Colorblindness, Race, and Children: The Elephant in the Living Room

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’d like to be surprised that in 2009 America, race is still a taboo topic in lots of (white) homes. But we’re not.

Earlier this month, Newsweek ran a long article about racial awareness and discrimination in young children. They start by describing a small study:

… parents were to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

Five families abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But … hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they’d almost never called attention to racial differences.

The article goes on to discuss more aspects of the topic.

What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.

In spite of having lived all of our lives in a society which is so heavily grounded in the racism paradigm, we still find this kind of obliviousness somewhat surreal.

“If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, then you can’t be my ally.” — Samuel R. Delany, African-American writer

“Color-blindness” does not combat racism, as this article and many other sources demonstrate again and again.

Of all those [parents who were] told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, [Birgitte] Vittrup said, “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”

What the article doesn’t discuss is why white parents don’t talk about race.

In Ampersand’s superb “How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism,” he quotes Prometheus6:

… not to put too fine a point on it, but “racist” is the only word that makes white people as crazy as “nigger” makes Black people. It makes them crazier. White people don’t want to hear you talk about ANY white person being racist. They’ll start telling you how many Black friends they have

This is the root of the problem. Most of these parents are not trying to be anti-racist. They’re not trying to be allies to people of color. They’re certainly not trying to teach their kids the truth about the world.

Most of them are trying to protect themselves and their children from ever, ever being accused of racism. If we pretend it isn’t there, if we make it invisible, if we don’t talk about it, we’ll be safe from the R-word. Wanting to protect your children, and yourself, is an understandable motivation. Unfortunately, it may feel like protection, but it’s actually a set-up.

The problems, of course, are legion.

Racism isn’t just individual, it’s deeply and integrally institutional. So ignoring it not only doesn’t make racism go away, it promotes it.

Refusing to acknowledge and contend with these issues is a racist act, whether or not anyone wants it to be named that way.

And, as the article repeatedly points out, the colorblind strategy doesn’t work. Kids always see the elephant in the living room, the one that no one is talking about.

When the kids turned 3, [Phyllis] Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

In the 1950s, Dorothy Parker poked fun at “colorblindness” by having a character identify the only African-American man at a party as “that man over there, the one in the green socks.” Parker knew then that this was both shameful and funny. It’s more shameful now, 50 years later. And it’s not very funny, either.

Thanks to Stefanie M. for the pointer.

14 thoughts on “Colorblindness, Race, and Children: The Elephant in the Living Room

  1. I think it is worth taking this quotation in the article seriously: “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”

    I remember all kinds of workshops in the feminist community in the 80s on Overcoming _________. I would bet that a lot of white parents haven’t thought about racism in their own lives carefully enough to know what to say to their kids. Do you know of any good resources for white parents who want to figure out what to say to their kids about race?

  2. The website Anti-Racist Parent is a good one — . A few weeks ago, they had a guest post from a white parent who, with other parents, had started a group called White Noise to help themselves and their children understand and recognize white privilege. I’m having trouble finding it in their archive but it was linked at Fire on the Mountain, and you could try pasting this in:

  3. One thing that’s really off in this “post racism” world (yeah I know, its not really- but bear with me), is not using color as a descriptor.

    I once heard someone struggling to point out my son out of a crowd- he was the only black kid in the group. Many minutes were spent trying to point him by shirt color (the boy in the red shirt- but there were 5 such kids; the one with dark hair- down to 3 kids… etc). I just piped up and said- “He’s the black kid, okay? You can say it.”

  4. Ah, so, so true. I don’t know what I’m going to say to my young, mixed-race-but-will-pass-as-white son, but clearly something will need to be said. I’ve already had a couple of ‘when did you adopt him’ comments, which still blows my mind because it’s 2009 for goodness sakes, y’know?

    Mr Oro, on the other leaf, sees no need for a talk at all – funnily enough, he’s the caucasian part of the family. It’s going to be interesting…

  5. Thanks for the links to It looks like a good resource.

    But I think the issue is willingness to think about issues of race and racism, to use resources, to talk to your kids. If your children are old enough to talk and ask questions and you haven’t already given serious thought to talking to them about race and racism then the fundamental problem is not lack of resources.

    And obviously, it’s not one conversation, but an on going one that continues til they grow up. That was certainly my experience. And if it works well, they end up teaching you.

  6. Debbie/Laurie/everyone:
    Hold on a moment (I’m offering this with the greatest of respect knowing that you respond well to comment and this is a blog that attracts very thoughtful people) …. You’ve made me think afresh on this BUT might I suggest that this issue isn’t so clear cut as you and others imply here.

    Some thoughts follow (somewhat unfocused at the moment).

    – I’m a regular here – and those who know me both here and in other settings know that issues of diversity and equality are incredibly important to me.
    – I AM very definitely raising my children to be aware of difference and devaluation and advantage (etc) – they won’t grow up color blind – but I’ve also decided that at this age (similar or slightly older than discussed) the conversation discussed here isn’t YET the right way to achieve this.
    – It’s improbable that my children will at this stage be called racist (whatever their beliefs about the world) and I feel no need whatsoever to protect them from this, but we shouldn’t deny that there are accusations that get made against people which stick and cause serious damage, and which unfortunately it becomes necessary to guard against (and in making a challenge like I’m doing today you’ll notice I’ve felt it necessary to use a different name from normal – sorry but it’s a fact of life that some people will take my posting as evidence of racism, and for many reasons I feel the need to guard against this).
    – I may well be wrong about all sorts of things, including what I’m saying here, but even if I am I’d suggest that we’re on territory where ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ aren’t so obvious.

    Please can we re-visit this very important issue, which is one that many of us would like to think deeply about, but just a touch more carefully?

  7. Regular visitor, I’m not seeing where we disagree. I know that I didn’t mean to say that there’s only one way to raise issues of racism and diversity with children, and I’m positive that Laurie didn’t either.

    For me, the right/wrong issue rests with whether or not parents are taking this seriously and engaging with it, or putting their heads under the metaphorical covers. Nothing in your comment leads me to believe that you are doing anything of the sort. There’s no one true way to do just about anything right, and I’m sorry if you got the impression that either of us thinks there is.

    Does that help clarify?

  8. Debbie – Thanks, as always, for the thoughtful reply. I might just be tired (at the end of a very long and very difficult week). I should re-visit this in a couple of days I think. Please take no offence – nor assume that I’m deeply offended. Just prodded enough by the post to have wanted to respond, and worried enough by what felt like very uncritical feedback from others to feel that this wasn’t an entirely safe thing to be doing. I have to say that I’ve been wondering whether I’m right all day – which is of course one of the aims of your post in the first place.

    If I can make a more positive contribution in this context, here’s a thought to outline where I’m coming from and why I think this subject is so difficult…

    (please forgive me if language gets clumsy in what follows – this isn’t intended to read like a rant but I’m too tired to write more carefully)

    I really struggled with whether to point out issues of racisim to my eldest in connection with Obama’s election. Without giving ages he’s younger than teenage, but old enough that I could have done. There are extremely good reasons arguing that I should have done so (reasons you’ve outlined) – but as he builds his model of how the world works – being bombarded by images and stereotypes seemingly confirming all sorts of stuff none of us here believe – I decided that he’d learn the most from something more subtle. I told him that this was the most powerful person in the world, and I made it very clear how pleased (understatement) I was that he’d taken over from his predecessor. I left him to make his own conclusions based on the images he was seeing. I decided that his awareness of racism will best be based on a deep understanding of equality, underlined by the fact that in this family we simply don’t define people in the same ways as he observes in the world around him (a understanding that will be developed a little bit later by some careful conversations).

    The risk of getting this wrong through our good intentions is very real – and not just in our conversations with children. The more WE define people’s differences in order to explain to a child about advantage/disadvantage the more we teach them to see people through these definitions. That’s not the same thing as color blindness (in the way this term is most often used). I don’t want to teach my kids to see that ‘black’ and ‘white’ people are equal, or that ‘disabled’ and ‘able bodied’ people are equal, or that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are equal. I want to teach them something just a tiny bit different – that the world wrongly defines some people as fundamentally different from one another and divided from one another – that the world wrongly tries to draw definite dividing lines where no such lines exist (that black and white and able bodied and disabled and men and women are arbitrary definitions) – and for them to understand that the world tries to define (and consequently creates) inequality through this means. So they will come to understand that there are lots and lots of people who they know at a very deep level are just exactly like them, but who are defined by the world as different to them, and who are disadvantaged by this.

  9. (by the way ‘WE’ above is meant to refer to ‘those of us who want to deal with this issue’ not anything else – ‘we’ can be a difficult word in this context…)

  10. I think part of the problem is that we get a lot of mixed messages about when to pay attention to racial differences and when not to. You’re not supposed to heed them when interviewing someone for a job, for example. Or when grading a student’s paper. It’s bad, in other words, to discriminate. But there can be a fine line between discriminating and simply paying attention to racial differences. So when you write “Most of these parents are not trying to be anti-racist. They’re not trying to be allies to people of color” I don’t think you’re being fair — for one thing, you’re not inside their heads, and for another, it’s quite possible that they truly believe that not noticing race will teach their kids not to see it and thus not to discriminate. I don’t agree, but I can see why they might think that.

    I recently had a discussion with my daughter (who’s 3 1/2) about the kids in her class and why so many of them go to China to visit their grandparents — about half of the kids in my daughter’s preschool class have parents from China, and several more have one Chinese or Chinese-American parent. And we talked a little bit about how people from different parts of the world look different, but I’m not sure how much of it she absorbed. Obviously the first of many such conversations.

  11. For some reason, comments 9 and 10 just appeared in my in-box, and I had some thoughts. I’d have to say I’m confused by the following and I disagree with parts:

    “I want to teach them something just a tiny bit different – that the world wrongly defines some people as fundamentally different from one another and divided from one another – that the world wrongly tries to draw definite dividing lines where no such lines exist (that black and white and able bodied and disabled and men and women are arbitrary definitions) – and for them to understand that the world tries to define (and consequently creates) inequality through this means.”

    Those definitions might seem arbitrary to you, but there are fundamental differences in how African American people were treated in this country from how most European Americans have been treated, and we are all still living with the consequences of that. African people were systematically stolen from their homes, and enslaved for centuries. Most white people came to the United States under their own power, even if they were fleeing from evil and would have preferred to stay in their homelands.

    It is not wrong in any way to say that my experience as a privileged, white, middle-class person has been different from that of millions of African Americans; that I have benefited from racism and that African American people have been greatly harmed by racism. I think it’s a mistake not to address those issues directly.

    And again, there’s nothing really arbitrary about the divisions between able-bodied and disabled people. A person who can walk, see, or hear has different needs from a person who can’t. If you claim the divisions are arbitrary, how do you meet those differing needs? It’s best to acknowledge them and make sure they get met. Probably that is not what you mean – I doubt you are trying to deny the need for curb cuts, elevators that work, financial support for assistive devices, teaching Deaf children ASL, making interpreters available, and so on. But I am not quite sure what you see as the benefits of your approach.

  12. Lisa: (comments appearing in an odd order is just because of moderation)

    For clarity… As you correctly assume I’m very definitely not denying fundamental differences in how different people are treated, nor differences in ‘needs’ and privilege – indeed I set out to teach my children about this very early on.

    What I’m getting at here is the implication (what the typical culture teaches us) that (for example) Deaf people and hearing people are *fundamentally* different whereas (for example) people who can play music and people who are ‘tone deaf’ aren’t – that (for the majority) Deaf people are ‘them’ but ‘tone deaf’ people are still ‘us’. Really these are both/all part of normal human variation – ordinary differences that make us all different from one another. Of course some differences lead to more profound consequences for people because of how society works, but that’s not the same as them making the people fundamentally different from one another. In the word ‘fundamentally’ here I see all sorts of consequences and implications… I think that as soon as a majority group can define a minority group both as existing as a defined group and as being ‘them’ and ‘not like us’ things can get really dangerous (even if intentions are initially good).

    I’m also trying to get at the way that the definitions of a different group seem solid and sensible until we look closer. Using the same example ‘deaf’ and ‘hearing’ can’t be divided at an obvious point. Someone has to decide arbitrarily where the division lies – what level of hearing counts as ‘deaf’ and what counts as ‘hearing’ – which is about as silly as trying to divide up a rainbow into ‘bright’ and ‘dark’ colours – and we get into all sorts of discussion about where the exact line is – and we end up with my deaf and disabled grandmother (and the services that support her) somehow being able to see herself as fitting the categories ‘elderly and therefore not able to hear’ and very definitely not ‘Deaf’ and ‘elderly and therefore not able to walk’ rather than ‘disabled’.

    When my children meet a deaf child who they don’t know I don’t want them to think ‘there’s a deaf child’ but rather ‘hey, there’s someone I’ve not met before I wonder what she’ll be like (and by the way it looks like she’s deaf so we’ll need to be creative in our communication)’. I want them to understand that two people who are deaf might have almost nothing in common with one another – that ‘deaf’ is simply about whether someone can hear (and how society sees that person) not about who people are as human beings.

    Sorry I’m aware of going on a bit. This is difficult because the differences (I think) between getting it right and not are quite subtle and I don’t know a better way to describe this.

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