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Empathy: The Antidote to Racism (Part II of the Talking Racism with White Kids Series)

This article is the third installment in a three part series, Talking Racism with White Kids, which was originally published in Natural Mother Magazine in July 2016. You can read Part I here and Part II here.

Did you know the antidote to racism is already inside of you? We are all born with it. The antidote to our propensity for stereotyping and prejudice – a necessary side effect of our ancestors’ dangerous lives – is in our amazing neocortex just waiting for us to activate it.

It’s called empathy and it is a skill that like a muscle can be worked out and strengthened no matter your age. When we activate it at birth and train it to be powerful and second-nature, racism has almost no chance of taking root. Racism and empathy can not exist side by side. One side must win and it will always be the side we feed.

How do we feed our empathy and not our prejudices? Let’s look at the developmental stages of empathy.

Birth – 3 years: Foundational Skills

Humans are prone, just like we are prone to fear snakes, to be empathetic. Our development during the first five years is really an exercise in developing the concept of “self” and of “other” which is the basis of all empathy. At birth infants are primed to notice and focus on human faces. At 7-9 months of age infants understand the concept of attention to objects by others. This shared-attention is the result of the baby understanding that a person besides themselves finds an object of interest, and is a milestone in the development of this sense of “self” and “other”. By 12 months old infants can predict the behavior of someone else, further demonstrating a rudimentary sense of “other”. 18 month olds show understanding of another person’s goals and intentions but do not do so for inanimate objects. And by 24 month olds, emerging toddlers begin to display comforting behavior in social situations (see the research here.) We are social animals so of course attention to the mental states of others would be part of our neocortex tool box.

You might wonder how you can teach a baby about racism before they can even utter “mama”. That’s because the first set of ideas you’ll want to impart are not about racism at all but about developing it’s antidote: empathy.

Racism sits on a foundation of hierarchy – the idea that one person is more important or worthy and deserving of power than another – and conformity – the idea that people should groom themselves into an “ideal” version of themselves as dictated by society’s standards. We make racism a comfy companion when we raise kids with hierarchy and conformity as standards of parenting.

For my parenting courses, I created the “Parenting Onion” (I originally called it the parenting roadmap but “onion” just kind of stuck and is much more descriptive) to look at the development of empathy and pro-social skills in children.

The first three layers are about SELF because all respect, all love, stems from self-respect and self-love. Hence, respect for bodies, feelings, and identity (choice) becomes the foundational skills for the next three layers: respect for OTHERS.

In order for a human to fully have respect for others they have to have respect for themselves and they develop that by being respected by their primary caregivers.

Mainstream parenting is based on the opposite of respect. It is based on control (the actionable side of hierarchy) and conditionality (the heavily adultist version of conformity). We say, “my way or the highway” and, “because I said so” and parents are harshly treated in public discourse for having kids who are “out of control.” (See the recent parental blame regarding the boy who fell into the gorilla pit at the Cinncinnatti zoo.)

Kids raised this way see the world as naturally hierarchical. They see some groups (children) are weak and wholly beholden to other groups (adults) with all the power. How easily this skeletal framework wears racism!

If, instead, we treated our children as whole and equal and worthy fellow humans instead of a class of people designed to be controlled, how much more difficult a time would racism have taking root? Bolster your child’s racism “immune system” by teaching them that all people, including and starting with their own self, deserve to have their bodies respected, their feelings heard and validated, and their needs and choices considered equally important to every other human on the planet. This core belief gives them a defense to racist ideas born from the incongruity of racist ideology to their lived experience. Treat children with respect and change the world.

Let’s look at the three layers of respect for SELF and how we either support or undermine it.

1. Respect your child’s body as their own.

Ingrain in them that they have a body that is THEIRS and they get to decide what happens with it and to it. You can do this by making consent a core value of your parenting. Choose wisely, much more wisely than traditional parenting, the areas where you are going to demand something of them. Being buckled in a car seat might be non negotiable. What they wear, when and how they wash themselves, who they “have to” hug, these are areas where we can give our children much more respect for self than they would get in the traditional control-obedience paradigm of mainstream parenting.

Their belief that they own their bodies will naturally evolve into an understanding that all people deserve to have autonomy over their bodies.

2. Validate your child’s feelings.

Control-paradigm parenting denies children their feelings often. And I get the lure. Young kids will say they’re hot in the snow, they’re hungry after demolishing a large pizza, they’re “not tired” as they rub their eyes. It is easy to just say “no you aren’t” and force them into a coat, to wait for dinner, or to go to bed. We are encouraged by our culture to do exactly that. Control, by definition, puts the child’s feelings on the back burner in preference to the adult’s feelings which are always “right” while the child’s are “wrong” or “silly”. Instill in them the idea that a person, any person, all persons, deserve to have their feelings and thoughts valued even when, or especially when, we don’t agree with them.

This will evolve into a firm belief that all people deserve to have their feelings validated.

3. Validate your child’s identity.

This is so crucial and such a hot topic these days with the discussion of transgender people. You can not, I’ll repeat CAN NOT, teach self-love by disrespecting the spoken identity of a person. It is not compatible. This is because respecting someone else explicitly means respecting their identity. If your three year old says, “I’m a lion today,” say, “hello, lion!” When my child wants to be called Speed instead of Boston, I try my best to call them Speed (no joke, this actually happens a few times a month). Which isn’t to be confused with permissive parenting. If Speed’s feelings matter then so do the other people around him. If a situation requires non-lion, non-Speed behavior, like at the grocery store, I don’t say, “knock if off Boston. You’re not a lion now.” Instead I say, “Hey Speed? Running in the store is dangerous so we need to rest your legs until we get home. I bet they’ll be even faster after a break!” I want to instill in him a sense that he is not the labels anyone else puts on him. He gets to choose what he identifies as. No one else can.

This will evolve to grant this right of self-identity to all people. Can you see how some recent bigotry in the news would dissolve if all people embraced this truth?

Age 4 – 10: Extending the Foundation to the “Other”

The next three sections of the onion finally get into how we treat other people (and although there is a reason I start this section at age 4, which I’ll explain shorty, you can actually practice these things from birth.) The first three layers have created a child that expects human interactions to be mutual and pleasant. Navigating “discipline” with a spirit of mutual respect and emotional connection has primed them for applying this outside the parent/child relationship. The only thing missing is a developmental milestone called Theory of Mind.

Around age 4 children develop a new mental ability crucial to the development of empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person within the other person’s frame of reference. Empathy is not, “if that were happening to me I’d be sad” but rather, “I understand that these circumstances are making you angry (regardless of how *I* would feel in the situation).” Before the development of ToM children literally can’t imagine another person’s frame of reference.

ToM refers to a person’s ability to understand that other people have different thoughts and ideas completely separate from their own and it is demonstrated in the famous Sally Anne False Belief test. In this experiment the researcher uses dolls to present the following scenario to the child test subject.

Before (approximately) age 4 kids will answer that Sally will look for the apple in the blue backpack. They haven’t yet reached the mental milestone of understanding that even though they, as the observer of what Anne did, know that the apple is in the backpack, Sally, being out of the room at the time, holds a different view in her mind of where the apple is. This seemingly simple task of recognizing that another person holds a different view of the world in their mind is a major step in the development of empathy.

The goals of the OTHER layers – respect for people, diversity, and culture – are achieved by expanding on the values of the inner, SELF layers. Let’s look at some specific ways to we can accomplish this.

4. Practice perspective taking.

I think perspective taking is the single most valuable tool in creating a better world. The skill of imagining what another person is experiencing/feeling/thinking and understanding that their experience/feelings/thoughts are completely separate and completely different from our own is a huge developmental milestone.

Its super easy to practice too. Humans, with their big brains, developed a powerful way to practice our empathy muscles: storytelling. Books, television, and movies aren’t the mindless drivel some people want to convince you they are. Storytelling has been used for millennia to teach lessons about life (parables and fables for example) and we can use them to talk about race too. I love this list from of 14 picture books about racism for children under 10. And this list from NPR of novels about race and racism for adolescents.

This is one of many reasons that we are not a screen free home. The stories we tell through books, TV and movies can be excellent tools for talking about a myriad of things. All you have to do is ask open ended questions like, “what do you think that person/character is thinking/feeling/experiencing?” Give your own opinion without the shade of authority, “That’s interesting. I thought…” When we say instead with authority, “no, this is what they’re thinking” we shutdown dialog.

By practicing focusing our attention on the perspective of others we increase our capacity to empathize with them. More importantly, the act of thinking about others becomes habit. It becomes something we naturally do with each person we meet without conscious thought on our part. (Psst: we just tricked our prejudice-prone brains to turn off, at least for fellow human beings, our curvy-stick-might-as-well-be-a-snake short-cutting!)

5. Model emotional literacy.

We often think of parenting as tools and skills to manage young people. We are so wrong. Parenting is about personal development. It’s not called CHILDing but PARENTing. It is about being the best version of ourselves today and growing better every day. That might sound scary but I actually think it is kind of awesome. It means taking care of yourself is one of the best things you can do for your kids. When I do metta meditation (see the January issue of NMM’s article Compassion Training) it is amazingly self-serving. It feels good. I get to grow and expand. It is simultaneously self-centered and one of the best things I can give my kids because it helps me become more empathetic and I can then model that for my kids.

Like reading literacy, which means a person can read and understand the written word, emotional literacy means we can identify, understand, and successfully manage our own emotions. It is essential to be able to “read” ourselves before we can gain insight into another’s emotions through perspective taking.
When you are angry, name that. When you are sad, name that. If you can’t in the moment then do it later (“I was really angry this morning.”) Be transparent in why you have feelings (“I think it is because I didn’t get enough sleep/I was hungry/I was in a hurry/seeing marker on the wall really upset me.”) and how you managed them (“I had something to eat/talked it out/did yoga and that helped me calm down.”) Every time you do this you model dealing with human emotions. You demonstrate that everyone feels out of control sometimes and that those feelings are both normal and manageable. It is an amazing lesson in resilience as well as giving them practice in identifying the emotions of others.

6. Celebrate Diversity

The acquisition of language is a trial in unseeing the unique and instead grouping the alike. All those unique individuals are “trees”, all of those varied, hairy animals are called “cows”, unique people with melanin-rich skin are called “black.”

This isn’t inherently a bad thing. I’m not calling on you to stop teaching your kids language (like we could if we wanted to!). I do think it is a crucial period of human development to ALSO point out the similarities shared by things that appear to be different and to instill an appreciation of variety. Yes a housecat and a horse seem to have very little in common. But, on closer inspection, what do they have in common? Four legs. Covered in hair. Live birth. Making milk for babies. (If you’re a homeschooler you’re probably seeing the biology taxonomy lesson here). A tree and a panda bear have nothing in common, right? Or maybe we could help our kids see that both need food and water, they both desire to reproduce, both want to thrive. If we can show (or develop) our own awe at the beautiful variety in the world around us, our kids will pick it up.

The leap from “how sad the world would be if all the trees looked exactly the same” to “how sad would it be if all people looked exactly the same” to the fundamental belief that it is exactly that diversity that makes us wondrous and powerful isn’t too far to jump if you learn it when you are a child. Kids raised this way will have an easier time seeing that, despite of our differences in skin color, we have amazing similarities that are much deeper than appearance.

7. Celebrate Culture

Finally, the Parenting Onion looks at celebrating culture. This can look like attending cultural festivals, visiting cultural centers, and expanding our social circle past people who are similar to us but, even more valuable, is that this forces us to look at what culture is.

Allow me to veer into evolutionary biology again. I’ve talked about how our brains grew to be quick-thinking, short-cut generating machines. This kept us alive (read part I for an explanation). We also have this capacity for empathy in our big, impressive neocortex. But, there’s another part of the amazingness of human evolution that can’t be ignored: culture.

Culture is different from other ways humans learn because it is made by humans. A human child is born knowing how to suck. No one teaches them this the way no one teaches a sea turtle to lay her eggs on the beach. This is instinct.

Humans also learn to chew through their own experimentation with food. We aren’t born knowing how to chew but we learn through experience. This is experiential learning.

We also learn that it is rude to chew with your mouth open. Is this something we learn through experimentation? No. We learn it through another human telling us (either through example, being told outright, or punishment/shame). This is social learning.

This is such an important distinction. Our culture is influenced by where and to whom we were born. It is dangerous and wrong to think that our particular culture is reality or “better than” another.

If I had been born in ancient Sparta I would find it perfectly normal to give my children to the state at age seven for brutal, violent training to be soldiers. This would be normal to me. If I had been born in the Sambia tribe I would find it quite normal that adult men receive fellatio from adolescent boys as part of a coming-of-age ritual. This would be “just how the world works.” I’m hardly advocating either one of those. I was born in a rural mid-west town and my “normal” says that violence against children is wrong and sexual acts with children are worse. I’m not even remotely interested in changing my viewpoint on either of those topics.

However, I am acutely aware that my viewpoint is just that – a collection of ideas, ideals, rules, and ethics – that are completely dependent upon my arbitrary birth into this particular culture. This perspective created by my social learning, is called a frame of reference and not understanding our own frame of reference pushes us into prejudice.

A personal example, my freshman year of college I went to church with a friend from my dorm. It was a “black church”. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white church and a black church. I remember at 18 years old thinking the people in the black church were rude and rowdy. I was very uncomfortable.

My frame of reference, my cultural knowledge that was passed to me through my parents and other adults, was that it is rude to speak out in church. That public displays of emotion were inappropriate. I was judging people from a different cultural upbringing based on my cultural frame of reference and expecting them to conform. This is prejudice pure and simple. (And you’ll notice it didn’t require hate or racial slurs.)

Much misunderstanding and violence is caused by not understanding our frame of reference. When Christopher Columbus met the Taino people he saw them as both savage and “simple”. His frame of reference was that “civilized” people wore layers of clothes and shoes and that “smart” people built huge cities, had a written language, and fought with guns. His misinterpretation of the culture of the Taino people launched a century of genocide and forced assimilation to Columbus’ culture – his religion, his form of education, his language, his form of civilization. Meanwhile all of Columbus’ successors and the financial backers in Europe prided themselves on “saving” the “savages” because European culture was obviously better.

They were blind to their own frame of reference like fish are blind to water.

Teaching kids about the culture of others by going to a cultural festival is wonderful. But don’t forget to teach them that they have a culture too and that while it seems ubiquitous and “true” it is only one possible frame of reference. Teach them to guard against prejudice that might crop up because they believe “their way” is the only way.

It might seem like I haven’t talked about racism much in this article. That was intentional. Racism is a secondary infection, a symptom of the underlying virus plaguing our world. Racism is a direct result of things like hierarchical, control-based social stratification and a lack of understanding of how our fancy, powerful neocorticies function. The cure then is to find the seemingly unrelated practices and beliefs that allow this infection to run rampant and cure the underlying problem.

I certainly hope you talk to your kids openly about racism (since we know children are not colorblind) and teach them the modern, researched-based understanding of racial bias. But it will all wash away like water off a duck’s back if the underlying ideas of self-respect and empathy aren’t included. On the other hand, raise kids with mutual respect, autonomy, and empathy and racism won’t ever be able to take hold.

Frequently Asked Questions

“My three year old pointed to a black person and said, “that person is chocolate,” I wanted to melt into the floor. What should I have said?”
The most important thing to do when your child embarasses you because of something concerning race is that you don’t shush or reprimand them. They don’t know it is rude to call out someone’s appearance. That’s a cultural rule that they aren’t born with. If you lead with that – “shhh, don’t say that” – you’ve made yourself more comfortable (and probably the person of color who overheard) but you’ve taught your child that “race” is taboo. Like swatting their hand away when they touch their genitals teaches them that there is something dangerous or bad about sex, silencing them or distracting them about race tells them there is something dangerous or bad about color. Kind of the exact opposite of what you want them to learn.

Start off by saying something positive and validating. “She does have beautiful skin!” or “I see, she is a chocolatey color.” or, “Isn’t it cool how people come in different colors like flowers?” If the person being pointed at is aware I’d also say, “do you want to say hi or wave to her?” Maybe point out the similarities, “she’s buying bananas too!” For a three year old being open and positive is important. Your primary goal is that they know talking to their parent about race is ok and that color differences are amazing and not taboo. This sets up an openness that will serve you both as your child ages.

What if a story I’m reading to my child or a show we are watching does something racist?
This is a great question because so many of the media we consume is profoundly racist. Sometimes I skip a work I know to be racist but other times it can be a wonderful prompt for discussing difficult topics. There are many resources online for talking about the racism in “classic” children’s books. For example, PBS has a [whole curriculum around the racial issues in Huckleberry Finn:]. Know the context of the work as well. We know Huck Finn to be racist today but when it came out in 1885 it was considered “vulgar” simply because it had a white boy being friends with a black person. We’ve progressed in seeing it as racism. But are the stereotypes of Jim so different from what black people experience today? It is a great opportunity for discussion.

Also, don’t be afraid to show how shocked you are. If you hear someone on a show say something racist, say so! Let your kids see that you analyze your media and question it when it is telling you something wrong.

My kids are multi-racial and I am white. How do I teach them about racism?
This was the question I was most frequently asked. I’m a white woman raising white kids and, if you remember last month, I said that de-centering whiteness is an important part of being anti-racist. Part of this means that everyone should stay in their own lane of experience and expertise. I can not give advice on a reality I don’t live. I shouldn’t. But I can point you to some writers discussing this topic;

Multiracial Child Resource Book: Living Complex Identities
Edited by Maria P.P. Root and Matt Kelley

Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children
By Donna Jackson Nakazawa

I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World
By Marguerite Wright

I live in an all white area. How do I teach my kids to appreciate different races?
Hello, fellow middle-american! I also live in a very homogenous area. I was eighteen years old the first time I met a black person. No, really! For now at least I’m also raising three white kids in the same hometown. How to do this and still raise anti-racists is very important to me.

First, if your means allow, try to drive to activities in nearby cities so your kids won’t be like me on their first day on campus. I drive an hour north to use the YMCA or for some of their playgrounds. I like seeing my kids run around and have fun with a myriad of different colors of skin. We also go to cultural events whenever we can – from drum circles put on by local Native American tribes to the local Greek cultural festival.

That isn’t always possible but never fear there are many ways to make your environment diverse. Look at your toys, movies, books, and art supplies. Are they diverse? Is your only “flesh” toned crayon a peach one? Are all your dolls white? Are all your books and tv and movies featuring only white characters? Diversify your children’s environment. Here’s a list of some great toys and books that are racially diverse (as well as queer and ability positive).

Lastly, break up your culturally conditioned holidays. Thanksgiving and Columbus day shouldn’t be celebrated without the historical context. Halloween shouldn’t consist of culturally appropriative costumes. Expand into new-to-you holidays like Juneteenth and Kwanzaa. My two can’t-live-without resources for this are Teaching Tolerance and The Zinn Education Project, both have lesson plans and resources for teaching non-white-washed history as well as learning about racism.

My kids are all over ten, is it too late?
It is never too late. I was in my twenties when I started learning about racism. My dad was sixty. And the same resources you use for learning about racism can be used or adapted for teenagers. Teaching Tolerance and Zinn (links above) both have searchable teaching resources where you can limit by age group and topic.

Make it a family affair! I know a family with older kids that are watching W. Kamau Bell’s excellent series on CNN called The United Shades of America. Here’s a list of documentaries you can watch online about race. Model ongoing learning and expanding of your understanding of race as something grown ups do too. This will create lifelong learners.

My family member is overtly racist. I don’t want my kids picking this up. What can I do?
You have a right to filter out racism from your kids environment. A person violating this does not belong around your children. In my opinion, that person has a choice: stop using racist language or stop seeing my kids. You have a right and responsibility to set healthy boundaries.

Don’t be a racism bystander. Let your kids see you put your foot down and stand up for racial justice. This might take practice as we’ve been taught from birth not to talk about race (and also, perhaps, not to question our elders). I may have started years ago with a timid, “that is racist, please stop.” But the more I engage the easier it becomes. Now friends and family know they’re in for an ear-full if they utter bigotry around me. You’ve no doubt heard the Edmund Burke quote, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This is how you live that. Be the good person doing something.

If your kids are older and getting savvy at all things race, let them loose on your relative. There is nothing quite like being schooled by a eleven year old to make you rethink your stance. Plus your kids will gain that valuable skill of being a good person doing something.

My area is super racist. How do I protect my kids?
Don’t protect them, arm them with information. I live in a tiny town in Ohio with more confederate flags per capita than should be normal. I can’t ignore this and let my kids develop their own ideas about those flags (and now, Trump signs) so I don’t. “Hey kids, see that flag? It is a symbol for racism…”

I know that anti-racists often get slack for being “intolerant” of others with different views. Turning our own words back on us to make us flounder. Don’t be swayed. You have every right and a huge pile of responsibility to be 100% INTOLERANT of racism. I tell my kids that everyone who is racist isn’t a bad person at heart. While they have an individual responsibility to not participate in racism they were also trained by their culture to be racist. This isn’t an excuse but a valuable way to hold empathy for a person you disagree with vociferously. We should treat them with dignity and respect as all humans deserve to be treated. That being said there is no reason that you or your children need to accommodate racism. Even (especially) if it is couched in “southern pride” (I’ll remind you I live in OHIO, well north of the Mason-Dixon).

Even young kids can learn the history of the confederate flag (it includes pirates!). Knowledge is power.

How do I talk to my kids about racism in the news?
I’m glad you asked because people often ignore current events with their kids and I think this is a mistake. You are growing a human being to be independent and valuable to society. You can’t do that if you don’t engage them in the very real events of the day.

Anytime an event happens you can usually Google, “how to talk to kids about [fill in blank]” and you’ll find some advice. For example, this guide discusses how to talk to kids from preschool to highschool about the Orlando massacre.

Remember when you’re talking to your kids you don’t have to pretend to be all-knowing. Be real and raw. If it makes you cry, let them see that. If it makes you afraid, tell them that honestly. I know we don’t want terror to rule our kids’ lives but pretending never works. Kids are master pretenders and they’ll see right through you if you try to downplay your natural reaction. Don’t sugar coat the incident and please don’t white-wash it. A “bad man” didn’t shoot “some people.” A homophobic, racist white man killed latinx queer folk. A “bad cop” didn’t shoot a 12 year old. A racist cop murdered a black boy. If you pretend that color/sexuality had nothing to do with it you are telling your kids a lie. Maybe your three year old doesn’t know the difference but every time you use the words it helps it seep in a little more and makes you better at the conversations. By the time your teen comes to you with something deep you’ll be ready because you’ve been being real and honest since they were babies.

What questions do you have about raising white kids to be anti-racist? I’d love to hear them! Contact me via message at

10 Ways White People Get Racism Wrong (Part II of Talking About Racism with White Kids)

(This article is the second installment in a three part series for white parents that was originally published in Natural Mother Magazine in June, 2016. You can read part I here.)

In Part I I made the case that one of the major roadblocks to dismantling racism is that white parents don’t talk about racism with their white kids. Or, they wait till they are teenagers missing crucial periods when science tells us kids’ views of race are being solidified. The reality, we find, is that even babies notice race and children as young as four are developing stereotypes and even prejudices about people of other races (often in direct opposition to the attitudes we’d share if we were talking about it with them). The task is clear that we can not wait and we can not remain silent on this important topic. Our kids need us to be talking about racism early and often.

So, what next? I was going to dive into teaching empathy and diversity, offer some resources, and model some conversations but I’ve decided to push that into part III. Why? Because there is another enormous roadblock we have to navigate around before those steps make sense. And here it is: most white adults know very little about racism and are overburdened with misconceptions about it.

In order to teach our kids about racism we first have to address some of the deficiencies in our own understanding of race. Rooting out our own racism is the single best step we can take to raise anti-racist kids. They will see us model our own seeking and enlightenment on the issue and will hopefully be freed from some of the misconceptions we labor under. But, why do we have so many misconceptions about racism?

Remember in elementary school when we learned about human reproduction? People come in two types – male, XY and female, XX – and these were often conflated without thought to “boy” and “girl”. This, we know now, is a completely false, massive oversimplification of the reality of human sex that obscures the very existence of over 200,000 births EVERY DAY that don’t fit this falsehood. I’m not sure why they told us something so wrong. Maybe it was religious obfuscation or just a worry that kids so young “can’t handle” the truth (similar to how people erroneously feel about discussing racism) or, at least in part, the truth of human sexuality just hadn’t trickled down to the non-sexuality researcher in a pre-Internet world. Whatever the reason it’s time we re-educated ourselves about sexuality and racism.

We would laugh (or maybe cry) if someone told us we had to use a 1981 personal computer (with a whopping 16 kb (yes KILObytes) of memory). It’s been 35 years! Science and technology are ever changing and growing. Why do we know this inherently for technology, medicine, and other “hard” sciences but act like what Freud said in 1886 was the end of psychology or that what Spock wrote in 1946 about parenting was the final word?

The first sociologist to talk about racism was W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903 and the term “racism” wasn’t added to the dictionary until 1936. Prior to the 20th century talk of racism (called racialism at the time) was primarily used to bolster white supremacy. Through pseudo-scientific ideology the study of racism was void of a consideration of equality and even more void of voices that weren’t white men. That means we haven’t even reached 100 years of the study of racism with its modern definition. Add to that the lack of sociology (of any kind) taught in US public schools and is it any wonder most adults don’t understand the current, modern definitions and analysis of the problem?

Most of the time when I say, “that is racist” or “I am a racist” and people get upset with me I find that they’re using definitions of racism from the Reagan era. Times have changed. No more 16 kb computers, no more model-t cars on the road, no more slapping infants’ hands for reaching for objects. We’ve grown. Let’s catch up.

10 Ways White People Get Racism Wrong

1. We don’t understand that race is a social construct.

Biologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and geneticists agree that there is no scientific basis for the idea of “race.” It is a social construct. A social construct is a thing that doesn’t exist in objective reality but people choose to believe in order to support something important to the society. For example, I’m sitting here on a Wednesday afternoon and, while afternoon is an objectively real thing (the period of time after the Sun hits its zenith but before it sets), Wednesday is not. There is nothing inherent about this moment that is defined by “wednesday”. It is a constructed idea that helps society run smoothly because it gives us all a united frame of reference for communicating about time.

Race is similar to “wednesday” – it doesn’t exist. We hold on to “wednesday” because it helps us and doesn’t harm anyone. Can the same be said for race?

2. We think we are colorblind.

I talked about this in the first installment so I won’t repeat but it was really common when I was in college to frame anti-racism work as trying to be colorblind (we even had a great En Vogue anthem.) I often hear, “I don’t see race” or, “we are all one race” from white people who are invested in being “good” white people. We’ve already seen that this is completely false. You DO see race. Even infants see it. It might be a social construct but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. Money is a social construct and try to pretend it doesn’t exist for a few days and tell me how that works out for you.

The fact is we live in a society that is built on centuries of racism. We can hope to one day be “one race” again but we are deluding ourselves if we think that day is today.

3. We don’t understand that evolution brought us variation in skin tone.

So, if race isn’t a real thing, what’s with all the variation in human skin tone? That’s an easy one and I’m frustrated that every kindergartener isn’t taught this.

I’m pale skinned because my ancestors (at least the ancestors who brought me my dominate genes) lived in latitudes closer to the poles than the equator. A black person’s ancestors lived nearer the equator and received much more constant and direct sun exposure. All humans once had the melanin-rich skin needed for living in Africa, our common ancestral home. It was an adaptation to lighter skin that helped early humans thrive in more northern and southern latitudes where too much melanin retarded vitamin D production which was already inhibited by the lack of direct sunlight.

Other differences we encounter in human appearance also have a scientific explanation rooted in evolution. People in cold climates needed their bodies to preserve heat and thus their noses and lips, which had previously been large to disseminate heat in hot African environs, became smaller to reduce the surface area for heat loss when breathing. Tightly curled, flat-cross section hair creates space for airflow allowing for cooling in hot climates while straight, oval-cross section hair acts more like a blanket, keeping much needed heat inside in cold climates.

There are countless children’s books that bring home the value of diversity but adding the science of why we look so different really helps. (While also keeping in mind the vast variety of human presentation even within “race” groups. I’ll talk more about appreciating diversity in part III.)

4. We don’t understand the difference between prejudice and racism.

Growing up in the ‘80s and being raised in an all white place with parents who didn’t want me to be racist, I learned that “racism” was being mean to other people based on their skin color. There were words, too horrific to say aloud, that were “racist.” There were groups of people, including the salutatorian of my class who proudly listed “aryan nation” as his hobby, who were “racists.” Racists were bad people who did bad things. Good people weren’t racists.

We were wrong. And our wrongness ended up being profoundly racist.

Whoa! I get it. I believed the same thing you did. Being told I was dead wrong about what racism is was hard for me to hear the first time. Deep breath. Smaller computers, faster cars, gender isn’t binary, etc. Let’s learn where racism research actually IS right now, not when moon boots were cool.

Prejudice means to “pre-judge” which is the follow-on in our brains to our categorization and stereotyping I talked about in Part I. Pre-judging is one of those ways that our brains create short-cuts. Thin, curvy things on the ground = dangerous. However, when we apply it to other humans, as our brains will do without conscious effort and training otherwise, we create massive inequalities amongst our fellow humans.

If someone is cruel to you because of your skin tone or calls you a racial slur, that is prejudice.

Racism is a different beast. Racism is systemic. Institutionalized. It becomes the way society works. Racism uses stereotypes and prejudices to create whole systems designed to marginalize one group in order to entrench power in the dominant group. Stereotypes like “black people are savage” were used as insults thrown at individual black people. But, they were also used to prejudicially make brown-skinned people owned objects through slavery and to justify “saving” them through colonization or murdering them en masse in every corner of the planet. That is racism.

We are seeing this today too. The stereotype that “black men are dangerous” is being used to prejudicially harass, imprison, and violate black men. Even black boys feel this prejudice against them when the school system treats them unfairly. For example, read these startling statistics),

Black students made up just 18 percent of students in the public schools sampled by the New York Times in 2012, but “they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once” and 39 percent of those expelled — examining federal data, the Times also noted that “nationwide, more than 70 percent of students involved in arrests or referrals to court are black or Hispanic.” Even black preschoolers were not exempt: They made up the same 18 percent of the student population, but constituted half of all suspensions.

Even black four year olds are treated worse than their white counterparts by the schools.

For white people, when a black person treats you poorly, calling you a name or making assumptions about you that are rooted in a false stereotype, it is prejudice you are experiencing. When you have to send your sons to school knowing they have an uphill battle just to stay out of prison because they are treated as criminals at four years old, that is racism.

Having someone say, “white people can’t dance” is a prejudiced stereotype. Being unable to get a bank to give you a loan to buy a house is racism.

Having someone call you “Becky” in a disdainful way can be mean. A 12 year old boy being shot by a state official on sight for suspicion of having a firearm is racism.

Having someone tell you that you’re being “a baby” when you’re in pain is rude. Having medical doctors give you pain medication 39% less often than white people with the same malady is racism. Worse, the idea that black bodies feel pain less than white bodies has be found in children as young as seven.

There are so, so many more examples.

The point is, when we pretend that the prejudice we may experience is the same as racism we belittle the very real, and very life-threatening ways racism works.

5. We think “reverse racism” is real.

Reverse racism – the idea of “racism towards” white people – isn’t a thing. It is simply the bellyaching of white people clinging desperately to their white supremacy. White people can experience prejudice as we’ve seen, they can also be the victims of classism and sexism, but they can never experience racism as we’ve just defined it. For a white person to experience racism – that is systemic, institutionalized discrimination – there would need to be a system of black, institutionalized power to benefit from and that has never existed in the US.

Remember, racism isn’t hate. Racism is a system. Individual people of any color can be hateful, prejudiced and discriminatory. You, as a white person, can be subject to prejudice. Saying that is not racism doesn’t mean it is ok that you’ve been discriminated against. It just means you understand the difference between individual behavior and systemic practices.

6. We don’t understand our white privilege.

The actual reverse of racism isn’t racism against white people. It’s the privilege of being white. This is another topic that gets people’s hackles up. Especially in this economy with the financial hardships so many of us face, it is hard to imagine being white as privileged.

I already talked about this in part I when I told the story of my husband’s job and his black co-worker that has to knock on each door to avoid having the police called on him. Each example of racism has its reverse of white privilege:

The ability to get a loan for a house is a privilege of being white.

Being able to be a normal four year old who acts out in school and doesn’t get expelled is a privilege of being white.

Being unharmed and arrested for suspicion of a crime instead of dead is a privilege of being white.

The ability to get pain medication and be taken seriously by doctors is a privilege of being white.

White privilege is invisible to white people. It is hard to notice when your day is run-of-the-mill that you’ve benefited from your skin color dozens of times. The privilege conveyed in a white supremacist society to white people is like water to a fish. You don’t notice it unless you decide you will notice it. This is why Peggy McIntosh calls white privilege the “invisible knapsack.” We carry it with us everywhere and we aren’t even aware of it.

White privilege is also about white-as-default. When part I of this series was published I had more than one person tell me I shouldn’t have called it “Talking Racism with White Kids” because it wasn’t necessary to specify or they felt I was unfairly targeting white parents.

Well, let me be clear: I AM targeting white parents and I think that is perfectly fair. When it comes to dropping the ball on talking about race with our kids it is white people who are the problem. You and me and people who look like us. We are doing it wrong. That we don’t expect to be singled out is white privilege.

7. We don’t understand our own implicit bias.

If you send out identical resumes with only one difference – one has a sterotypically white name and the other a stereotypically black name – the one with the white name will get 50% more callbacks.

It would be convenient for us to assume all the resume reviewers were just KKK card-carrying racists and thus explicitly tossed out resumes of Lakisha and Jamal and kept the ones of Emily and Greg. This would help us feel safe that racists are “those people” and not us.

We all have biases – both explicit and implicit. I explicitly state I’m biased against dropping the oxford comma. I openly and consciously hold that bias. A KKK member explicitly holds the bias that white people are better than black people. Explicit biases are easy to see and label.

Implicit biases, on the other hand, are particularly pernicious because they are not out in the open. An implicit bias is one we hold subconsciously, often not even aware that we have the bias.

For example, Project Implicit, a Harvard research group that has been studying implicit attitudes since 1998, has found strong implicit discrimination attitudes amongst people with explicit anti-racism stances. In other words, even people who openly state anti-racist viewpoints show subconscious biases against people of color. Even people of color show these biases (although to a lesser extent than white people). We have been born into and raised inside of a white-favoring society that sends us daily messages that are pro-white and/or anti-black. It would be more strange if we weren’t racist.

We know that our brains like shortcuts and that as a result they are prone to generalizations and stereotypes. Our brains are also shockingly susceptible to even subliminal suggestions. Being reminded about death, even subconsciously with images flashed faster than our brains can register seeing them, changes behaviors and attitudes often in a prejudicial way (favoring in-group individuals and demanding punishment for out-group individuals). White people reminded of counterstereotypical success stories featuring black people (like, for example, President Obama or Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison) were more likely to indicate that racism isn’t a huge problem in the US even when these same people explicitly stated that one person’s success didn’t affect overall race issues.

The fact is, through repeated experiments in a variety of cultures and in myriad bias areas, humans have been shown to have very impressionable brains. The images and ideas we see and hear, even incidentally and without conscious thought, have a measurable effect on our behaviors.

8. We ignore media bias.

The concept of implicit bias and how it forms is so important because we are all subjected to biased images and words on a daily basis through media. From children’s TV shows to local newspapers, the US has an abysmal track record on unbiased reporting.

This shows up in how we report crime. Headlines with black suspects are more likely to dehumanize the suspect with words like “thug” and the images used are often mugshots. While white suspects have the privilege of having their humanity reinforced in the headline and having non-mugshot pictures used. Look at this example from Sociological Images.

The white suspects are shown in school photos and the headline points out that they are university students while the black suspects are shown in unflattering mug shots and not mentioned at all in the headline. Now imagine this every day in every paper, every online news article, every evening news program every day for your entire existence on this planet. It becomes a subtle, invisible but powerful programming in how we subconsciously view white people, black people and crime (it’s also interesting to note how much more the media reports on violent crime instead of the much more prevalent types of crime like “white collar” crime and property crimes. The paradigm of crime news in the US is based in fear even before it steers into racist territory.)

This is particularly devastating when you look at the sheer volume of bias we are fed each day through the news. “According to New York City Police Department statistics, African Americans were suspects in 54 percent of murders, 55 percent of thefts, and 49 percent of assaults. But the suspects in the stations’ coverage were black in 74 percent of murder stories, 84 percent of theft stories, and 73 percent of assault stories (source).”

In other words, the stereotype I discussed above that “black men are dangerous” is constantly being reinforced through biased reporting. This leads to violence against black men based on this conditioned fear-bias we’ve been fed.

For example, so-called “stand your ground” laws, which rely heavily on the idea that a person was “justifiably afraid” when they open fire, disportionately harms black people. A white person who uses “stand your ground” as a defense of shooting a black person is 354% more likely to be judged justified than a black person using the defense in the shooting of a white person (and to dispel the idea that non-stand your ground states are all equal and peachy the number is 250% more likely in those states). It is less relevant to find out whether a police officer or civilian gunman is individually “racist” (usually used to mean they are overtly, explicitly hateful and prejudiced) and more important to look at how we are all conditioned to feel a certain way about black people and how, even unconsciously, this plays out in fear-based responses that kill black people disportionately more often than white people.

None of this means that there is some white guy at your local paper rubbing his hands together thinking “how can I hurt black people today?” (At least, I hope that is rare!) That, once again, is the erroneous idea that racism stems from overt hate and “racist people.” The people who work in news media (which are nearly 90% white) have been conditioned in the same way for several generations. This isn’t about pointing fingers and saying “that person is racist” – rather, it is about understanding the racism we all carry inside us from decades of intentional and unintentional media bias.

9. We misunderstand black anger.

Movements like #BlackLivesMatter are seen by some white people as a threat (some even characterize it as a terrorist organization). Even progressive, anti-racist people will bemoan the movement for “disrupting” events and “being angry.” We seemingly agree with them but just want them to simmer down and be calmer because you, “catch more flies with honey.”

This is called tone policing and it is racist. Asking oppressed people to consider your comfort level above their own righteous feelings is the height of white privilege. And it is just plain cruel. If your daughter came home hysterical because someone sexually assaulted her would you tell her to calm down and say it again in a more friendly voice? Maybe with a smile too? No. Then why are we asking black mothers and sisters to “take it down a notch” when they’re telling us we are killing their sons and brothers?

When protesters interrupt a favorite presidential candidate, for example, we feel angry and frustrated that they are “attacking” people “on their side.” But, if we listen closely there is a lesson there. We are getting a dose of what oppression feels like every day. Why wouldn’t they be angry?

10. We center whiteness in everything.

When we feel fear or anger at black anti-racism activists or expect them to consider our comfort level in their work we are partaking in one of the most difficult things to overcome as a would-be ally: white-centeredness. We have to work hard to de-center ourselves and our feelings/needs/desires. To truly break free from our racist conditioning we have to realize that we’ve been raised in a culture that elevates whiteness in all things.

It isn’t surprising we feel this way. In addition to the media bias, we go to schools where we learn white history (which we just call history), white holidays (which we just call holidays, for example, Columbus Day), and white-centered patriotism (which we just call patriotism). “Flesh tone” means a peachy pale color in crayons, we see ourselves in TV, commercials, billboards, we hear ourselves read the news, we see ourselves in our leaders, we see our stories as “the” stories. Black representation is still “counterstereotypical” and often side-kick status. Main characters are white (and if you ever think “racism is over” just look at the racist reaction to the unveiling of a black main character on Star Wars). We’ve always been elevated as the center of the cultural universe and this conditioning spills over into tone policing, respectability politics, and erasure of the people whose slave labor built this country.

For example, thinking that #blacklivesmatter means your life doesn’t matter is white-centeredness. We don’t think that “save the rainforest” means burn the other forests to the ground, so why do we think #blacklivesmatter means white lives don’t?

Why does an article targeted at white parents make us cry racism? We don’t think that an article geared towards raising non-sexist boys is sexist because it leaves out girls. The conversations are decidedly different when you are talking to a person of the power-class vs. a person of the oppressed class.

Why does the idea that white people have privilege make us defensive? We don’t think that the privileges afforded men over women are silly (for example the pay gap), why do the privileges afforded white over black make us grasp at excuses instead of solutions (for example, while white women make only $.78 on a white man’s dollar, black men only make $.75 cents. Black women $.64 cents and hispanic women $.54.)?

The reason we are prone to this is everything has always been centered around us and it throws us off balance when we are confronted with this fact.

The most important thing you can do to become less racist is stop talking and listen. Read and listen to the perspectives of people of color. When someone tells you that your words or actions are racist, swallow that initial reaction to argue and just sit with the discomfort. When a person of color seems angry in their response don’t tone police.

It isn’t about you. It isn’t about you. Everything isn’t about you. We’ve dominated this conversation for 300 years. It is time to listen.

Here are some excellent websites run by and for black people that I have learned so much from: Black Girl Dangerous, The Root, Blavity, For Harriet, The Grio. Also, two white-authored websites that have helped me: Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Sociological Images which talks about more than race but is excellent for understanding implicit bias and media bias.

I know it is a heavy thing to see behind the curtain and realize that what we thought was racism – hate and pointy hats – is the tiniest tip of the iceberg of racism. The real bulk of racism is much harder to find, root out, and cure because it is simultaneously ubiquitous and subvert. I think it is a normal response to feel overwhelmed by the juggernaut of racism. What can I do about something so big and woven into the fabric of our society? And what hope do I possibly have of helping my kids when I’m going to be working on this inside myself for…well, forever.

Don’t be discouraged! Understanding racism in a new way is a huge step towards change in yourself and your kids will benefit from your growth. Next month I’ll talk about some of the ways we can teach anti-racism to our kids and provide answers to some of your questions. If you have a question ‘d love to hear from you! Please contact me on Facebook at

Author note: There were so many examples of racism to use, many more than I could fit into one article. For this reason I focused my examples on black americans. It is important to note that other peoples of color face both similar and unique challenges as well as a result of racism.

Talking Racism with White Kids Part I: Why and When

(This article is the first installment in a three part series for white parents and originally appeared in Natural Mother Magazine, May 2016. )

Have you ever been walking outdoors and nearly jumped out of your skin at what you think is a snake? With your heartbeat accelerated in preparation for fight or flight and your breath stopping and starting in gasps of fear, you then realize it was a just a particularly curvy stick. Thanks for the near heart attack, stick!

The fear of some things, like snakes, are literally hardwired into our brain. Fear of snakes, along with heights, spiders, and enclosed spaces are called prepared fears. We aren’t born with them per se but primed to develop them. These fears are nearly universal, occurring in all societies across the planet and are thought to be based on the survival needs of our early hominid ancestors. Arne Öhman, a psychologist at the Karolinska Institute and Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden says, “[Our ancestors] brains certainly had to be effective in identifying reptiles in the world around them.” And it is this effectiveness we’ve developed that makes you jump at a curved stick. When survival is at stake it is better to jump at 100 sticks than to not jump at the one deadly snake.

I find this fascinating because it brings up a great realization about how our brains work. Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist at the University of Oxford, had this to say, “[People think of the brain] as a thinking machine. Uh huh. I think the point of the brain is actually to minimize the amount of thinking. Thinking is conscious and consciousness takes effort.” Instead she sees our brains as a, “device for minimizing the amount of effort you put into things.” One way the brain does this is to create short cuts and plans, or schemas, for dealing with a variety of circumstances. When a circumstance presents itself there is no conscious thought needed, our brains slip easily into the learned pattern.

This was clearly necessary, in a life or death way, when we look at our reaction to snake-shaped things. But our brain is uniquely equipped to handle everything this way.

It is exactly this realization of our brains as short-cut generating machines that has profound implications for talking to children about prejudice and racism.

The problem I’ve found when talking to white parents about discussing racism with their kids is that they want to wait until “they’re older”. I hear age ten or twelve most frequently but the youngest I’ve ever heard a parent use when explaining this tactic of waiting is eight years.

These aren’t callous people who ignore (or deny) the problems of racism. They are most often very conscientious people who want to raise compassionate and loving kids who are definitely not racist. They simply have a belief that waiting is the best option. This view stems from the idea that they are protecting what they see as the ideal “color-blindness” of early childhood. We (I am a white mother raising three white children) bask in the complete acceptance and love that comes so easily in children. We see in them how we wished the world would be and we don’t want to ruin it for them by telling them how ugly reality is.

I’m here to tell you that we are wrong. Completely wrong and driving eighty miles per hour towards the destination we are trying to avoid: racism. In our misguided attempts to raise kids without prejudice we are ensuring that they will in fact struggle with prejudice in their teen years and into adulthood.

What we need is some cold hard facts about how children think about differences, how they perceive the values unspoken in our environment, and how they assimilate those values into their own. So, here are some facts;

It is white privilege to wait to talk about racism. Are you familiar with the concept of privilege? You should definitely read up on it (I strongly recommend White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh as it is very eye opening). Privilege is the collection of benefits one receives simply because they were born into a specific group.

An recent example, my husband does utility location for homeowners. That means when you want to build something, he comes out and marks off your power, gas, telephone, and other lines so you can safely dig. He wears a bright yellow jacket and usually moves around neighborhoods in broad daylight going into people’s yards. Sometimes people come out to say hi to him or offer him a drink. He was recently talking to a black co-worker who admitted he has to knock on each door and explain why he’s there because if he doesn’t people call the cops saying there is a “strange black man in my yard.” This may seem like a small thing but it not only is insulting to this black man but makes his job take longer and is more difficult than the job my white husband has to do. He moves through this job that my husband does easily with a shade of already being the bad guy simply because he’s got melanin-rich skin. That my husband does not have to put up with the extra time and effort, or the added loss of dignity, is privilege.

The reason it is a privilege to not talk about race is that privilege seems invisible. It is the absence of a difficulty or an insult. My husband just did his job as he always had. It wasn’t until he talked to this co-worker that he realized how much racism was impacting his fellow co-workers of color (and that is a very mundane example of privilege that I hope helps you examine some of the more violent examples like the fact that a black man between the age of 15-19 is 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a white man of the same age.)

As white parents we have this ease of invisibility. Racism doesn’t impact my life daily (although sexism does which I try to use as a way of understanding how racism must feel, something I can never really know). I don’t have to knock on doors because I know how white people will view my body on their lawn. It is easy to ignore issues of race when you aren’t hit in the face with it every day.

Do you think that black co-worker doesn’t talk to his kids about racism? How could he not? It is something he has to work inside of every single day. He knows his kids will have to do the same. As a black mother told Meghan Leahy of the Washington Post, “we don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not ‘to educate’ our children; this is our lives. These are the waters in which we swim. Join us.”

In part two of this series we’ll look at some ways to join her.

Children are NOT “colorblind”. While we view their openness and acceptance of differences as colorblind, human children are never colorblind. In fact, research has shown that children can identify racial differences as early as six months*. We are a species wired at birth for recognizing faces, so of course infants can distinguish between skin tones used in our cultural construct of “race”.

Recognizing isn’t prejudice of course, but other research has shown that by two to three years of age children are using racial categories as reasons for others’ behavior. Three to five year olds display racial bias (preference for people like them, called “in-group”) and six to seven year olds show racial bias and prejudice (that is, negative stereotypes based on race in addition to the preference for in-group individuals). Often those negative stereotypes did NOT reflect the attitudes of their parents. In other words, while not talking about race their children were developing racist attitudes in direct opposition to what we would have said had we been having the talks [more details on the research I mention here].

If we wait, even until 8 years old, we’ve missed absolutely crucial periods of bias and prejudice development without ever broaching the subject.
All Humans, and yes, children too, are prone to stereotyping and prejudice. The last point takes us full circle back to our stick-jumping brains. Stereotyping – which means attributing a characteristic to an entire category – is an amazing brain shortcut. Thin, round, curvy things on the ground are a good category to label “dangerous”. Then our brain doesn’t have to spend time analyzing the size, shape, and color of each individual item. It can quickly access the “thin, round, curvy thing” schema and send you into action. In early humans this generalization could mean life or death.

Living in harmony with fellow humans though, requires us to force our brain to stop its stereotyping ways and examine our biases and prejudices critically. You see, it is our lower, or limbic brain, that makes these broad categories and hasty decisions [for a look at the triune brain read the March 2014 issue of NMM’s Ask Paige]. It needed to. We still need it to. It can keep us alive sometimes. But, fortunately, we also have something our hominid ancestors did not: the beautiful, advanced, wrinkly neocortex.

The neocortex is underdeveloped in children. It slowly matures over ages 2-7 and we call it the rational brain because it is where we learn to think logically and weigh many factors before decision making. This is why age seven was called the Age of Reason in classical education.

If you have a seven year old and a four year old in your house like I do, the power of the neocortex is abundantly obvious! The difference in impulse control, emotion management, and logical thinking is very apparent. I see my five year old pop in and out. One minute using logic and managing his emotions with words and actions and the next he is having a toddler-esque meltdown. This is normal since I know he is still working on that amazing neocortex he’s going to have.

Because two to seven year olds don’t have mature neocortex function they rely more strongly on that lower limbic brain which is super good at categorizing, generalizing, and stereotyping. This is why four to six year olds often display extreme stereotyping. For example, not wanting to play with cross-gender toys or excluding out-group people from play becomes very noticeable when only a year ago the kids seemed to play without respect for groups. This is normal cognitive development and should be corrected gently, with questions to probe them to think deeper.

Continuing to live in this privilege of not discussing race with our kids is a form of racism. No, racism isn’t just those hateful people you see at Trump rallies. Racism is all the tiny ways we perpetuate the system of oppression. Not making teaching our kids how to control their natural impulse towards prejudice a priority is to continue the ignorance that has allowed racism to flourish. If we want to be anti-racist white people, ally white people, we MUST talk to our kids about racism early and often and intentionally, not waiting for it come up. Just like every expert now realizes sex education starts at birth if you want to raise adults with a healthy relationship with their sexuality, anti-bigotry education starts there too. Because, like sexuality, the roots of prejudice (generalization, stereotyping) are a part of our biology. In order to be a mentally healthy adult children have to learn to live with their biology and make it work for them.

The folk myth that children are color blind and pure and their innocence should be maintained is a lie used to perpetuate racism. Like using the psuedosicence of Samual Cartwright – who in 1851 said a slave who escaped was suffering from a mental disorder he called “drapetomania,” – to support slavery, letting ourselves use this myth supports racism today. The fact is that science has repeatedly shown that two to seven years is, in fact, the crucial time for discussing race and other bigotries with our children. We can not ignore this truth for our own comfort.

The good news is science also has answers for us! We know how humans develop empathy and that developing strong empathy is the cure for our prejudice-prone brains. I hope I’ve convinced you that talking to your kids about race should start early and happen often and I hope you’ll catch part II next month where I’ll look at some of the “how” to talking about race with kids.

*the age ranges are given for an approximation of typical neurodevelopment. Your child may develop differently (while equally magnificently!), so please discuss mental development stages with your chosen medical professional and trust your instincts.

Talking Racism with White Kids: Further reading list

This is a list of resources and additional reading for the May 2016 issue of Natural Mother Magazine’s article Talking Racism with White Kids Part I.  Where applicable I’ve linked  to full-text or abstracts. If you want full articles, contact your local librarian for help in getting access to scientific journals.

Stay tuned next month for Part II which is subtitled Racism 101.

  1.  Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge,
    MA: Perseus Publishing.
  2. Aboud, F. E. (2008). A social-cognitive developmental
    theory of prejudice. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.),
    Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp.
    55–71). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Aboud, F. E. (2005). The development of prejudice in
    childhood and adolescence. In J. F. Dovidio, P. S. Glick, &
    L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years
    after Allport (pp. 310–326). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  4. Bigler, R. S., & Liben, L.S. (2007). Developmental
    intergroup theory: Explaining and reducing children’s
    social stereotyping and prejudice. Current Directions in
    Psychological Science, 16, 162–166. Abstract.
  5. Boykin, A. W., & Ellison, C. M. (1995). The multiple ecologies
    of black youth socialization: An Afrographic analysis. In R.
    L. Taylor (Ed.), African-American youth: Their social and
    economic status in the United States (pp. 93–128). Westport,
    CT: Praeger.
  6. DeCaroli, M.E., Falanga, R., Sagone, E.(2013)Ethical Awareness, Self-identification, and Attitudes Toward Ingroup and Outgroup in Italian, Chinese and African Pupils. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. Volume 93, 21 October 2013, Pages 444–448

  7. Hale-Benson, J. (1990). Visions for children: Educating black
    children in the context of their culture. In K. Lomotey (Ed.),
    Going to school: The African-American experience (pp.
    209–222). Buffalo, NY: State University of New York Press.
  8. Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s developing conceptions
    of race. In S. M. Quintana & C. McKown (Eds.), Handbook
    of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37–54).
    Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  9. Hughes, D., & Chen, L. (1999). The nature of parents’ race related
    communications to children: A developmental
    perspective. In L. Balter & C. S. Tamis-LeMonda (Eds.), Child
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If you need help finding full text documents, hit up your local librarian. She lives for this stuff, trust me. 🙂

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