As centuries of racial injustice continue to be illuminated, parents likely have lots of questions about how to talk with their young children about race and racism, and how to raise an anti-racist child. To answer some of these questions, Dr. Angela Searcy, a child development expert from Erikson Institute, shared her insights.
When do children begin to notice race?
Dr. Searcy: Research confirms infants as young as 3 months prefer to look at faces similar to their own. By preschool, they begin to use information about race to make decisions about playmates.
At what age should parents start talking to their children about race?
Dr. Searcy: Start talking about race as soon as your baby begins to recognize faces. Babies that don’t have exposure to people from a variety of races have a hard time noticing facial features of people from races other than their own.
Not talking about race directly and explicitly leaves your child unaware of how you feel about different races. It will also create uncertainty about what your child knows about race and any racial bias they may have unintentionally internalized about their own race or others.
What are some helpful conversation prompts for tackling this topic?
Dr. Searcy: Reading books that show a variety of races is a good way to start. Point out the different races in children’s books and ask your child questions. When it comes to topics of racial injustice, parents already know what words their child understands and what examples will resonate with them. So try something like: “This reminds me of your favorite superhero. How can we ensure people of all races have equal justice?” or, “Would your favorite character think that was fair?”
[Related: How to become an anti-racist parent]
What behaviors can I expect to see from my young child as they start noticing differences?
Dr. Searcy: Noticing differences is an important part of learning. Children will start reacting to differences in infancy and talking about them as soon as they can speak. If they have a negative reaction, respond with positivity and words of acceptance like, “Our differences are what make us all special.” Then follow up to understand why they might be feeling that way.
If you respond by telling them you are colorblind, it can be very confusing. It asks children to ignore salient parts of another person’s identity and sends a message that something is wrong with having color if it must be “unseen.” Imagine the message that sends to a child of color who must have parts of their identity ignored and unseen.
What are some helpful resources or activities that I can use to teach my child about race?
Dr. Searcy: A few of my favorite activities include:
● Use M&Ms to show children how different colors are still the same inside
● Make a knot with a string to demonstrate how it will take time and many people to untie the knot of racism
● Give your child books with characters with a variety of races and ethnicities and have them look in the mirror and compare characteristics
As far as resources, I’ve listed many on my website. A couple of my favorites are: How can I have a Positive Racial Identity? I’m White! and Woke Kindergarten.
Dr. Angela Searcy holds a M.S. degree in early childhood development, with a specialization in infant studies, from the Erikson Institute and a EdD in education. She is an author of the book Push Past It! A Positive Approach to Challenging Classroom Behaviors and nationally recognized speaker, and currently serves as an adjunct professor at Erikson teaching Culture.