The Truth About Race: How to Talk About It With Your Children

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A few weeks ago I interviewed Charlton McIlwain, Ph.D. on About Our Kids, Doctor Radio on Sirius 114 and XM 119. The show was about how to handle the issues of Racism and Prejudice with our children. Dr. McIlwain is an Associate Professor of Media at New York University, and he is the co-author of the forthcoming book “Race Appeal: The Prevalence, Purposes & Political Implications of Racial Discourse in American Politics (Temple, 2010) ”. Along with Stephen Maynard Caliendo, he heads the “Project on Race in Political Communications.” During my interview, I was so impressed with Dr. McIlwain, that I later asked him to write about race from a parenting perspective so that parents could educate themselves about these issues and get scientific-based information on how to best talk to their kids when they begin to recognize differences. Proactive parenting is about being two steps ahead. Take the time to read this. It’s worth it.

Dr. McIlwain writes:

I am a native southerner, African American, and father of 19 month-old son whose mother is White and Jewish. I am a professor of media, culture and communication, and I have spent most of my career thinking, researching, writing and speaking about the complex ways that we are socialized to think, talk about and interact with one another on the often sensitive issues surrounding race.

My goal here is to provide some practical advice about how we as parents can help promote positive attitudes about race, ethnicity and difference more generally. I begin by providing some simplified definitions of a few key terms (trust me, I could write a book about all of them, but I will spare you the anguish!). Then I briefly discuss three individuals/groups/institutions that greatly influence how a child develops attitudes about race and difference. Finally I provide what I call a set of “best practices” for helping children develop healthy, positive attitudes about race and difference. Before I get to this, however, let’s start with the question, “why should we be talking about this anyway?”

Why Talk to Kids About Race

The primary reason parents should take an active role in helping children develop positive attitudes about difference is because irrespective of anything that we may or may not do, children begin the process of socialization on these issues at a very young age. Many recent studies show that:

• children begin to recognize differences (skin color, etc.) and begin forming in-group/out-group associations as early as age three;

• children begin to make positive/negative associations or attributions about people based on skin color as early as four;

• by age six or seven, children engage in full-blown conversations about race, skin color, etc.

I should point out that children’s recognition of difference at the earliest stages are generally devoid of meaning or a specific understanding of what we would refer to as “race.” They see skin color differences in much the same way they see the color of the pants or shirt they are wearing. So they recognize and understand the fact of difference very early, but what they later associate with these skin color differences will depend on which direction we, and others they interact with, steer them in. Before going into more detail about some key factors that influence children’s developing racial attitudes, I want to clarify a few key terms.

A Few Key Terms

• Race
Race is a social reality, not a scientific one. All reputable scientific data attests to the fact that despite human differences in outward appearance – skin color, facial features, hair texture, etc.), human beings are almost one-hundred percent the same genetically. However, in the U.S. and around the world we have lived for centuries under the assumption that people with different skin are, indeed, “different people”.

• Racism
I like to define racism as a system of mutually influencing institutions that operate under the faulty assumption that race is a scientific fact validating the idea that biological markers of race (primarily skin color) determine other personal attributes such as intelligence, achievement, morality, etc. This system, in general, benefits those with White skin and disadvantages people of color in a variety of ways – from wealth, to access to quality education, to opportunity for upward financial and class mobility. Racism includes the ways that people, operating in and through this system and its institutions perpetuate racial inequality by maintaining the privileges that white skin affords one and the disadvantages that negatively impact those with nonwhite skin.

*** The term “racism” originated in the 1930s, in the context of Nazi Germany’s attempt to rid itself of the Jewish people – or “race,” as the Germans saw it. Consistent with the circumstances, racism referred quite narrowly to the pervasive pattern and practice of exerting power over and disenfranchising citizens because they were biologically different and, therefore, inferior. Racists were those who believed in the concept of racial inferiority and discriminated on that basis.

• Prejudice (and bias)
Prejudice is about judgment, association and attribution. Simply put, racial prejudice attributes qualities to a person based on his or her perceived racial/ethnic background (or any other, for that mater). That is, we see someone whose skin color is White, Black, Brown, etc., associate that person with other people who have similar skin and then generalize that because they share the same skin they are similar to each other on other personal characteristics. Thus, the outcome of prejudice is that we judge someone not based on their own individual qualities, but those we associate with people who “look like” that person. Bias is a conscious or unconscious preference for one group or another, generally based on some of the (again, conscious or unconscious) prejudices we have about groups of people.

• Bigotry
Bigotry is the ready and explicit expression of racial/ethnic prejudice.

When we’re talking about and to younger children especially, we’re generally concerned with issues surrounding prejudice and bigotry. These ideas are directly tied to individual attitudes, behaviors and interpersonal dynamics. Racism generally pertains to (though certainly not exclusively) the more pervasive, historically institutionalized nature of these prejudices and the power to mobilize them. As we will see later, the distinctions and relationship between these terms are important to the mission we have: To set our children on a healthy developmental path when it comes to attitudes about difference.
Key Influences

What are some of the key influences on children’s racial attitudes and socialization?

1. Parents – Given the fact that racial socialization begins so early, it is easy to see that parents influence much of what children learn about race. One of the key primary distinctions about how parents influence their child’s early racial attitudes is whether we openly and explicitly talk to our children about difference (and to some degree encourage it) or whether we choose not talk to our children about such matters (and therefore discourage it).

These early years are a critical juncture for how kids later think and talk about race. Often, children will take the lead in providing a “teachable moment” when they say something about their African American friend who has “chocolate skin,” or the little girl on the playground whose mommy “has skin like mine,” but whose daddy looks like….well, the friend with the chocolate skin. Most of the time kids don’t sensor themselves. They make such observations out loud and in public, and often, parents panic. But this is the moment. Choosing to ignore what the child says, shushing them, apologizing to others about their statements, etc. all send very powerful messages that “this is something I shouldn’t talk about.”

On the other hand, it can provide early opportunities to signal to children that differences do exist, and to explain to them the meaning of such differences – to point out that differences make people unique, and that being different is positive and that just because people look different from us doesn’t mean that we cannot or should not interact with them in the same ways that we do those who do.

People often say something like “well, if I talk about race, especially at such an early age, aren’t I just encouraging my kid to think in terms of race, and isn’t that the problem we’re trying to avoid? My answer is that we live in a society where race still matters. Racial disparities still exist. Racial segregation remains prevalent. Many of the same old prejudices about certain groups of people are still prevalent and we continue to make new ones about recent newcomers. What does this mean? It means that if parents don’t talk to kids about race, someone or something else will likely fill the void.

2. Peers – Children – like all of us – want to fit in, and often acceptance is a prime concern from childhood all the way through early adulthood (and beyond for some). We learn many things from our peers, perhaps most importantly “who is fit to be one of us.” Because peer groups are just that – about forming and maintaining a group – it can often be a vehicle for prejudices and negative attitudes about difference to fester and flourish. Of course peer groups may just as easily have a positive influence on how we view difference.

But think of this reality: partly as a result of persistent and prevalent residential segregation, most children and teens do not have diverse peer groups. Most young people in the U.S. have little interaction with people who do not look like them. Further, research shows that even in diverse situations – neighborhoods, schools, etc. – kids are most likely to “self segregate,” spending most of their time and forging real friendships primarily with people who look like they do. Thus, peer acceptance and our need for it make such relationships important in terms of how attitudes about race and difference circulate, get reinforced or challenged.

3. Visual Media – Children spend time with their parents. When they’re not with us (or other parental figures) they are often with peers. Both are prime conduits for transmitting and circulating attitudes about race and difference. Good or bad, the simple fact is that the amount of time children spend consuming media often trumps both parent and peer time. Movies. Television. Live action video games – these are what captivate children’s attention more and more. I mentioned earlier that prejudice is about attributions and associations. Mass media – visual media in particular – traffic in images and by default, associations. Television and film in particular have an additional attribute. We perceive those who appear on them in high esteem.

Given this, media images impact racial attitudes in at least two primary ways. First, they provide visual cues about “who” is valuable. Thus, when kids see that a disproportionate percentage of television and film personalities are White, it should come as no surprise that the result is a defacto assumption that “white people are important (or most important),” or that white people (and whatever characteristics are associated with them) are normal, valued, a model.

Second, media images influence the characteristics we attribute to certain groups of people – especially those with whom we have very little contact. We associate the characteristics and roles of fictional characters in media with how they appear on screen and then associate on screen images with real people. Data from the last four decades are unequivocal about three related conclusions: non-whites are far less likely to appear in television and film than Whites; when non-Whites do appear they tend to be depicted in roles or behaviors as either buffoons, criminals or athletes; the roles and behaviors whites are depicted in are more diverse and more likely to reflect positions of dominance and with characteristics that most people see as positive.

Illustrating the Influence

When I was in graduate school, the General Counsel of the undergraduate student body – a law student – was overheard at a football game saying to his friend, “don’t nigger-lip that cigarette.” Several Black students seated around him heard him, reported his behavior to the campus community, and he ultimately resigned his post as a student representative.

In his defense, the offending student made two points that – though they did not exonerate him – were certainly indicative of the way negative attitudes about race circulate. First, he grew up in a town that was rural and almost all white. The few Blacks that lived in the town lived “across the tracks” and there was never any opportunity or desire for interaction. Second, he mentioned what is likely true of most kids in his situation growing up: what he knew about Black people he got from watching television. Basically, he pleaded ignorance – that he did not know or did not have any reason to know or understand that the particular phrase he uttered would be potentially offensive.

Now, we all probably have a hard time believing his ultimate claim of ignorance. But the truth of the matter is it is not such a far-fetched reality. He lived in a racial vacuum void of any meaningful interaction with Black people. Neither his parents nor his peers ever had a explicit, constructive conversation about race. He picked up a phrase he’d heard circulated on television by Black people, by White people, and often without any context. Somewhere in his interactions with both his parents, peers and others he grew up around, however, he also picked up the fact that such a statement is not problematic – apparently not problematic when said among other Whites and, he assumed, not around Blacks either.

This illustrates my basic suggestion that absent explicit intervention (and especially in circumstances where kids have little access to and ability to interact with people who are different than we are) kids will pick up attitudes about race from others and often those are not likely to be positive.

Kids & Race: A Few “Best Practices”

1. Be willing and prepared to talk to your child about differences when they recognize, comment or question them (most parents neglect doing so because they simply are uncomfortable with the topic).

2. Be aware of and willing to confront your own prejudices (it’s actually less productive to pretend that all of us do not have them, than it is to be honest and willing to ask ourselves whether and what prejudices/bias we may harbor).

3. Recognize and take advantage of opportunities to challenge common stereotypes. If you’re in the company of your child and someone else makes a remark that expresses a prejudice or bias, point it out. If your child comes home talking about a great television show he or she watched at a neighbor’s house, ask them to tell you something about the different characters in the show – what they did, what they were like, maybe even what they looked like (such probing questions are also a good barometer for assessing whether and how your child is making sense of differences).

4. Affirm the value of difference. Differences, no matter what kind, make us all unique and special, they make our interactions with others interesting and exciting, and they provide us opportunities to learn about and better understand others.

5. Disentangle children’s associations between skin color (or other) differences and ideas of acceptance/rejection, /in-group/out-group, etc. That is, point out that just because someone looks different does not mean they are “not like us.”

6. Expose children to media that affirms positive views about difference. For youngsters, Sesame Street is one of my favorites. But there are many that have diverse characters and creatively (and sometimes subtly) reinforce that point that despite outward differences or differences in culture or background, we are fundamentally the same as human beings and should be judged and accepted accordingly.

7. Actively speak out against explicit acts of race/ethnicity/difference-based violence. Whether it’s someone making a verbal racial slur, using an offensive racial symbol (like nooses or swastikas, etc.) or actually doing violent harm to someone on the basis of racial, ethnic or other differences – make it clear to your children, those who committed the offense, and others affected, that such actions are unacceptable, reprehensible and have consequences for all involved.

8. When such actions take place at school or other institutional settings, enlist the assistance of teachers, principals, counselors, etc. and insist that such actions are both dealt with appropriately, and talked about openly and explicitly among the rest of the students and school personnel.

9. Affirm your child’s value and self worth as an individual and as a “member” of whatever racial/ethnic group they belong to or however it is they choose to identify themselves. For parents of non-white children especially, affirm a healthy sense of pride about your child’s racial/ethnic group. Studies show that moderately affirming such group pride is healthy for their development and educational performance. But also be clear to them to not confuse pride with superiority or preference.

10. For parents of White children especially, they will at some point potentially face issues of doubt, guilt, etc. about their “whiteness” – especially when others connect that to issues of our racial history (slavery, for example). Affirm their value and worth as well and point out to them – when the time presents itself – that they should not feel responsible for or think less of themselves because of what others who look like them have done in the past. Point out to them or even ask them if they have noticed that they benefit from having White skin. Finally, make it clear to them that like everyone – that “privilege” should be used to do whatever they can to help make sure that all people are treated equally.

11. For parents of mixed race children especially, affirm the value and worth of both/all sides of their heritage and encourage them to learn about both. Don’t force them to accept or value one aspect of their identity or background more or less than the other(s). This provides a great opportunity to illustrate how although people may look different on the outside, the fact that they are so much alike is what allows us to love and accept each other no matter what our differences are.

12. Be armed with or be willing to look for educational information about the historical and cultural practices of people and groups of different backgrounds, as well as some of the contemporary issues faced by members of different groups. Share this information with your children and encourage them to do the same. One of the positive aspects of having a multitude of media these days is that there are many worthwhile and informative sources for such material. As children develop get to the appropriate ages, there are a variety of provocative television series, films, documentaries and books that explore issues of race, ethnicity and difference. They are great sources of entertainment and at the same time provide excellent opportunities for discussion.

13. Model the attitudes and behaviors about race that you hope to teach your child. If you encourage them to talk openly about issues of difference, then do so yourself. If you want them to recognize and question the stereotypical ways they see themselves and others on TV, then bring it up yourself when you do so. Watch the language you use and should you slip up and say something that might express one of your own prejudices, again, be willing to admit that to them and talk about it. If we say we want our kids to have diverse friendships, then we should look at our own circle of friends and ask whether we do or not and why?

14. Don’t be surprised or upset when your children follow your lead and put into practice the principles you’ve tried to instill in them. I’m always reminded of an old professor of mine who was the first Black professor at the university when he first went there to teach back in the late 1960s. He was a professor of human relations and emphasized racial diversity and dialogue, etc., etc. He tells the story of opening the door one day, years later. A White, teenaged young man stood at the door. “I looked at him and said, Yes?” he said, looking at him thinking he was the paperboy or something. Turns out he was there to pick up the professor’s daughter for a date. My professor talked about how all of a sudden he was confronted with the reality that he wasn’t exactly sure about this prospect of his daughter dating and potentially marrying a White man and was forced to reaffirm all of those abstract principles about racial diversity and tolerance, etc. that he’d been teaching for so many years.

When we teach our children to value diversity, we shouldn’t balk when, in fact, they do.

15. Despite all of my advice here, the reality is that everyone and every situation are different. Talk with other parents about how they’ve confronted issues of race and difference, find out how things worked or did not work for them and their children. Treat this process of instilling a healthy sense of difference in our children as an ongoing, fluid process and always be willing to confront new problems, tackle new issues and explore new strategies. And never be afraid to look or ask for help and advice.

Comments: 5 Comments

5 Responses to “The Truth About Race: How to Talk About It With Your Children”

  1. The author of this article, Charlton McIlwain, is doing a survey to gather humorous, alarming, interesting comments and questions that children have said about race, ethnicity, color, etc. He told me the stories and anecdotes he’s received so far have been amazing! The responses will be a part of his next book, so all of your contributions would be greatly appreciated! Please take a minute to share your thoughts by following this link:, and please share them here as well. You can write as little as one sentence. It can be completely anonymous!

    You never know how something you say can impact a stranger.

  2. sstonbely says:

    As the new parent of a two-year-old, and one who grew up fighting misconceptions about race bred from the homogeneity of suburbia, I found this article really helpful. I will definitely refer back to it for its frank and concrete tips on raising a twenty-first century child.

  3. smartygirl says:

    Thank you for this. I’m white, from a racially homogeneous small town, so not much experience. My husband is mixed (black mother, white father) but has never been particularly fussed about racial identity. Now our toddler son is saying funny things and it’s so difficult to know what to say without turning it into a “big deal” that you shouldn’t talk about around your parents…


  4. RFriedberg says:

    Although this article is directed towards children, in my experience, the definitions of the key concepts listed above are largely unknown among older teenagers and college-age students as well. I think there would be much less ignorance surrounding race if these concepts were taught in elemetary and high school.

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