Nearly 20 years ago, Charlene Coleman took her then 5-year-old daughter to her hometown Baptist church in rural Alabama for the first time since the family had returned from Nuremberg, Germany, where Coleman’s husband was deployed.
Her daughter, who had grown accustomed to the diverse congregation at the military chapel in Nuremberg, looked around wide-eyed at the all-black congregation and asked her mother, “Where are the white people?”
Coleman said the question struck something within her, and she gave her daughter a brief, matter-of-fact response.
“I said, ‘Here black and white people don’t go to church together,’ ” Coleman said. “ I just told the truth and she just looked at me like, ‘OK.’ I just left it alone at that.”
Almost two decades later, Coleman is something of a local expert when it comes to talking to kids about race. She teaches a diverse group of fifth-graders at Clubview Elementary School, where an important piece of the fifth-grade curriculum is the study of the Civil War, and she talks to her students openly about issues of race and culture. Every year, she also dresses as Harriet Tubman, and talks with Clubview first-graders as they learn about slavery and the Underground Railroad.
If she could go back in time to that moment in church with her daughter, she would extend the discussion. But she still believes that the most important thing to remember when talking with kids about race is that all children’s questions deserve an honest answer, and that no subject is so sensitive that it should be kept hush-hush.
Coleman said when her fifth-graders ask about hairstyles of African-American women — like the different weave styles she wears herself — she happily answers them. She also talks frankly about weightier matters. Her students study the not-so-distant past when schools were segregated and when slavery was an integral part of the U.S. economy — and students also discuss how much progress has been made since.
Coleman says from a young age, children, like all people, notice difference — and the best thing to do is help guide their understanding of difference and multiculturalism rather than ignoring that it exists.
“I want them to be in real life and know that there’s not really such a thing as being color-blind,” Coleman said. “There’s no harm in noticing someone’s culture. It’s just what you do with it; you don’t want to demoralize someone because of it or make a big issue of it.”
Victoria Plaut, professor of social and cultural psychology at the University of Georgia, said a growing body of research shows that acknowledging multiculturalism rather than striving to be “color-blind” in dealing with others, may lead people to feel more empathy with people of different races and cultures.
“There’s some research in schools that shows that avoiding race can actually lead to neglecting racial disparities that exist or even unintentionally perpetuating those disparities,” Plaut said. “In one study there were teachers who were claiming not to notice race; they really felt like that was the best way to deal with race at this multiracial school. The researcher found that it was those teachers who clung most strongly to the color-blind ideal that were, for example, more likely to discipline the black kids more harshly or subvert a student council election in order to elect a white child.”
Plaut said no age is too young to start discussing difference with kids on a level that they can understand.
“Kids notice difference early on, and they’re pretty comfortable with difference early on,” Plaut said. “But by about age 10 they’re aware that there’s a societal norm to avoid race.”
Plaut said research also shows that minorities in the United States talk more readily with their children about race and cultural difference, while white parents are more likely to avoid the topic altogether.
“I think when the parents themselves think that experience of race and racism is one that is relevant to their children then, with some exceptions, they’re more likely to discuss those experiences,” Plaut said. “What we generally see with white parents, and with white adults working in organizations, is a tendency to try to avoid the topic of race. … One explanation is a societal norm that you’re not supposed to notice race and you’re not supposed to talk about it because it’s politcally incorrect or impolite or taboo. You’re supposed to avoid judging people by the color of their skin and that translates into avoiding talking about it.”
Plaut said parents and teachers frequently dance around issues of racial and cultural difference by using vague phrases like “everyone’s equal,” “we’re all the same” or “differences don’t matter” rather than talking explicitly about race.
“The problem with that, although it’s well intentioned, is what you end up doing is not providing for the child a framework to interpret,” Plaut said. “If the child is thinking we’re all equal, we’re all the same, what are they going to do when they actually encounter differences and inequalities?
“There are a couple of different styles that parents will adopt. The first one is when the kid is riding in the shopping cart and points to the black person, or the ‘fat’ person and blurts out some potentially insensitive phrase or question … the parent is mortified and they don’t address the issue at all. They send the message that this is a taboo subject and we don’t talk about it. The other response is that they might gloss over it by suggesting that everyone’s equal. And while it’s not bad to point out similarities, too, if you don’t give any kind of framework for interpreting differences kids will be less likely to question stereotypes and may have more strained interracial encounters.”
Plaut said sometimes the most important time to have a frank discussion with your child is when you’re feeling most uncomfortable and unsure of what to say.
“I think it’s important to realize that you’re probably never going to feel like an expert and you don’t have to be an expert to talk about race with your kids,” Plaut said. “As soon as you feel that sense of wanting to run away from a hot button issue like race, think twice.”
As children grow older, discussions of race grow more complex. Plaut says research with college students indicates that having a historical understanding of different groups’ experiences and an understanding of the systemic nature of racism leads to prejudice reduction.
“If you believe racism is just a function of a few racist individuals then you’re actually less likely to see inequalities than if you believe that racism is systemic and built into the social structure,” Plaut said. “The most common view or understanding of what racism is that it’s what one person thinks about and does themselves, and it’s this traditional view that’s laden with animus. If you’re kind of an average white person, you don’t think of yourself like that so you dissociate from it — you try to avoid it. We know from a huge body of recent work that racism operates in much more implicit ways and is institutionalized is all sorts of ways.”
Back at Clubview, Coleman said she knows that any part she has in forming children’s attitudes about race is minor in comparison with the lessons they bring from home. She encourages parents to talk openly with kids about race and to embrace the difficult questions.
“That’s the only way we’re going to change this world,” Coleman said. “As far as bridging the gap between different cultures, we’ve come a long way but we’ve got a long way to go. Teachers can only do so much. The ultimate educators are the parents. That is where they get their foundation from.”
Annie Addington is an independent correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.