Talking to kids about Race: Part 1 of 3

Why color blindness is harmful in preparing kids for a racially diverse world.

At Oh. My. Word., since our recent founding, we have been focused on helping parents talk to their kids about sex.  Our mission statement is to empower parents to have difficult conversations that equip their children for the journey ahead.  We hope to someday have courses on race, death, and divorce.  We wish our course on race was ready now, but since it is not, we wanted to share a few thoughts and resources we hope are helpful to parents when talking to their kids about race.  

This post is not going to be perfect.  We don’t speak for all White people.  We could never fully understand the Black/African American, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American, and other People of Color experiences, but we are striving to understand and to help others understand.  This post will specifically focus on talking about racism toward Black and African American people.  Racism certainly affects Indigenous people and People of Color.  We do not mean to exclude them, but to recognize that racism affects each population differently.  They are all deserving of their own post and while some of the information below is applicable, not all of it applies and what is included here does not specifically focus on these other racial identities.  

Further, we appreciate our diverse audience and readers.  Our courses are designed to support diverse families, but most Black and African American families have mastered these conversations – due primarily to racism, the legacy of slavery in the United States, and through their lived experiences – in ways non-Black and African American families have not.  So, this post is written for families who have not started these conversations with their children.  Further, this is our experience, which we are sharing for anyone who wants to learn more alongside us. Finally, we welcome your insights, resources, and feedback as well as more questions. This is not a singular but an ongoing conversation we can have together as many of us have so much to learn.

We have heard a lot of parents say, “I’ve always taught my child not to see race – white, brown, black, yellow – everyone is equal.  Do I have to say anything more about race?”  If you are asking this question, then likely you are not raising Black or African American children.  Especially as a parent raising White children, the answer for you is, “Nope, you don’t have to say anything about race. However, if we hope for something better for our community and especially for our children, we should have more difficult conversations.” As White families, we haven’t had to have these conversations, because this country was built for us – for our safety and for our comfort. It’s time we take advantage of every opportunity to educate ourselves and to act with grace and caring for our children, for other children, and for the larger society.  And, this is really difficult to do. And we are here – as White women – engaging the same struggles to learn more and do better. We are happy to have you with us as we learn.

White kids’ safety does not depend on the “the talk” – the one about race.  But if we want all kids to be prepared for a world that needs (and is starting to demand) diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, then we better start talking.  The problem with “everyone is equal” thinking is that it is not true. While we aspire to equality, the bigger dream is equity. Equity is not everyone getting the same, being the same, but everyone getting what they need. The very nature of the history of our nation has disadvantaged Black and African American people in ways that have become amplified over time. We see the ripple effect of slavery today in terms of systems designed to stifle Black and African American family home ownership, voting rights, access to equitable education, and on and on. The mythology of the American Dream is based on home, family, and money. Education is the key to that. When institutions and structures are neither equal nor equitable in ways that disproportionately disadvantage Black and African American families, the opportunity to achieve the American Dream is not the same for everyone. Of course, everyone was created equal, but unfortunately not everyone is treated equally or equitably.  

In our society teaching kids to not see color is harmful to people who are Black/African American, Indigenous, and People of Color and won’t prepare children for the journey ahead.  Teaching children that all people are equal is well intentioned, but insufficient.  Not talking to kids about race when they are young is like not teaching them addition and subtraction in elementary school and expecting them to all of a sudden succeed in calculus in college.  I see college students, especially White students, desperately struggling or shutting down in conversations about race, because they are trying to do it for the first time.  

I experienced it myself.  I started “racial calculus” as a 31-year-old Ph.D. student with no “addition and subtraction” training in terms of understanding race and privilege.  In the first few weeks of starting the program, I was struck by a chapter called, Is the Benign Really Harmless? Deconstructing Some “Benign” Manifestations of Operationalized White Privilege by Frances V. Rains in the book White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America.  In the chapter, Rains outlines “five benign reactions/response…as follows:

  • The sense-of-entitlement reaction
  • The citation-of-exceptions response
  • The well-I-can’t-speak-for-(fill in the blank w/color) response
  • The sense-of-guilt reaction
  • The color blind and racial neutrality responses [emphasis added]”

Ouch to that last one, especially.  I had blissfully gone through life thinking I wasn’t racist because I didn’t see color.  A week after I read that article, I was talking to my mom about something unrelated.  She said, “Well, you and your sister are just color blind.”  She said it as a compliment (at least to me and maybe to herself as a parent), but it was a gut punch for me through the lens of Is the Benign Really Harmless?  I knew I had to be better.  What I realized was not seeing color meant I didn’t acknowledge many of the experiences that shaped the lives of the Black and African American people for whom I cared.  My blissful lack of awareness was hurtful to them.  Without realizing it, I was making significant aspects of their lives invisible and not giving them a space to share it with me.  Being color blind means ignoring the struggles people of color face; it also ignores the beautiful uniqueness of their culture, which should be celebrated.   

The comparison is imperfect, as any comparison a White person can make in trying to relate to experiences of racism, but let’s try it here.  How would we feel in some of these scenarios:  

  • A childless person said, “I don’t see you as a mother; I see you as someone just like me.  We have all of the same struggles.”
  • A person with four successful pregnancies said to someone who had a miscarriage, “I don’t see you as someone who lost a baby; I see you as just like me.  We all experience challenges along the way.”

These well-intentioned comments, these efforts to relate, wash out a large part of the other person’s identity.

“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.” 

Nayyirah Waheed (Poet)

Color blindness is an effort to relate.  It is not the same kind of ignorance as hating someone for their race, but it is still a form of ignorance.  With knowledge, we can overcome it, but it requires constant efforts, because it is so counter to our culture.  

In the five years of graduate school, my world expanded to include so much more that I didn’t know existed.  The most impactful was exposure to the scholarly writings of Black and African America authors and authors of color who wrote about life from a Critical Race perspective.  So much more than I received in all my other schooling combined.   

Throughout my grade school and even college experiences, race was not part of the curriculum (as a business school professor, I can say we are getting better, but have a long way to go).  The few times I learned about race stood out to me as powerful moments.  In high school, my sophomore world history teacher told us her mother acted racist.  One way it manifested was she locked her doors whenever she drove through predominantly Black neighborhoods.  My teacher talked about how the click was her mom telling the Black people outside her car that she thought they were bad.  It also told the White people inside her car that Black people were bad in their mother’s eyes. As a teenager, I had never thought of acts like that as racist.  It caught my attention.          

My junior year in high school I was in a remedial reading class.  My teacher, Ms. Madison, was Black.  In all of my years in grade school she was the only Black teacher I had and one of very few teachers of color.  I was in the remedial reading class, because I struggled as a reader.  Specifically, I was a slow reader from the time I started learning to read, so I avoided it.  Ms. Madison introduced me to the work of Toni Morrison, which I devoured.  Toni Morrison sparked my love for reading and taught me to see the world through someone else’s eyes – however limited that view will always be for me.  Toni Morrison’s books painted vivid stories that challenged my way of thinking.  She showed me a different world I didn’t know existed; with thoughts I didn’t know people had.  Why did Pecola want blue eyes so badly?  I had blue eyes, I had whiteness?  These moments mattered, but there were not enough of them and they were not early enough in my life.  

If you are ready to move beyond a color blind approach to race, toward anti-racism, and if you want to learn with us, check out Part 2 of 3: Readiness. Facts. Honesty. In Talking to Kids about Race.  We have been on a constant journey to learn to be better – a journey that is never complete.

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