“What is the right age to begin teaching kids about race?”

I was recently asked this question by a colleague. This is my detailed response, which I think belongs here…

This does not have a simple answer, but there is a lot of research looking at the psychological development of children with respect to race. For the most part, the research shows that children can distinguish between racial groups around 3-4 years. That is to say that they realize that they look different from other children. This is the same age when they are beginning to understand categories (e.g., colors, objects) and are often excited to point out that they know the difference. More importantly, by the age of 5-7 years, children have learned that they can use race to bully other children. We would not go as far as to say that these children are “racist,” but they have learned tht they can use racism to make fun of other children. Therefore, when is the right age to begin talking to children about race? When they begin to recognize race at around age 4-5Here is a great summary of the research regarding talking to children about race and how the fear of adults can affect children.

It is worthwhile to note that we begin teaching children about racialized history in first or second grade with the sanitized safe strategy of “Black History Month,” but in these lesson plans, we do not acknowledge the negative aspects of race. Although I do not think that it is appropriate to teach second graders about lynching, there must be something in between. If we refuse to talk about these things, then we have examples of children deploying blackface because they want to dress up like Martin Luther King Jr. We need to teach children about their own history and why certain behaviors are historically and socially inappropriate. For the child in the story above, he wanted to dress up like MLK, because MLK is an important historical figure; MLK is also Black, so in order to dress up like him, he needs to paint his face black. We would not blame the child for not knowing better, but we might blame the parents for letting the child leave the house…

This also connects to another important difference in racialized conversations. Parents of color on average begin talking to their children about around age 5-7, whereas White parents talk to their children about race around 12-14 if at all. In this difference, we also observe a difference in need and ability to talk about race; for parents of color, a child coming home from first or second grade crying because someone called them “black” or “yellow” on the playground demands that this be discussed. Check out this great video from Rita Moreno talking about the scene in West Side Story where the White boys mocked her Puerto Rican-ness and the wound it reopened; “I knew from a very young age that I was a ‘spic’.”


About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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