About a year ago I read a book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It’s a thought-provoking book. Many of the chapters hit home but none quite as much as the one called “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” It had a concrete impact on the way I talk and read to my 5-year-old niece Sophie about race. It made me think about the ways my white parents did or didn’t talk to me about race as a kid. This blog post is informed by my experiences as a white person and a children’s librarian.
Let me start by recapping what the chapter is all about. It starts by describing a study done in 2006 by a doctoral student at the University of Texas named Birgitte Vittrup . She investigated whether children’s videos featuring multicultural characters improve white, kindergartener-aged children’s racial attitudes. What she found surprised her – families starting dropping out when asked to also talk about skin colour with their children. Though the families may have said things like, “everybody’s equal,” very few of them felt comfortable talking to kids about race openly and directly. The 6 families that did saw greatly improved racial attitudes.
From there, Bronson and Merryman look at child development. They talk about how young children are “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.” Kids are visual learners and rely on what they see – hair colour, height, weight, and yes, skin colour. Babies as young as 6 months will stare longer at photographs of faces that are a different race than their parents because they are trying to make sense of them. Even if no one talks to kids about race, they notice. And when we don’t talk to kids about race they are left to make their own assumptions and judgments.
The authors also coin the phrase Diverse Environment Theory which means, “if you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message.” So basically, we white people don’t have to talk about race with our kids because they will learn about equality just from seeing all these diverse people! It’s one of the leading arguments behind school desegregation (which they talk about at length). But the authors also come to the conclusion that just being in a racially diverse environment is not enough for kids to have better racial attitudes. We still have to talk to them.
Here are some of their key messages for caregivers when talking to kids about race:
- Treat it the same way you do boy-girl stereotypes. Just like we point out women who are doctors, astronauts, construction workers, we can tell children that people of any skin colour can be those things too. Enforce this message often.
- Don’t shush kids when they say embarrassing or racist things. Their brains are prone to categorization. When we shush them or shut down the conversation, we are telling them that race is a scary topic. Instead, engage them in a conversation and directly explain their fallacy.
- Help children of colour develop a sense of ethnic pride. Studies have found improved self-confidence when this occurs. White children will “naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society…so a pride message would not just be abhorrent – it’d be redundant.”
Since reading this book, I make a point to talk about race with Sophie on a regular basis. Of course, it is a privilege for me as a white person that I haven’t had to have these conversations with her since she was born, and an even bigger privilege that our conversations can focus on the positive. We are lucky to live in a racially diverse city like Vancouver so that we can have those conversations about people we know and people in our neighbourhood. When we read books together, I point out the skin colour of the characters and relate it to something positive. For example, we read Double Trouble for Anna Habiscus! the other day and we talked about how the mommy’s skin is white and the daddy’s skin is brown and how they have a beautiful loving family. I believe these conversations are crucial to being an anti-racist advocate and to raising an anti-racist child.
So now here I am, wondering if I can take what I’ve learned and practiced into my job as a children’s librarian. The folks at Reading While White have started this conversation in a variety of ways already. My questions are storytime specific. Is storytime a space where we can start to have conversations about race with kids and caregivers? Are you already using anti-racist practices in storytime?