Learning Race At Home: Why Colorblindness Just Isn't Enough

Shouldn't kids be able to come to you for answers to questions about race?

Posted Jan 24, 2019

This is the first post of a three-part segment that contains excerpts (edited for length and clarity) from the book, Below the Surface: Talking With Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity (2019, Princeton University Press), which I coauthored with my colleague and long-time collaborator, Dr. Adriana Umaña-Taylor. Adriana is a Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education whose research focuses on understanding how individual and contextual factors interact to inform adolescents' development and adjustment.

iStock/kate_sept2004
Source: iStock/kate_sept2004

In the U.S. childrearing often involves navigating issues of race and ethnicity. Because parents are primarily responsible for where children live and go to school, and by extension who they can most easily befriend, it is they who set the stage for how youth will be exposed to race and ethnicity in their everyday environments.

Families, more generally, also model what race, ethnicity, and culture mean in one's life. What youth hear, observe, and notice to be the case in their family context, not surprisingly, provides the first fodder for identity development. Unlike with young children, parents of adolescents are typically not able to shield their kids from the realities of racial and ethnic relations. As they get older, adolescents unquestionably have more access—by virtue of the internet, peers, and popular culture—to how race and ethnicity are lived beyond one's family.

One issue to consider is whether parents’ efforts to address or avoid racial issues align with youths’ own experiences and understandings of such matters. In some cases, misalignment between what parents say and what youth perceive can be turning points for youths’ ethnic-racial identity development. But whether or not parents’ and children’s experiences around race and ethnicity are discrepant, what youth learn in the family context lays the foundation upon which they make their assessments of the meaning of race and ethnicity in the broader social world: Is it something to celebrate, grapple with, actively avoid, or simply ignore?

One way that youth learn race is in the lesson that it should go unnoticed, be avoided, and not talked about (or done so euphemistically). The most basic opportunity to begin a dialogue about race might occur when a young child asks for the first time, “What color am I?” (literally), after noticing the “colors” of other people.

In adolescence, however, the questions become more complex, and the issues young people may be wondering about with regard to race, or the worries they may have, require less simple answers. Youth likely won't directly ask a question about race in a context where they have learned they could be reprimanded for even noticing it in some way.

It is understandable that some parents would like to emphasize our sameness, or to adopt what’s known as a colorblind approach to race and ethnicity. It somehow feels as though the “right” or “just” thing to do is to tell children to adopt a colorblind stance. Often, the colorblind approach goes hand in hand with messages about egalitarianism, so that parents might say, “We’re all the same and we should treat everyone equally.” Who could argue with that?

But where does that leave us when kids notice that we are not “all the same,” which they do at a very young age? And, what about when youth get older and realize that members of different racial and ethnic groups are not treated equally in this society?

It's unrealistic to expect youth to make sense of the realities they may personally experience as a result of their ethnic-racial background, or make sense of what they see playing out in the news or social media, when they have been told that “we are all the same.” The ethnic-racial injustices they witness at school, in their neighborhood, and in broader society send a very different message.

The need to answer youths’ questions meaningfully means that the colorblind approach is not the way forward for parents who wish to promote positive identity and race relations among youth in the U.S.

As we see it, there are two key problems with the strategy of negating difference. First, minimizing the noticing of difference at home means that youth cannot count on their family to help them understand, negotiate, and effectively engage with race and racial issues when they do notice them outside the home, such as at school, among peers, and in the media. These same parents would not want to shut the door to conversations about sex or drugs, so why do it with race and ethnicity?

Second, the colorblind approach interferes with our ability to fully know the complex ways race and ethnicity is lived by our friends, neighbors, classmates, and even other family members. But equally as important, by not allowing others to tell their stories, share the histories, process their grief, or celebrate the joys that emanate from that complexity, we constrain their humanity.

Parents often deliberate about when and how to teach youth about potential prejudice and discrimination, often considering ways to scaffold pertinent information based on how “ready” youth are for particular kinds of conversations, stories, books, excursions, and the like. It is not something to engage with casually or carelessly. We know from Diane Hughes' and our own studies that young people are not just vessels into which parents pour cultural and racial knowledge, but rather parents are responsive to the age of those youth and the questions they themselves raise about these issues as they try to make sense of their social worlds.

Perhaps the most important point we wish to make, then, is that parents and caregivers should be ready and willing to engage youths’ questions about racism or xenophobia in ways that make sense, given what they know about their children.

Adolescents also more easily recognize hypocrisy than younger children, so it is important to be frank and know that sometimes the most honest response is, simply, “I don’t know.” And then try to find out.

Finally, an important thing to keep in mind is that the more difficult conversations about race and ethnicity that will inevitably arise in adolescence and involve discussions of racism, discrimination, power, privilege, and social injustices will be relatively easier to have if basic discussions, such as acknowledging difference and teaching youth to recognize the value in celebrating and valuing all backgrounds, have not been avoided in early childhood when children first become aware of differences.

References

Rivas-Drake, D. & Umaña-Taylor, A. J. (2019). Below the Surface: Talking with Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.