Teaching Kids About Racism
How to help your children embrace cultural diversity and become open-minded
“Black versus white” may not be the front-and-center American issue it once was; other ethnic groups are now targeted, too. Costello says anti-Latino sentiment has deepened as the economy has slumped and Americans have become resentful of Hispanic immigrants who may or may not be legal taking jobs and utilizing social services. And after 9/11, many Americans began to consider anyone of Middle Eastern descent a possible terror threat. Plus, it's not just the racial majority doing the challenging. “People of color, and their kids, can also develop negative feelings about other ethnicities,” notes Costello.
When Miller and her husband traveled with their adopted Guatemalan son in his home country, locals often told them their son was lucky to be fairer-skinned, like the Spaniards, rather than dark-skinned, like the Maya. “They said he would ‘blend in better.’ It reminded us that racial attitudes persist everywhere,” notes Miller.
Our kids are growing up in a racially diverse world unlike any we've seen.
Kids will base friendships more on values and interests if taught to treat all people with respect.
Children see differences, of course. Research shows that even babies clearly looked significantly longer—the best way to know that infants are processing information—at other faces if they were different from their own skin color.
However, babies don't “judge” those different faces. “They simply notice and categorize them into groups: These people have one skin color, those people have another—which is a natural thing we do as humans to make sense of our world,” Killen says. In other words, noticing—and, yes, sometimes also calling out awkwardly in the grocery store—different physical characteristics among people is a normal developmental stage for preschoolers.
At around school age, Killen says children tend to gravitate first toward kids who look like themselves. Asian children may initially strike up friendships with other Asians, while African-American kids may walk over to others with the same skin color first. Over time, however, kids will base friendships more on values and interests they share as long as they are taught to treat all people with equal respect.
Regardless of your own cultural background, you're smart to teach your child empathy and respect for others. Why? For one thing, a good portion of bullying is “bias oriented”: It happens when kids have trouble accepting another child's differences, whether they be clothing choices, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, racial background, or anything else that sets them apart from their peers. “Teaching kids appreciation for obvious differences like skin color should help them accept all sort of differences in people. It helps remove stereotypes and labels,” Costello says.
Perhaps even more important: Your child is growing up in a distinctly global society. She will attend college and eventually work with people from a variety of nations and cultures. And in our increasingly digital world, your child's future colleagues may not even live in the same country or speak the same language as she does. Clearly, the ability to interact well with people from all walks of life will be a key life skill.