Learning Early about Race with Colorado Humanities

by Sydney Boyd, Humanities in American Life project manager

Growing up, how many children’s books did you have with characters whose race was different from yours? How many conversations did you have with a grown-up about difference, white privilege, and prejudice?

“The civil unrest that has taken place since the murder of George Floyd has prompted us to look at how we address issues of race and how we talk about race,” said Dr. Rosemarie Allen, president and CEO for the Institute for Racial Equity and Excellence and Associate Professor in the School of Education at Metropolitan State University of Denver in a recorded, virtual conversation on December 9 titled “Talking to Children about Race” hosted by Colorado Humanities.

“You know that studies show that very few families talk about race, and those conversations are actually based on the race of a family,” Allen continued. “What we find is that African American families are three times more likely to talk about race, and Latinx families are two times more likely to talk about race than white families are, so we today are going to embark on this conversation to talk about the importance of talking about race and doing so early in a child’s life.”

Allen moderated live questions with a panel featuring Dr. Alissa Rausch, Dr. Dorothy Shapland, and Omar Montgomery. The conversation was part of Colorado Humanities “Changing the Legacy of Race & Ethnicity: Conversations for One America” series. The most recent event in the series, “Changing the Legacy of Race & Ethnicity — Of the Spirit” was recorded on January 17 with faith leaders in Colorado’s Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities.

Talking about race and ethnicity with children is important, panelists noted at the start, because of child development, which shows that a three-week-old child has already begun to recognize faces; by three months, that child can categorize faces according to race.

“Three-month-olds prefer and gaze longer at faces of their own race,” Shapland said. “By six months, children prefer to learn from their own race…unless they’ve been exposed to others.”

Allen asked Montgomery, who is African American, how young he was when his family first talked about race.

“Since I can remember,” Montgomery responded and described his grandmother’s decision to move his family away from Vicksburg, Mississippi as something that grounded his perspective in history.

“Part of the reason why (she left Mississippi) was that she got sick of seeing ‘strange fruit hanging from the tree’…we’re talking about lynchings, we’re talking about people like Emmett Till, we’re talking about people those we don’t know their names,” Montgomery said. “She said, ‘my kids will not be raised under the concept of Jim Crow.’”

But not all families start talking to their kids about race at such an early age, and that decision also tends to fall along racial lines. When an audience member asked how to respond to white parents who were hesitant to talk about racism with their children, Rausch, who is white, said she appreciated the question and was going to be vulnerable in her answer.

“The problem that families are having about not wanting to talk about race is their own misunderstandings…I think that the more that we can do to support white parents in understanding why this is important but also in understanding their own place in this—the systems that they were raised in, the systems that made them hesitant to do this,” Rausch said. “I’m not the only woman in her mid-40s who grew up watching the show Cops…I had that mentality of white savior for a really long time, I had to come to terms with that myself…Systemic racism and white supremacy hurts everybody.”

Start these big conversations about race by starting small, early, and often. Even in a pandemic, Shapland said, families have opportunities like watching a sporting event and asking who is on the field and in the stands, who isn’t, and why that is. These little questions open onto consequential ideas of representation, marginalization, and privilege that are essential to a child’s developing ideas about race and racism, panelists said.

Sometimes positive exposure to people who are a different race from our own can be as easy as pulling a book off a shelf. As the session drew to a close, Allen turned to the bookshelves behind her and picked up one after another—a book series featuring Paul Robeson, Coretta Scott King, and Zora Neale Hurston, books about segregation like “White Socks Only” and books about racism like “The Antiracist Baby.”

“And as you’re exposing children to books, expose yourself,” Allen said. “Expand your reality, you cannot expand children’s if you don’t expand your own.”

Photo credit: Colorado Humanities

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.