Killing the Colorblind Dream: what I learned about prejudice from my own children

Over the years, my kids have shattered some of the fantasies I used to have about children and their racial attitudes. I held these ideas, as many parents do, in the optimism that our children will quiet the racial tensions our country has experienced. I’m hopeful that the next generation will be free of so many of the racial barriers still present in society today. I still have that hope, but I’ve also had to put to death the following two widely-held beliefs:

1. Children are colorblind
2. Children are only prejudiced if they are taught to be prejudiced

Hands In this post, I am going to talk about how my kids killed my colorblind dreams, and why I think it may have been a naive and even dangerous notion. Next week, I will share my mortified reaction to my own daughter’s racially biased behavior, at the ripe age of three. I used to subscribe to the idea that children are colorblind.
As a mom of children through birth and transracial adoption, I loved the idea of my kids growing up with each other blinded to their color differences. I love the vision of American being this great melting pot where kids of every race play together in perfect harmony. But the truth is, at the age that most children begin to notice gender differences, they also begin to notice race. I thoughts I had done a good job of exposing my kids to lots of cultural diversity, and as such I expected that I was raising them to be “colorblind”. But they let me know in subtle ways that they noticed. I was horrified when my son pointed to a Mexican man who was bagging our groceries and asked what that gardener was doing. And my daughter? At only 18 months old, she displayed her observation of racial differences. We attend a gospel choir rehearsal at an African American church, and my daughter begins enthusiastically singing one of the songs every time she sees a group of Black people.

Now, at age three, she speaks very freely of her observations about race, and the fact that she and her sister Karis "match", and she and her African American brothers "don't match". She comments on this fact with alarming enthusiasm several times a week. "Look, mommy! Karis and I have the same hair! But not Jafta! He doesn't match!" "Mommy, Karis and I are lighter. But not Kembe. He's darker." Every time she says something like this, I die a little inside. It sounds so cruel - and yet her intentions are not cruel. She is only making observations about color; hair and skin and eye color that do not hold the historical and familial weight that punches me in the gut every time she brings it up. For her, it is not an insult or an indictment about her brothers’ status in the world. It's just a little game of sorting, stated in the same wide-eyed curiosity as when she notices that her shirt and shoes are the same shade of pink.

I think many of us are unaware of our children’s racial observations, because it can be subject we inadvertently avoid (and silence). We want our kids to be colorblind, so we pretend not to notice differences and encourage them do to the same. But in doing so, we might miss some important conversations. (Like the assumptions our children may make about minorities if their only interaction with them is in a service capacity). If we avoid the subject, we leave our kids to their own conclusions that are often based on a lack of exposure.

I’ve also seen this play out with my African American son, who has been the recipient of many comments about his skin color from other preschool-aged kids. Sometimes these comments have come from a place of cruelty (like when another preschooler refused to hold his hand because he “doesn’t like brown”). But most of the time, kids are merely being curious or descriptive. When we as adults jump in and quiet our child’s innocent observations, we send the message that talking about race is something taboo. Avoiding the topic of race can be one of the biggest mistakes parents make in raising healthy, race-conscious children. Shaming, ignoring, or avoiding your child's comments on race can send a strong message: racial difference is SO bad and SO embarrassing that we can't even talk about it.

NurtureShock is a new book about parenting that has made some startling discoveries about raising children. In one study, the authors observed that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The rule is that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. It's kind of like the sex talk. If we never talk to our kids about sex, they are gonna have to figure it out on their own. Which will probably lead to some not-so-great influences filling in their gaps of knowledge. Of course, there is a world of difference between observing someone’s race, and being racist. Kids are not colorblind, but we can guide them to notice and appreciate racial and cultural differences, without shaming their natural curiosity or leading them to believe that they are wrong for seeing a person’s skin color.



Kristen is the mother of four children, through birth and adoption, and blogs at www.rageagainsttheminivan.com.

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