One of the most dramatic moments in Losing Isaiah, a film about a socio-economically oppressed black child who is adopted by a well-off white family, occurs when Isaiah’s older, adopted sister places her white hand next to his brown hand and kindly asks him how their two hands differ. Bravo to the sister for even broaching the topic of race with little Isaiah. If she were a real person (as a opposed to a fictional Hollywood character), she’d be in the minority; a 2007 study found that nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to talk about race with their kids than white parents. My sense is that many adults like to think that young kids are naturally “colorblind” and that pointing out and discussing racial distinctions with kids will somehow bias them. As a result, they just don’t talk about race with the kids they know. In some ways, this is a noble and hopeful approach – but unfortunately it’s misguided. Kids aren’t colorblind. In fact, developmental psychologist Lawrence Hirshfeld’s research suggests that kids start making strong assumptions about race and identity at an early age. In one study, three, four, and seven year olds were shown two sets of drawings made with colored pencils. Each set had three pictures, a target picture depicting an adult, whose race, physique, and occupation were portrayed (e.g., a stocky, black police officer) and comparison pictures of two children, each of whom shared with the target adult two of the three features. However, which features that they had in common was different for each of the children. For example, if the adult had light skin, a large body type, and a police officer’s uniform, one of the children might have dark skin, a large body type, and a police officer’s uniform. The other child would have light skin, a large body type, and regular clothes.
The children who participated in the study were asked “Which of these is the adult as a child?”, “Which of these is the adult’s child?”, or “Which of these is most similar to the adult?” In other words, the children had to decide which of the two differing features was most relevant. It turns out that the children in all three age groups selected a comparison picture that matched the adult target’s race more often they selected a the picture that matched the adult target’s physique or occupation, although the effect for three-year-olds was less powerful. Despite the fact that all three attributes are conspicuous and socially-relevant, by four years old, most children believe that race is a better predictor of identity than body build or occupation.
Kids notice race. When adults don’t talk about it with them, they start to make inaccurate assumptions about racial differences and interracial interactions. For example, one study found that kids who are being raised in homes that don’t discuss race are much more likely to interpret a neutral picture of an interaction between two students of different races in a negative way than kids who are being raised in homes that do talk about race.
Talk to the kids you know about race – at home, in Sunday School, at play dates, on vacation, at school, everywhere.
Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist, public theologian, author and professor. She is the first Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart.