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Why Teaching Kids to Be Racially Colorblind Is a Big Mistake

The way we explain race to our kids is not working. Why don't we just try telling them the truth: Color is a part of our lives. The color of our skin does matter. Here are three ways you can help your child embrace race -- not hide from it.
08/17/2015 03:48pm ET | Updated August 17, 2016
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If you're white, you've done it.

You've hesitated before using the word "black."

Or you had that uncomfortable hiccup in a conversation when your brain was trying to decide between using Black or African American.

You're just so worried about saying the wrong thing or offending someone that you don't say anything at all.

I overheard a mother the other day in the grocery store trying to explain away the color of someone's skin to her child. It was the usual line, "Well, sweetie, the truth is that's everyone is the same on the inside. We just look different on the outside."

Um, no. Sorry, sweetie, but you're wrong.

Why don't we want to hear the truth about race?

The truth is, kids aren't colorblind. Neither are adults. Evidence points to the importance of truly talking about race with your kids. Don't believe me? Go check out a group of three-year-old kids playing with no adult interference. You'll quickly notice similar-looking kids are naturally drawn to each other.

Better yet, pick up the book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which devotes an entire chapter to explaining how race really works. It's an eye-opener.

Humans are hardwired to discriminate -- yes, even you. It's a survival instinct. Your body thinks you're safer around people who look like you -- genetically, culturally and communally. People want to be around people who put them at ease.

That includes you, me and your three-month-old baby. We're not doing it intentionally, just genetically. Before you jump up and yell, "I am not. I have [insert color here] friends," stop.

Just stop.

Your Friends Are Probably Just Like You, Aren't They?

How do your friends act? Just like you. Because even the most liberal-minded white person will instinctively be drawn to the black person who acts like them. And in this example, acting "like them" means acting "white."

It's not about color, income or class. It's about culture. I get along better with people who walk, talk, act and think like me. Don't you?

That doesn't mean all my friends are just like me. What it means is that I have to make myself step out of my comfort zone in order to embrace diversity.

"You have to be racially conscious in your thoughts so that you can be racially neutral in your actions." -- Tanner Colby, TheGuardian.com

Understanding different cultures is an important, rewarding and time-consuming task. It should be a goal of every parent who wants to raise kids who are culturally sensitive and aware.

You can start by teaching your kids not to be colorblind.

The way we explain race to our kids is not working. Why don't we just try telling them the truth: Color is a part of our lives. The color of our skin does matter. It's often a part of our culture, and ignoring that fact doesn't make it go away.

Here are three ways you can help your child embrace race -- not hide from it.

  1. Stir the Pot Early. Studies show that the developmental window for teaching children to look beyond color starts by age three (and likely much earlier). Observe your child's daycare, playdates and school to ensure racial integration. Kids seek out like-minded (and similar-looking) friends due to a trait called essentialism. It's your job to make sure the play pool continues to get mixed up.

  • Be a Loudmouth. Talk to your baby, your toddler, or your preschooler about the differences in how people look. If your child is looking at someone that doesn't look like them, say something. You are not a racist for mentioning that the color of someone's skin is different than yours. Talk, talk, talk. As your child enters the pre-school years, have conversations with them about the color of people's skin. Help them learn about cultures other than just yours.
  • Stop Pretending You're Colorblind. It's okay to notice skin color. What's not okay is to pretend color doesn't exist. It's the way you acknowledge color, and how you react, that makes you embrace race, hide from it, or run from it. Don't shush your child when they ask about the color of someone's skin. Step out from behind the curtain of color-blindness, and embrace how not everyone is the same.
  • It's Time to Stop Playing Pretend.

    I'm going to teach my daughter the truth about race -- that our brains are wired to notice looks first. That the urge to segregate is a primal instinct built into each and every one of us. Most importantly, she needs to know it's her job to move beyond primal instinct in order to truly accept everyone -- no matter what color or culture they may be.

    I want my daughter to know that it's okay to ask questions about race and culture, and I'll do my best to teach her to ask her questions in a respectful manner.

    Because the people I know who are racially sensitive, culturally aware and non-judgmental know that skin color does matter.

    It's just not the only thing that matters.