(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.