The Dangers of Colorblind Socialization
Understanding White parents' usual approaches helps highlight the problem.
Posted June 1, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Over the last week, as we have once again grappled with persistent racism in the United States, educators and activists have highlighted the vast resources available to help White parents raise antiracist children. These resources—which include books, movies, websites, and historical sites families can explore together—emphasize the importance of White parents talking to kids about race, racism, and privilege. One way of understanding why these approaches are so important is by contrasting them with what we know most White parents have done in the past.
Research suggests that most White parents practice colorblind socialization (Loyd & Gaither, 2018). Colorblind socialization, sometimes referred to as colormute or racemute socialization, involves parents discouraging children from talking about race or racism by framing overt discussion of race as irrelevant, disrespectful, or racist. Colorblind socialization is connected to colorblind ideology, which has emerged as a dominant approach to issues of racial diversity in the US. Individuals who endorse a colorblind ideology either believe that racism is no longer a significant problem (and thus think acknowledging race is inappropriate) or believe that racism can be eliminated by ignoring race (Bonilla-Silva, 2006).
If your child overhears a racial slur, a colorblind approach is to say, “That is the perfect time to let him process it himself, and come to me with any questions he might have” (Zucker & Patterson, 2018, p. 3924). That’s how a White father reported he would respond in a study of White parents of 8- to 12-year-old children.
And that father wasn’t unique. Zucker and Patterson (2018) asked White parents how they would respond to a series of hypothetical situations, which included your child overhearing a racial slur, watching a news story with your child about a racially motivated attack, and watching a news story with your child about the Black Lives Matter movement. Between 74 and 84 percent of White parents reported that they would respond in colorblind ways to the situations. These colorblind responses included ignoring the situation entirely (e.g., “I’d probably change the channel”) and ignoring the underlying issues of race and racism (e.g., “I would say that this person is a bully and will end up with no friends”; Zucker & Patterson, 2018, pp. 3915-3916).
The problem with parents staying silent and letting kids figure out race and racism on their own is that kids might get it wrong and not realize they need help. Several years ago, I saw this problem firsthand while working with a child on a classification task. The task required the child to sort pictures of people into groups (for example, a child might sort based on race, gender, or age).
A 5-year-old White boy I was testing sorted the pictures based on skin color and labeled the groups as “smoked” and “not smoked” (Pahlke, Bigler, & Suizzo, 2012). When I asked why he used those labels, he explained that his parents had told him that smoking cigarettes turns your lungs black, and he assumed that cigarettes turn your skin black, too. This child thought all Black people smoked cigarettes. And, because his parents had sent clear messages about the dangers of cigarettes, it wasn’t surprising that he expressed extremely negative attitudes about Black people on the racial bias measure.
When I talked to the boy’s mother, she was shocked by both her child’s negative attitudes about Black people and his misunderstanding of the cause of skin color. The mother of the 5-year-old boy told me she had never talked to her child about race; she assumed he was colorblind and did not notice race.
Researchers are still investigating the long-term impacts of colorblind socialization. We do know, though, that White adults who take a colorblind approach are actually perceived as less friendly and more prejudiced during interracial interactions than are White adults who take a multicultural approach (e.g., Holoien & Shelton, 2012). Encouraging children to develop a colorblind approach is not effective.
Parents who want their children to become anti-racist need to talk to their children explicitly about race and racism. From a young age, children notice race. Talk to kids from early on about the racial differences they notice (including what they do and do not mean). Preschool-aged kids are focused on fairness; parents can frame discussions about race and prejudice around concepts kids already understand. And older kids can handle frank discussions about the reality of White privilege and racism in the US today—including the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
Finally, kids pay attention to what we as parents do. Parents should read books about anti-racism, write to legislators to advocate for equitable policies, and speak up when they see examples of racism. If we as parents want to work to address the persistent racism in the country and raise anti-racist children, we cannot remain silent on the topic of race.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Holoien, D. S., & Shelton, J. N. (2012). You deplete me: The cognitive costs of colorblindness on ethnic minorities. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 562-565.
Loyd, A. B., & Gaither, S. E. (2018). Racial/ethnic socialization for White youth: What we know and future directions. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 59, 54-64.
Pahlke, E., Bigler, R. S., & Suizzo, M. A. (2012). Relations between colorblind socialization and children’s racial bias: Evidence from European American mothers and their preschool children. Child Development, 83, 1164-1179.
Zucker, J. K., & Patterson, M. M. (2018). Racial socialization practices among White American parents: Relations to racial attitudes, racial identity, and school diversity. Journal of Family Issues, 39, 3903-3930.