moyer (@lindy2350) is a science journalist and the
author of the forthcoming book “How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t
Assholes,” from which this essay is adapted.]_