My wife and I are first time parents who are constantly learning about new developmental milestones. Though we didn’t expect to have to deal with racial biases now, as our child is only four months old, research shows that it is never too early to anticipate problematic patterns. Even at four months old, our child’s brain will react more strongly to faces of his own race rather than faces of people who do not look like him and his parents, a response that sociologists say will only grow stronger over the years.
It might seem like a ludicrous question, but here it is: How do we make sure we don’t raise a racist baby? There are plenty of ways to raise children while combating biases that can be anticipated and met head on, making those biases anything but inevitable.
Although we cannot talk to our child about it right now due to his age, there are some things we all can do to prevent this simple sociological response to faces that look different than those of his parents, the people he spends most of the time with, from becoming racial bias. First, introduce diversity into your child’s life with cross-racial friendships. Expose your infant to people with different skin colors and facial characteristics. Look for a daycare with attendees of different races. Hire a nanny or babysitter that looks different from you, or your partner, or your child.
Next, incorporate diversity in the books you read. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats has earned accolades for presenting one of the first Black protagonists in a picture book. There are a plethora of books that will introduce your infant/toddler to children of different races. Check out the Diverse Book Finder which highlights diverse characters that allow children of color to see themselves in the books. When the child begins to watch TV, make sure the programming is filled with different faces as well.
Work on your own biases
Professor Jennifer Eberhardt works with police officers regarding confronting biases. In her book Biased, she writes “Bias, even when we are not conscious of it, has consequences that we need to understand and mitigate. The stereotypic associations we carry in our heads can affect what we perceive, how we think, and the actions we take.
We all exhibit biases; that is something that we develop at a young age, when we grow up in a world filled with systemic and individual racism. Studies show that parents transmit these biases to our children—sometimes consciously, but often unconsciously. Children are wonderfully adept at picking up social cues from adults. Preschoolers have been shown to carry more favorable views of people that are treated better by their parents. After watching a single negative interaction with an individual, young children are more likely to have a negative view of the person that is treated badly.
For parents, these implicit biases don’t have the immediate life and death impact that they could have with police officers, but they do shape the world our children grow up in. You might consider yourself to be a very unbiased person, but it is the way you subconsciously treat people that most impacts the way your child observes and learns.
Talk to your children about race
If parents are uncomfortable talking about a topic, our children inherit that discomfort; often, they will silence their curiosity or internalize that race is a taboo topic. Instead, engage young children in discussion. Listen to them, and talk with them openly and honestly. Ask them why they think and feel certain things. If you are uncomfortable discussing race or you are just seeking pointers, check out these resources from the Sesame Workshop.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of Antiracist Baby and How to Be an Antiracist, writes: “When we are afraid to talk about race, kids assume that it’s a topic that they, too, are supposed to avoid.” Kids often learn by kindergarten and first grade that race is not something to talk about, while also beginning to make selections of their peers based on race. “You don’t want to assume children are ‘blank slates,’” Kendi writes. “This leaves room for racial societal messages to shape their understanding of racism instead.”
Dr. Eberhardt, who is Black, shares a story about her son, who, when he was five years old, saw a Black man on a plane and said “Hey, that guy looks like Daddy.” Eberhardt writes that the man looked nothing at all like her husband, except he was the only Black man on the plane. Her son continued to say, “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.” “Why would you say that?” she asked. “I don’t know why I said that,” her son said. “I don’t know why I was thinking that.” She uses the story to introduce police officers to implicit bias, making the point: “We are living with such severe racial stratification that even a five-year-old can tell us what’s supposed to happen next. Even with no malice—even with no hatred—the black-crime association made its way into the mind of my five-year-old son, into all of our children, into all of us.”
With 2020’s summer of racial reckoning and focus following the police killing of George Floyd, parents and teachers everywhere are looking for ways to integrate the lessons learned into ways of teaching and raising our children. It had been a long time coming. And despite the backlash of some to the nationwide protests, it will be an enduring legacy that forced America to look closely into the mirror and see a nation that, despite steps forward over the years, still lacks equity and equality. It brought us face-to-face with the disturbing relics of our past that, rather than being vanquished, were immortalized in marble and celebrated.
While, unlike police officers, our implicit or explicit biases are not likely to endanger the lives of people, that doesn’t mean we should be silent. Listen to your children. Talk to your children. Teach your children. Together we can build a more equitable world.