It turns out toddlers aren’t colorblind after all.
April 29, 2011

A very good friend of mine is half-Mexican and half-Native-American.  She is my daughter’s best friend FOREVER, amen.  Charlotte LOVES her, cannot get enough of her, would totally run off with her and join a band of roaming gypsies if it weren’t for the fact that she’d have to give up breast-milk WHAT A DILEMMA.

Breasts are like a child-loyalty package strapped to your body.  Awesomeness cubed.

At any rate, a few days ago I took Charlotte to spend some time being loved on by my friend (another love-aunt, as it were), and she immediately started showing off her color-knowledge prowess.  GEEN!, she said pointing to my friend’s purse.  OWAGE!, pointing to a flower.  BOO!, pointing at our picnic blanket.  Then she looked at me, she looked at my friend, and it was like a light-bulb suddenly clicked on in her head.

PEEK!, she said pointing at my cheeks.

BOWN!, she said pointing at my friend’s cheeks.

And just like that, parenthood became infinitely more complicated.

How do you talk to your children about race?  Do you at all?  Did your parents talk to you about race?

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  1. By Meg on April 29, 2011

    As a Black woman, it infuriates me when people say “I’m color blind. I don’t see color. Everyone is the same.“- Hello! No. I am not the same as you. Because my color brings with it trials and tribulations that you have not experienced (as does yours). My color is a symbol of my culture of my beautiful African roots and history in America that is sad, gut wrenching, and awe-inspiring. So when people say they don’t see my color, though I know they are well intentioned, it hurts very bad. It’s like them saying they are choosing to ignore my struggle as a Black woman in this country and the struggle of my ancestors. But not only the struggle. They are refusing to acknowledge the beauty that comes with being different.

    I don’t understand why people want everyone to be the same anyway? Shouldn’t we be teaching our children that people are different colors and look differently because of their rich history? Being the same is boring. Ignoring someone’s difference is insulting.

    So when my children are old enough to recognize I will not say “Oh honey. They are just like you and me”- because that is a lie. Though we as humans have a lot in common and there are major differences and I believe children should be properly educated about the beauty of that before they are filled with garbage from everyone else.

  2. By Alicia Stucky on April 29, 2011

    The thing that is amazing to my husband and I is that Matthew - although he’s known his colors well for a long time and is infinitely observant (he loves pointing out to his other pre-school friends, their parents and any other stranger we cross paths with, for example, that HE knows whether they have a penis or vagina)—but he is seemingly oblivious when it comes to race. A black friend of mine and our husbands even kind of provoked our sons when they were playing together once, just for fun, and both boys could list a dozen similarities and differences between each other, but the whole skin color thing just did not compute.

    HOWEVER, he made a big show of actually climbing all into some poor women’s personal space one day at a play area so that he could actually touch the dot on her head and ask her “What the heck, lady? You got something’ on your head!” That’s the scenario for us that stirred up this same question, lol, so I’m looking forward to hearing what advice other moms have too, because I’m not completely sure either.

  3. By Momiss on April 29, 2011

    Not really.  We were from so small a community that while I knew some of us were black when I was older, we never actually thought about it when we were young.  The difference in our hair was the most focused upon aspect of our differences.  But lots of people had different hair.  Mine was straight and mousy brown, and I though every single person had better hair than me.  STILL DO!  lol

  4. By on April 29, 2011

    Being a mother of a multi-racial child I feel that it is important for my daughter to know that each individual on this planet is different from one another in some way and it is those differences that make each of us unique, interesting, and valuable in all forms, that each of her pieces of heritage is important.  I think what is most important is to instill in our children that we should appreciate our differences and to use those differences as a means to learn more about different cultures.

  5. By on April 29, 2011

    I still remember the day my two year old son reached towards a young black boy and scratched his leg to see if the darker color would come off.  I apologized to the child and removed my son from the sandbox they were playing in. I explained go him that peoples skin comes in many colors. And while I agree that each of us is an individual and different cultures and races have struggles we can’t understand because we haven’t lived them, I did stress to my son that we are all people who share the need for respect and kindness.
    I worked with an 83 year old black woman. We are both women, wives and mothers. I think those similarities gave us a starting point to get to know each other and our differences.

  6. By on April 29, 2011

    There is a very interessting study about a school where they divided the four- and five-year olds in two groups. The first group received a blue t-shirt and the second group received a red t -shirt. They had to wear these shirts for 3 weeks. During those weeks the teachers never mentioned the colors of the shirts nor did they group them by color again. Children played with each other regardless of the color of the shirt. But when they were asked after 3 weeks which group was the best, the most likely to win a race, the smartest, the most likeable, the most nice etc, they all choose their own color. For example the children with a red tshirt believed that reds were nice all the time, while blues were only nice some of the time. This shows that children will divide in groups, even if you don’t talk about it. Children as young as 6 months old have been known to look longer at faces from a different race, then at faces from the same race as their parents, they see something is different. In another study five-year old children were asked to split a deck of cards with people on them in two piles in any way they wanted. 68% of the children used race to split the deck. So it’s a myth to think children will grow up colorblind if you don’t talk about it. In fact they showed that children in first grade that were put in cross-race study groups showed increased play with children from other races, whereas in third grade this increase wasn’t shown. The researchers think that this is because by third grade children have already ‘learned’ to only play with children of their own race.  So you have to actively teach them at a young age that all people are equal (not the same, just like meg said, but equal). Long story short, I will definitely talk explicitely with my children about race, just like I will talk to them about gender and haircolor and eyecolor.

  7. By Megan R. on April 29, 2011

    I do like what Meg had to say…we ARE all different, and those differences should be celebrated and embraced.  well said.

  8. By on April 29, 2011

    Here is an excellent post by Kristen from Rage Against the Minivan:

  9. By Megan R. on April 29, 2011

    and…yay!  I get to comment again on your blog!  your spam blocker service was blocking me (it was blocking me elsewhere, too) I contacted them and they corrected the issue.  phew!  I know you are so relieved.  ha!

  10. By on April 29, 2011

    Oh, and…

  11. By Alicia Stucky on April 29, 2011

    I also want to say that I agree with Meg’s comment—we must have commented at the same time earlier because I didn’t see it before. I have very proud friends who make it well known that they feel just the way that you do to be the race that they are.

  12. By erin on April 29, 2011

    That sentence should read, “Breasts are like a child-loyalty package strapped to your body.  Awesomeness BOOBED.“  Ahahahahaha I crack myself up. :)

    We have not discussed it yet, or even pointed out any differences or anything.  Hannah has a number of “friends of color” - right off the top of my head I can think of three that are mixed (two black, one Thai), one Persian, one African, and a couple of varying Hispanic origins - and most of them we have been friends with since she was teeny, so I highly doubt she even notices it.  I suppose if/when she brings it up we will discuss it, but to both Brian and I it is a non-issue - so what if her friends (and our friends) are brown, black, yellow, purple, from Mexico, from Africa, from the moon?  We have just as much fun with them as we do with our friends who are the same color as us, and they are just as awesome as Hannah, so it’s pretty much a non-issue.

  13. By erin on April 29, 2011

    PS - imho I don’t think being “color-blind” means not recognizing differences.  We recognize the differences between people whose skin and eyes are the same as ours - French people have a different culture and worldview and experience and whatever all else from mine just like someone from Africa or Cambodia or wherever.  Yes, their culture may have been infinitely easier on them historically (not enslaved by colonial powers, or massacred by a communist dictator), but at least in our family we try to recognize all people as individuals and worthy of our time, attention, respect, etc.  Their skin color (and all the burdens and blessings that come with it) is not a determining factor in who we associate with or how we think about people - and that is what we will pass on to Hannah.

  14. By on April 29, 2011

    My father is black, my mother is white. My father did make a big deal about us being proud of our biracialnes, but for whatever reason I hardly ever think about it, and I would never define myself as a black or biracial woman first. I would first describe myself as a married woman, a person from a rural town, a tree hugger, a camp counselor, a believer in natural goods and organic foods, a person who grew up poor, frugal, crafty, Christian, crunchy, a comic book geek. All of those things would come to mind well before being black. I would never be offended if someone said they didn’t care about my race, because in truth on most days I don’t care too much about it either. I would, however, be offended if they said we were the same, because if you can say anyone is the same as you then you haven’t taken the time to get to know them.
    I do, however think it’s important to understand cultural heritage but in my case, my father being from Trinidad (he was18 when he came to the US with my grandmother and my aunt and uncles) was what was focused on culturally, not our blackness, and that is what I want my children to learn. Within one race (and this goes for every race) there are MANY cultures. It’s the cultures not the color I want my children to appreciate.
    I think it’s important to teach children that all people are different and those differences be they race, religion, or favorite comic book character should be appreciated. The everyone’s the same discussion is inherently flawed, because children know everyone is not the same, despite what you tell them.

  15. By on April 29, 2011

    I highly recommend reading this article, if you can get a hold of it: Barbara Fields, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,“ New Left Review 181 (May/June 1990), 95-118.

  16. By Carolee on April 29, 2011

    Hi Sarah.  This post reminded me of one of my favorite memories.  Years ago, we were at some drag races in Virginia.  I was in the camper while your husband was napping.  David was close to three and sitting on the bleachers directly in my view, through the window.  He was sitting all by himself, looking lonely, when a little black boy came up and sat down beside him.  They smiled as they both reached over and felt the other’s hair.  It only took about thirty seconds for their curiosities to be satisfied and off they went to play.  Those little boys knew that they looked different but meeting a new friend was more important.  They had a great time until it was time to go home.  It was such a beautiful sight that I felt my eyes well up.

    Years later I saw an award winning photo that was just like my memory.  I’m glad somebody caught the innocence of that moment.  We teach our children but sometimes they can teach us.

    Kiss Charlotte for me.  Tell her that I can’t wait to read a book with her.  Love you, Carolee

  17. By Sarah S on April 29, 2011

    We have only talked about skin color akin to eye or hair color - everyone’s is slightly different. There is a great children’s book called People by Peter Spier that really illustrates how different we all are and how great that is. I refer back to it a lot when my kids have questions. It’s simple but informative and has a ton of pictures.  My oldest is 6 and we still haven’t talked about the politics and history of race, I don’t know if that is right or wrong but my gut is telling me to wait on it.

  18. By on April 29, 2011

    1. My father has made a number of racist comments in front of my son and it infuriates me. My husband and I don’t go out of our way to not acknowledge race, but don’t go out of our way to point out the differences that the effects of melanin have on an individual either.

    I’m a part of a group of women that is comprised of 5 white women, 2 black woman and 1 chinese-american woman. Jude plays with all of their kids equally and has since he was only a couple months old. I’m sure he has to notice a difference in the color of their skin, but has never acknowledged it to me in anyway.

    A benefit with this particular group is that we are not afraid to acknowledge the differences to one another (i.e. we’ve discussed and even joked about a number of social stereotypes that go in all directions, etc) the fact that we’re all ‘different’ is not a taboo subject. This is comforting - if one day something pops out of Jude’s mouth at least I know it will be taken lightly and that these particular women would welcome conversation about how “yes we are different - but we’re all the same”.

    2. This is very reminiscent to me of your gender post in that we should acknowledge differences… but also be quick to point out that difference does not mean inequality.

  19. By Jeneva on April 29, 2011

    Seeing as how I am as white as can be and my husband is black, this discussion will come up I’m sure. But to me it’s pretty simple. We are all different in one way or another. Skin color, hair color, size of our toes, whether we have an inny or and outy (y? or ey?). It’s what makes us that much more awesome. Not to say identical twins aren’t awesome as they are just as different, just on a more detail-ish level.

    Anyway, my point is that it is more simple that what we may think. Respect and love to all, I say.

  20. By on April 29, 2011

    We absolutely talk about color! The same way we talk about hair, eyes, how many fingers and toes we have. How can we love every piece of someone if we don’t acknowledge that it exists? Being different makes the world wonderful and interesting and beautiful. Would you only talk about red apples, and ignore the green? Or only talk about pink flowers, and ignore the blue? If someone only has one leg, we talk about it, or if they can’t see, or use a wheelchair. We point everything out to our children while they are young. They aren’t missing a beat. Why build mystique (by avoiding talking about it) into something so normal? The larger issues will come with time (unfortunately) but when they are young and innocent I think we need to follow their lead and rejoice in pink cheeks, brown cheeks, big eyes, little eyes, straight hair, curly hair… ...

  21. By on April 30, 2011

    We are going to send our 2.5 year old to a Montessori school next year where one of my friends works.  I have talked with her about how they discuss the topic of skin color and I really like their beginning approach.  They show the kids a picture of snow and a black stapler and explain that no one is as white as the snow or as black as the stapler.  They explain that everyone falls somewhere in between and they have them pick out a crayon color (and color a sheet of paper) that they think fits their skin color best.  Then, they put them all together and talk about the beauty in the differences.

    I plan to talk about every type of differences in physical appearance with my kiddos—how we are born with different skin colors, eye colors, shapes, heights, etc. And, as they get older I plan to discuss the fact that the physical traits are not something for which you judge, berate, or belittle others.  (I have not gotten it all worked out in my head yet, but I hope to be brave enough to confront the conversations head-on and be a strong example for my children.

  22. By on April 30, 2011

    My daughter recently came inside from playing with our neighbors and announced, “It’s a good thing we’re nice to our neighbors.“ 
    Confused, I asked why.
    Her answer?  “Because they have brown skin like Martin Luther King.“
    Begin conversation about how we should be nice to everyone no matter what color or size or height, etc.  they are. 
    She’s 5.  And goes to kindergarten in a K-12 district with exactly 3 non-white kids.  So we talked about ways people are different and ways she’s different from other people. 
    She taught me we should be nice to the kids at school in wheelchairs, mean kids, brown kids, white kids, smelly kids, princesses, kids from other schools and grown-ups.  And they should be nice to her.

  23. By Amber on April 30, 2011

    Sarah, have you read Nutureshock: New Thinking About Children by Bronson and Merryman? It was a real eye opening book for me. One of the chapters, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,“ is right on point with this topic. They explain how well-meaning parents who are silent on the race issue (attempting to make their children “color blind”) actually do a great disservice to their children. They cite studies that show that children end up assuming their parents think badly about people of different colors because they are never told otherwise. I think they also discuss a number of studies like the ones mentioned by Sarah above.  According to their research there is apparently a prime time to discuss race with your children - maybe between three and six years old - I don’t quite remember. I will definitely be talking about skin color with Nate just the way we talk about hair, eyes and clothing colors. To not do so would make it a taboo subject. I want Nate to know that we don’t choose friends based on appearance, but we can certainly discuss our similarities and differences.

  24. By Catherine on April 30, 2011

    I try to be very blunt with my children that people look different and come from all different places and have different skin, hair, etc.  Example - my husband is fair and light eyed, I’m dark with dark eyes, our children look pretty mixed although we are both technically “white”.  So far, my 3 year old hasn’t shown any real notice when playing with children of different ethnicities and I don’t point things out unless he asks - which, so far, he hasn’t.  Also, I don’t use the word race.  It’s technically inaccurate, we’re all of the human race.  (sorry, I’m an anthropologist, so I only use ethnicity as that is more accurate).  Anyway, the things my children (well, my son, my daughter is two in a couple weeks, so she’s still in her own zone) have noticed tend to do with size, etc.  That one can get tricky. We have friends from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, so I hope that our children will model our behavior in becoming friends with people who are good, kind, share interests, etc., and not exclude people based on physical attributes.  I am sure this is most peoples earnest hope for themselves and their offspring.  I hope.

  25. By tracey on April 30, 2011

    Seeing someone’s difference isn’t the same as disliking someone’s difference. We are ALL different. Some differences are more obvious than others. Some are based upon ethnicity or religion some on height or stature, others on mental or physical abilities. Kids HAVE to notice these differences. Without noticing, how would they learn how to empathize and love said differences?

    That said, my eldest said (at around age 5 or so) that he hated Mexicans. Shocked, I tried not to go into a tizzy and we talked about it. Found out that he thought we were at war with Mexico (???) and that that was what you were supposed to think… He didn’t even realize that my grandfather is FROM Mexico!

    Kids are blunt. And shocking.

  26. By MOMSICLE VIBE on April 30, 2011

    Love this topic and all these interesting comments!!  We haven’t yet arrived at this discussion through Soleil’s initiative but I think I will just include skin colour into our discussions about body parts (her FAVE topic!).  We’ll go much deeper than this over the years, but I think it is a good neutral starting point.  I want her to see diversity as something to be respected and celebrated and something to be humble about… Beyond the lesson of equality as opposed to sameness, I want to teach her that only a single individual is an authority on their own experience of their lived context (including, of course, their race and culture) and that just by seeing a colour on the surface, doesn’t actually tell us much about who that person is. 
    I’m curious how you would teach your child to ask their questions, because they usually have them!  One question I feel sensitive about is the “where are you from?“ question, implying an other-ness to anyone who looks different.  I want Soleil to know how to ask her questions respectfully and to sometimes not ask them at all if there is no respectful way (i.e. if the question itself is born out of an unconscious prejudice…)  Kind of a murky question, but I’d love to know your thoughts…

  27. By on April 30, 2011

    I don’t remember my parents talking to me about race, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t. I also remember not “noticing” colour, as I still do now. As Erin said, it doesn’t mean I disrespect the origins of other people, but it means in my every day life, it isn’t a variable that I process. Sure, we may be different in colour and history, but our anatomy is the same, and we think and feel like any other human being does. We’re different only in some respects….

    I don’t know if I’ll be the first to instigate that discussion. My son goes to a Montessori and most teachers (and students probably) are not caucasian like him. I love the fact he doesn’t notice it, and that he treats them all equally. I wonder, if I were to point out the differences now when he is unaware of them, would it make him “too” aware of differences?

    When he notices the differences, I will make sure he doesn’t judge or start developing opinions based on them. But my gut says I should leave it alone and let him interact with people of many races without searching for differences…

  28. By Sarah Christensen on April 30, 2011

    Thank you everyone who has come out to answer this.  I’ve really appreciated it.  Donald and I made the decision to discuss life - and all of its intricacies - transparently with Charlotte…and I am pleased to find that, at least in this regards, we are not alone.  A number of people also pointed out the linguistic difference between the term ‘same’ and the term ‘equal’ and since that isn’t something I’d ever considered before, but it’s something that I agree with, I wanted to thank all of you for that too.

    Meg - I cannot even begin to describe how much I *love* your comment.  Between my family and Donald’s, most of Charlotte’s relatives are multiracial and almost all of our close friends are multiracial, and the term ‘colorblind’ has, as such, been an immense source of conversation.  I feel like the issue is always a split - some people feel as you do and other’s simply don’t - but I think that your comment was an awesome way to start out this discussion - by pointing out that the color of your skin is an indication of a rich ethnic heritage that shouldn’t be overlooked.  That’s true for all of us, regardless of which color we are, and too often in our haste to not draw attention to skin color differences or accents or cultural deviations or what-have-you, we forget that our differences ought to be celebrated.  Every person is the sum of SO MANY PEOPLE, so many communities and historical circumstances and individuals.  It’s easy to forget that.

    Leslie - Thank you for those links.  I think I might be completely addicted to that blog now!

    Sarah - WOW!  Thanks for the info!  I’m going to be looking into that!  AMAZING!

    Amber - I read Nurtureshock, but Charlotte wasn’t even sitting up yet when I did so I didn’t really pay much attention to large chunks of it.  I was very interested by the part about lying (and it has, in fact, changed how I talk around Charlotte) and the part about spanking.  The way that culture influences spanking, it’s effectiveness, and how a child perceives spanking amazed me.  It made me think about all the other things that must be true for as well.  I’ll have to go back to the library to check it out - I don’t even remember there being a chapter on ethnicity!

    Catherine (1) - Thanks for the study info.  I’ll be at the library on Tuesday or Wednesday, so I’ll look into it then!

    Perrin - I’ve been obsessing about that idea ever since I read it.  What a brilliant way to talk about color.  When my niece began noticing hair color and eye color, I remember doing something really similar with her to explain why my eyes and skin and hair are different from hers but I still love her just the same, yadda yadda, and I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me with skin color too.

    Catherine (2) - I am so happy that someone caught me on the race/ethnicity front.  I studied anthropology in college, and as a result it kills me to use the word ‘race’ and terms like ‘biracial’ and ‘multiracial,‘ but sometimes people actually correct me when I use ‘ethnicity’ so now I just use terms like ‘race’ for ease of communication.  Three cheers for all of us belonging to the same race!

    Erin - Like you and Hannah, we don’t really see skin color as a variable in our daily interactions with people - but that said, we still feel it’s very important to talk to Charlotte about race so that she doesn’t grow up thinking it’s taboo, or differences are bad, or jumping to conclusions about why we don’t talk about it, etc.

    Momsicle Vibe - I personally just ask “what’s your ethnic heritage?“ and never thought twice about it, but I have to admit that I’m so uncomfortable talking about differences with other people that I usually wait until I know someone very well (several years) before I ask.  So.  I’m not the one to ask about that, probably.

    Okay I have more responses for later, but right now it’s late and I’m sleepy!

  29. By Jill Anderson on May 01, 2011

    It’s just amazing how observant kids are. My kids have friends they call the brown Jake and the tan Jake.

  30. By on May 02, 2011

    In the musical “South Pacific” Oscar Hammerstein III wrote the lyrics for the song “You Must Be Carefully Taught”. Children are born racially colorblind. No doubt about it. They may name the color of someone’s skin…but it isn’t a racial comment…it’s a color comment. Such a huge difference between the two.

    My four kids have told me how much they appreciated the way they were brought up….“You raised us to be colorblind, Mom.“ and they are so surprised by and repulsed by people who treat someone negatively because of their race. It makes me smile to be told that.

    Yes, we have to carefully “teach” our little ones to see others that way. So when we don’t…they don’t. It really is that simple.

    Few things are. But that one is.





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