May 8, 2015
“Children observe the world around them and they see segregation, they see inequality, they see media representation,” said Winkler.
Discussing race with children doesn’t have to be difficult.
According to Erin Winkler, the Associate Department Chair of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Department of Africology, not only can children recognize race from a young age, but they can also develop biases by ages three to five — which is why it’s important to talk to them about it early on.
“Children observe the world around them and they see segregation, they see inequality, they see media representation,” she said. “If we’re silent about it, they’ll think it’s for a reason and attach meaning to it.”
Although adults may shy away from talking about race because they are afraid of giving children the wrong idea, Winkler’s research shows that not having conversations actually results in more prejudice and racism.
The trick is to become comfortable talking about race with other adults before talking to children in an age-appropriate manner, said Winkler.
The Madison Children’s Museum partnered with Preschool of the Arts recently to host Winkler at a workshop on discussing race with children. Though they considered many experts, Erin Winkler’s compelling scientific research landed her the keynote speaker position, said Preschool of the Arts Executive Director Stacy Mitchell. Workshop attendees were especially interested in Winkler’s research on how it is detrimental to teach a child to be “colorblind.”
“Everyone was touched by learning about this problem,” said Mitchell. “It’s important not to gloss over the differences we have, because (those differences are) what makes us all special.”
Teaching children that “we’re all the same” results in increased prejudice, explained Winker. Children are quick to see differences in people and promptly figure out that categories are important. They begin to think “I’m good so everyone who looks like me must be good” and if they have a negative encounter with someone who doesn’t look like them, they begin to think an entire category must somehow be bad.
“If they hear everyone is the same and they see different outcomes, they get confused,” said Winkler. “Then they’ll attach meaning to people who are different.”
Instead, adults need to explain racial differences both preemptively and as children ask questions. Winkler emphasized that parents, teachers and generally all adults in the child’s life have a responsibility to answer a child’s questions in any setting where the conversation comes up. No questions should be off-limits.
“It’s important not to be embarrassed when a child asks why someone looks different,” said Winkler.
When attempting to explain sensitive topics such as slavery, Winkler emphasized that it is important to bring up the idea of fairness. To help prevent scaring or depressing the child, adults can explain in simple terms that it is unfair to treat someone poorly because of how they are categorized. This way, children can feel empowered by wanting to correct the unfairness.
The conversation is different depending on the race of the child in question.
“The context of the child always matters. You need to think about how your answer will impact their identity, their self-esteem and if they’ll be scared,” she said.
As a teacher, Mitchell said it is important for her to know the hopes and concerns of her students and their families. She involves the parents throughout the process of answering questions about race.
“Because we believe children are so capable, we’re going to answer their questions,” she said. “But we never want to assume we know what children of other races have experienced, so we involve the parents and make sure they know how we’re approaching questions.”
However, this practice is unfortunately uncommon. Winkler said many schools are shy to have conversations about race because they are concerned about parent’s reactions. Instead, she emphasizes the positive impacts of having multicultural education.
Mitchell encountered many “why” questions from the students in her diverse classroom when she was teaching in a suburb of Milwaukee. It was not uncommon for her to hear “Why is her hair different? Why are his eyes different?” Parents of her students were often concerned about their child facing prejudice, so Mitchell had parents come in to her classroom to talk about their families and traditions.
“But unfortunately, many of us live in sheltered environments where children don’t see other races right away,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to have basic ethical conversations even if (children) are not asking those questions right away.”
Winkler wanted attendees of the Difficult Conversations workshop to gain a better understanding of how to counter what society implicitly tells children about race.
“I wanted them to walk away knowing that we’re not putting ideas in a child’s head,” she said. “They already have ideas and the conversation is important so that the ideas don’t go unchecked.”