In our increasingly diverse society, we can’t really claim to be colormute. This idea of being colormute is not acknowledging the race of others in society. Some people consciously decide not to talk about race because they believe that race does not matter. They say things like “I don’t notice color” because they are uncomfortable talking about race and don’t want to be perceived as a racist.
Some parents also believe that it is wrong to talk about race. They feel that they may “poison” their children with race talk. Parents may believe that talking about race exposes children to racial bias from a young age. However, research suggests that children are not “color-blind” and that they do recognize race and develop racial biases by ages three to five (Aboud, 2008).
For parents, it’s important to recognize that race does exist and it does matter. By being colormute, parents are reproducing racial inequalities that exist in our society. Children are naturally categorizing and making assumptions about what they see in their environment. Researchers have found that children collect information about the world in order to actively construct their own beliefs.
By the age of two children are generally able to name their colors. Shortly after this, they may begin to categorize people based on skin color. Preschoolers often can’t remember multiple characteristics of people or items (concept known as “centering”). So when they see people who are the same skin color, they automatically assume that they are similar with other characteristics such as intelligence or ability. From this point of view, they begin to make assumptions about racial categories and stereotype racial groups (Aboud, 2008; Katz & Kofkin; 1997; Hirshfeld, 2008) .
I remember by age 3, my son was labeling his friends based on colors: white, yellow, brown, black. One day at school, he walked up to a mother who was sitting on a bench and said “Your Black.” The mother humored him and said, “Yes, I am!” I went over to apologize and told her we were reading a book on Martin Luther King (which we were)—but I also said this because I didn’t know what else to say and wanted to end the conversation on a positive note. I honestly wasn’t sure if my son mentioned this because of his book or because he was still in the process of labeling people in society.
Parents play an important role in helping children understand cultural diversity. Parents need to have meaningful conversations about race with their children. When children see people of the same skin color in the same professions, they make assumptions. Research shows that children pick up on the ways that whiteness is privileged. The subtle messages children receive come from books, movies, television shows, and children’s songs where whiteness is preferable (Giroux, 2001; Graves, 1999; Katz, 2003; McIntosh, 1990; Tatum, 1997). Thus, children are always making sense of and categorizing these messages in their minds.
Parents can help children by becoming knowledgeable about the race, ethnicity, and/or culture of others. Sometimes we give no information or inaccurate information because we do not know. Research has found that when children start asking questions about race, parents shut down the conversation. My experiences support this claim. Just recently, my six-year old son asked me why his friend’s sister was wearing a hijab. I quickly blurted out something about modesty and religion and ended the conversation. For parents to have open, honest, and developmentally appropriate conversations with their children they need more knowledge. Hybrid parenting empowers parents to know more so that they can have more meaningful conversations about race, ethnicity and culture with their children.
Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 55–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L.S. (2007). Developmental intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 162–166.
Giroux, H. A. (2001). The mouse that roared: Disney and the end of innocence. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Graves, S. B. (1999). Television and prejudice reduction: When does television as a vicarious experience make a difference? Journal of Social Issues, 55(4), 707–727.
Hale-Benson, J. (1990). Visions for children: Educating black children in the context of their culture. In K. Lomotey (Ed.), Going to school: The African-American experience (pp. 209–222). Buffalo, NY: State University of New York Press.
Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Katz, P. A. (2003). Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin? American Psychologist, 58(11), 897–909.
Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, gender, and young children. In S. S. Luthar & J. A. Burack (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder (pp. 51–74). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49, 31–36.
Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.