First, Forget "Color Blindness"
Let's start by saying that I am white and heterosexual, and judging by our nation's latest census, the majority of you reading this likely are too. The truth is that unlike parents of color, who probably encounter issues of race more often than they'd like, white parents can largely avoid the subject, if only because you think that if you don't call attention to racial differences, your children will stay "color-blind" for as long as possible.
Think again. Children start to notice race when they're babies. We know this from research conducted in 1997 by psychologists Phyllis Katz and Jennifer Kofkin for the Institute for Research on Social Problems, in Boulder, Colorado. They paraded a variety of faces in front of kids ages 6 to 18 months old and noted that children stared longer at the faces that were a different race from their own (the longer the gaze, the more you know babies are taking in new information). Their research also found that by age 3, kids prefer playing with others of their own race rather than outside it. This isn't racist behavior -- it's normal to gravitate to what's familiar. How, then, do children slip from preference to prejudice? "Kids' views only become prejudiced when they start linking physical traits to flaws in character," says Allison Briscoe-Smith, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Palo Alto University, an African American, and an expert on how children learn about race. "We adults are the ones who ascribe malice to simply noticing racial differences." Remarking on race, therefore, isn't the problem.
What is? Two words: parental silence. We don't talk about race and difference enough. Parents of color may wish to avoid painful discussions -- but then they don't prepare their children for handling racist comments that may come their way. White parents often stay mum because they fear they'll say something offensive. Thanks to this misguided censorship, kids think race is a loaded subject and that translates to "something bad." And it doesn't take too many steps to go from bad to biased.