Let’s Talk About Race Baby!

This weekend I was at every mother’s favorite store (Target, of course) waiting in line to check out.  In front of me was a mom with her son who looked to be an early 3.  As I’m trying to keep my toddler’s octopus arms from opening and/or throwing everything in our cart, I overhear him ask his mom, “Why does that lady have a brown baby?”

She immediately responded with a “Shhh! Don’t be rude!” and a startled look on her face.

But why? Did he say something wrong?

It immediately reminded me of this article .

“Kids as young as six months judge others based on skin color.”

“It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup’s entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they’d almost never called attention to racial differences.

They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup’s first test of the kids revealed they weren’t colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.” [bold added]

Wow.  A group of liberal, open-minded, non-racist parents – probably a lot like many of you – and more than half of their children answered that their parents didn’t like black people or they just didn’t know. 

And why didn’t they know? Their parents had simply never talked to them about it.  What this suggests to me is that colorblindness doesn’t work.  Even just placing your child in a diverse environment does not work.  What works is having the conversation – early and often.  It’s okay to acknowledge that people look different.  It’s okay to acknowledge that people sound different and act different.  And its important to talk about what those differences do and do not mean.

I know it can feel uncomfortable and you may be unsure of exactly what to say.  Here’s a tip for getting the conversation started: use books.

These are a couple we are loving in our house right now (click pic for the amazon link):

A fun book with engaging pictures and a clear message!

The Sesame Street gang are my kids’ BFFs – I like this book for using familiar and well-loved friends to introduce a new message.

Race is one of those many topics that is simply no big deal to kids…that is, until adults make it feel like it’s a big deal.

I overheard something once that I will never forget.  My son was in kindergarten and I was dropping him off at his before-school daycare.  I had just kissed his head and was walking towards the door when another child asked him, “Is that your mom? Why isn’t she brown like you?”

He didn’t get uncomfortable or hesitate for a moment with his answer of,

“Because she didn’t make me in her tummy. God just made her my mom.”

Simple as that.


20 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Race Baby!

  1. I love this post! I have biracial children and I have always taught them the color of a person isn’t important it’s the person inside that matters. In Kindergarten my sons teacher called me in b/c she had explained I the kids that if they can give her a good reason why they do something she’ll consider it. So my son was coloring his people green and orange and when she asked about it he told her my mom said color doesn’t matter. She said Ms. Nolder I can’t argue with that but could you please get me some flesh colored people? My heart leapt with pride! Then in 2nd grade a child was awed and said your mom is white! He replied so and kept on moving. This child is now 18 and has joined our local police department where I hope my color doesn’t matter helps him make the world a better place.


  2. This is a wonderful topic- wonderful!! I am very aware of this, as we live in a small town and our schools are pretty homogeneous. I worry about this a LOT. I really do worry about being that mom in Target in many scenarios and having people be uncomfortable- with all people who are in any way different from our family. We talk about it a LOT. We read the Family Book by Todd Parr a lot and talk about different ways people form a family. We also have had discussions about special needs such as using wheel chairs to get around. If I notice my older son kind of looking curiously, I immediately, when we are out of earshot, say “Oh did you see that? That person uses wheels to get around. Did you know there are wheelchairs that can race just like there are bikes that can race?” and try to discuss it, following their lead after bringing up the topic, so they can get their questions out. It’s a hard thing to do, and I’ve always wondered if I should even call attention to differences or just not mention them. I really appreciate your perspective on this and your call to start that discussion because I’ve really always wondered if I should. I loooooove using books to spark discussions. We have several board books with real baby photos in them including all races (I seek these out) and I try to let them get their questions out there. I so so so appreciate the book recommendations!!!


  3. At the very least you’ve started a lot of people thinking about racial identity in a way they hadn’t before. My kids don’t look like me either and we get a lot of comments from strangers as a result. I find myself trying to educate others while also educating my girls. We talk a lot about different skin tones (even within our own family) and about how everyone is different but should be treated equally, which also goes for things other than race. I think it might be easier to have these race discussions because we are an interracial family, because different skin tones are part of our daily life and therefore no big deal.


  4. To hop on thiswillbe’s bandwagon, I too can’t imagine sitting my child down and telling her, I like black people or that I like white people. It just doesn’t seem like natural conversation because there are people of all races that I like and dislike. I am an equal opportunity hater :). I’m not ever going to compartmentalize groups by race. Perhaps it’s because I am black and have a biracial child. From birth I knew that I was a different race and a major part of my development was deciding how or if it was going to define me. My skin tone doesn’t represent me or my race, it’s a sight identifier. Because of that I think I will always expect the comments from children wondering why I am brown. When my daughter asked me why I wasn’t as white as she was, I was not shocked. She sees color like the crayons in the crayon box.

    Being open and honest can combat the issue, to a point. I identify myself as black because it’s easiest. To refer to me by entire ethnic combination would be tedious. But if someone calls me African American, that’s fine too. What I truly prefer is to be recognized for being Erica. I want that for my daughter as well. I think that’s what being colorblind really is, when we cease to be a color and we’re just the person that you know. I’m most likely the exception rather than the rule by thinking it’s possible. We can teach acceptance and diversity but for it to truly be understood, we have to set the example. My parents set the example for me, and I hope to do the same for my daughter.


    1. Erica, I’m so glad you chimed in! I know we’ve touched on this topic briefly before but I really love hearing more of your perspective. I will say, right off the bat, that I think biracial children and children of biracial families are given a bit of a “pass”. Of course you wouldn’t sit down with your daughter and explain to her that you like black people, just like I will never have to sit down with mine and explain my feelings about gay people. We live it, we breathe it, and our children will know it. I think the real audience this research is intended for are all white families with mostly white friends who live in mostly white towns and go to mostly white schools…the type of family I am from, and many (most?) CT children are from. Those conversations have to happen because the children won’t necessarily have the life experience to draw off of the same way our children do.

      And what you want for your daughter…to be recognized for the person she is not the color she is…is exactly what I’d like for mine as well. But, I do think that as a society we are not yet at the “color is no big deal” point which is why we still need to have these conversations and open this topic.

      Thanks again for adding your thoughts!


  5. So, Elise (great read, btw!), what do you think the mom in Target should have said to her child when asked “Why does that lady have a brown baby?” I love (love, love, love!) your kiddo’s response, but obviously the lady in Target couldn’t have said that, since she didn’t actually know you.

    As a side note, I think the information in the article about responses to “do your parents like black people?” is interesting. I can’t imagine ever telling my children that “I like black people” any more than I can imagine telling them “I like white people.” It’s just not a generalization I would ever think to say. Am I hoping that being mixed-race themselves and living in a racially-(and religiously-)mixed community (and seeing me interact equally with all of our neighbors), etc. will contribute to them being accepting of lots of different kinds of people? Yes. Exposure is certainly not the entire answer, but I think it is part of it.


    1. TWB – Thanks so much for adding your thoughts! I would have loved that woman in Target to say something like, “Because families can be made up of all different colors.” Clearly that child hasn’t seen many biracial families so a simple statement like that would fill in a lot for him.

      And I agree that the wording in the study is a little strange, but I still think the results give a lot for us to think about.


  6. Elise, I love you. You bring up such important, illuminating topics and I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. Our wonderful, beautiful babysitter is “brown.” I showed her picture to the boys before we met her (I found her on Sittercity.com) to see if they would have any questions. They didn’t, but I still felt compelled to tell them people have all different colors of skin. When describing (no RAVING ~ I just love her!) about her to my friends I called her “black” and then stumbled saying “Am I supposed to say that? Or is it African American?” One of my friends said “why don’t you ask her what she prefers?” and while that sounds like a reasonable thing to bring up, I haven’t yet! We’ve been “trained” not to talk about such things, so afraid of offending someone, saying the wrong thing. Saying “black” used to be appropriate but now it’s not? I can barely keep up! We have been taught that you’re not supposed to talk about…and that can be hard to unlearn. What’s your perspective on the black/African American wording?


    1. I have to admit, I will dread that day in Target … even if I succeed in talking to my kids about race, that doesn’t fully ensure against the occasional embarrassing question. But as for the black/African American question, the only thought I had just now was that not all people with dark skin are African American, or even African – they may be of Carribbean descent for example.


    2. Kate – Great question! Open and honest dialogue is so wonderful. As for black/brown/AA…its all in the preference of the individual and the person’s racial identification. We often use brown in our house because that’s what my children are…they are brown and that’s what makes the most sense to us. As far as I’m aware (and I’d love to have others chime in on this too!) “black” is not offensive per se – that’s the wording that was used a lot by social workers in converstation and in reports during their years in foster care. And I have friends that most certainly identify as black women. The one thing I feel like I have to throw out there on behalf of my BFF is that African American shouldn’t be used as a catch-all for all black/brown people. Not all dark skinned people in our country are of African decent (could be from Panama, Jamaica, ect ect ect). So, I make sure to only think of someone as African American if they really are.

      As for the babysitter – ask her! “Oh hey, the topic came up with the kids and I was wondering if you identify as black, African American, something else?” I could see that leading into a great opportunity to get to know her better and learn about some cool stuff she could share with the kids!


    3. I do think that is part of the problem. As we evolved from slavery to equal rights to acceptance of differences etc. we have been trained to not talk about someone’s skin color for fear of offending them or “looking like a racist”. This is just another stage in our evolution I think: being comfortable enough to talk about it. And as I said above: as a mother I have slowly evolved (from experience) to have the ability and the desire to have all kinds of honest conversations with my kids rather than avoid them. I learned over the years that the best way to combat the issue is to be open and honest. It is the same thing when a young child sees a person who is outwardly disabled (whether it is physical or mental) and starts asking questions. Simple honesty is the best policy.


  7. This is a great message! Honestly, I would have probably done the same thing as that mom when my oldest was that age. It was only as *I* aged and had more experience being a parent that I have become a mom that is more comfortable seizing the teachable moments in ALL situations. My younger son has benefited from my growth!


  8. This is a great post, and I especially loved what your son said at the end! So sweet. I wholeheartedly agree with everything in here. In my case, I have parents of two different races and skin color (Filipino and Eastern European) and I think we got stares growing up as well. It is so important to talk candidly about race. I didn’t fully understand who I was and where my mother came from until I was much older – almost like it was purposely suppressed – and I feel that I lost an opportunity, as a child, to learn something valuable about different cultural experiences.


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