WE STORIES PARENT CURRICULUM MONTH ONE: It’s OK to Notice Difference… AND Name Race Categories
Focus: introducing, developing, and modeling language to explicitly, descriptively name differences among people, including, but not limited to skin color, eye shape, hair texture, dress and customs. For age 3+ this would include understanding and using race and significant ethnic categories as well (Black, White, Asian American, Native American, Latino, etc).
The Big First Hurdle
Recent generations of Americans (white Americans in particular) have been raised with the value of “color blindness” – a belief that if we don’t acknowledge or emphasize phenotypic and skin color differences, we are more likely to behave in a race-neutral and equitable manner. Research actually shows the opposite to be true. The less comfortable we are acknowledging or talking about ethnic or racial differences, the more suspicion we cast. The less contextual information we have about racial difference and disparity, the more likely we are to have negative racial perceptions about other groups. The less we tell our children, the more they ascribe difference to individual failings, rather than group dynamics, systemic bias, or history.
Because noticing and discussing difference flies in the face of many (white) social norms, it can feel difficult to develop the language and build the comfort necessary to talk about racial difference in a fluid and casual manner. Most white parents in particular struggle with this conversation. In a 2006 study, 30% of enrolled parents dropped out when they were told that they’d be expected to talk with their children about race; they had never become comfortable talking about difference. For all of us, it is the first and biggest hurdle to raising kids who are racially aware.
The good news is that your children are, like all people, hard wired for categorization, matching and sorting. In fact, from ages 2 to 4, they become fixated on what is alike and what is different, what belongs and what doesn’t. Use their natural curiosity to talk about same and different phenotypic characteristics. These small conversations will help you build your confidence too. Use the color wheel to talk about shades of skin. Compare your family member’s skin tones to each other and to the story characters and also story characters to each other. It’s ok to use words like “brown-ish”, “tan-ish”, and “peachy.” Look at, and consider discussing the different hair types, eye color and shape, nose shapes or other individual differences that might exist within your family.
Comparison amongst images and people really helps to illuminate within group difference and the permeability of categorization. An excellent book that supports this conversation is Shades of Black (similar to the Shades of People book in many starter library sets.)
Some families may feel comfortable describing skin color, but not assigning a race category. Sometimes this is because they aren’t comfortable using race categories themselves. Sometimes they feel as though they are doing a disservice to their children by pointing out an “unnecessary” distinction. They may worry about where and when their children will use race category language. This may uncomfortable because it is different from what you are used to, but it is not wrong to have these discussions. Research shows that kids clearly notice skin color and racial differences. By talking about these visible and meaningful differences, you are giving your children the language they need to be competent and fluid in the world in which they live. They may have a different idea about what’s appropriate to say in public than you do, but the best thing you can do is to model that race and skin color is an OK thing to notice and talk about.
It's important to underscore the distinction between noticing differences and drawing conclusions about people based upon these phenomenological differences. All humans notice difference - we are hardwired to do so. Which differences we are conditioned to notice, and what they signify to whom, is deeply tied to our social context. Many of us were taught to, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. For some, this made noticing skin color (or admitting that one does) akin to judging people based on their skin color. This is part of what makes adult conversations about race complex. For our kids, providing language to name the differences they are noticing sends the message that race and racism are not taboo topics; we are showing them that talking about their observations allow us to guide their sense-making process.
When you talk about race categories, it is important to acknowledge the discrepancy in the color of the skin and the name of the category. “This kind of skin looks brown but people often call it black, even though it’s really not.” “My skin looks like of tan-ish peach but people call it white, even though it’s really not.” When you begin to talk about categories, it’s also helpful to talk about the value and limitations of categories. Categories let you group many people together, but they are often incomplete or inaccurate in describing all people in any given category. When speaking about categorical limitations, you can use examples like, “Only women can have babies. Not all women will have babies,” or, “Some boys like dinosaurs. Not all boys like dinosaurs.” Several of the suggested activities below will help you play with the nuance of categorization.
If you’ve already had an incident where you’ve told your children that it’s not ok to talk about skin color or phenotypic difference, consider having a conversation about that experience. I’ve had to backtrack many times with my own children. It is part of the experience. You could try something such as, “Do you remember the time when I told you not to call someone black or ask why so-and-so had hair like that? I was thinking more about it and I changed my mind. I think it’s important that we are able to talk about how people look different from each other. I’m afraid that by saying not to, I’m giving you the impression that it wasn’t OK to talk about, but it is. It’s important that we understand more about all the people in our world, and how they are similar and different from us.” You may want to follow this up with some instances where you notice and comment on difference in front of your children to model the new norm.
This month all we are asking you to do is to read, talk, and reflect. You are starting an important journey, together with your children! Use the books you’ve received to start conversations about skin color difference about characters in the books. Extend those conversations to real life as well as other books and media. “What color would you call our skin color?” “Do we have the same skin tone?” “The boy in this story love to play in the snow, just like you! He’s also three, just like you. What else is the same between you? What else is different?” Click here for suggestions about ways to make the books come to life even more.
Mix Paints, Make Shades
In the story The Colors of Us (which some start packs include) the main character mixes paints together to make shades that match the people in her life. Using a range of Whites, Reds, and Brown paint encourage your children to try and match their own skin color as well as those in your family and friend circle or characters they know well from books or shows. You can also use the Crayola crayons that we provided to kick start conversations during coloring too.
You can download these pdfs and make your own racially diverse people building blocks. Once you print them you decoupage or use Modge Podge to glue them onto a set of blank wooden blocks (available on Etsy, Amazon or at Michaels). Use code WESTORIES for 30% off.
Depending on the age of your child(ren) you can ask them to do this with you. PBS RACE – The Power of an Illusion materials include a free online game where you sort people into racial categories. It is an excellent example of within group variability and just how tenuous racial categories can be. Take a stab and see how you do. If it were a test we both would have failed, miserably. This is an interesting complement to a conversation about the utility of categories. They can be useful but also woefully limited and deceiving. There are also paid apps that simulate this activity as well.