6 common mistakes that white parents make about race, and how to remedy them

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved


White parents need to talk with their children about race, but mistaken beliefs often get in the way. Here's what parents need to know to become better agents of change.


For years, researchers have documented the phenomenon: Many white parents avoid talking with their children about race. Why?

One explanation -- voiced by the parents themselves -- is that they want their children to grow up "color blind."

They don't want their children to think in terms of racial categorization. If I talk about race with my child, wouldn't I be undermining this goal? Wouldn't I be setting up my child for a race-bound mentality?

Parents may also believe that their children are too young to talk about race. They aren't equipped to understand the concepts. I should wait until my kids are at least 6, 7, or 8...

Or they might think that various alternatives are good enough.

What if I simply teach my child to treat everyone with fairness, without discussing race? Or expose my child to lots of ethnic diversity? What if my child has an interracial friendship? Won't that be enough to protect my child from developing racist attitudes?

And of course parents avoid talking about race because of their own discomfort.

Some may worry that their anxieties will influence their children in a negative way. If my child sees that I'm tense, could that end up making things worse? Better to avoid explicit talk about race, and focus instead on a "color blind" approach to morality.

What does the research tell us about these strategies? Do they lead to the best child outcomes? The best outcomes for racial justice?

Definitely not. There is no good substitute, no shortcut, for having frank  conversations with your child about race.

Kids learn about race whether or not we talk about it. And they're equipped to handle the basic issues from an early age.

When we don't explicitly address race, we are leaving a vacuum to be filled by the popular culture.

When we don't explicitly teach kids -- especially white kids -- about the many forms of racism that exist in our society, we aren't making them "color blind" so much as we're making them "racism blind." And that allows racial injustice to continue.

Children encounter a steady stream of biases that harm people of color and reinforce white privilege. Ignoring this doesn't make it go away. It simply ensures that children will grow up perpetuating those biases.

So let's take a closer look. What common mistakes are parents making? And what does the research reveal about the most effective ways to teach kids about race and racial injustice? Here's an evidence-based guide.



Debunking misconceptions: 6 mistakes to avoid

1. "My child isn't old enough yet."

You might think that a toddler or preschooler isn't mature enough to handle a discussion about race. But this isn't likely.

If your child is old enough to talk, your child is almost certainly old enough to start talking about race.

To see what I mean, consider what babies know about the social world.

As I explain in elsewhere, babies feel empathy, and they show signs of having a sense of fairness. By 12 months, many infants have learned to expect that adults will distribute resources in a fair and equal way.

In addition, babies show signs of a moral sense. When they witness an assault, they show a preference for the victim, not the aggressor. And they prefer individuals who stand up against aggressors. Not passive bystanders.

How do these prosocial tendencies develop? Babies learn by interacting with us, and by observing acts of kindness and fairness.

But let's be clear. Young children don't live in a fairy tale world of sweetness and light. They also observe bad behavior. They learn about aggression and inequality. And that, too, influences their outlook.

Take the expectation about the fair distribution of resources. As it turns out, children change this expectation when they learn crucial background information about the participants.

When toddlers learned that one individual was dominant over another, they didn't expect that each would receive an equal share. On the contrary, they seemed to expect that the authority figure would show favoritism toward the dominant individual (Enright et al 2017).

You can read the details in this Parenting Science article. But the takeaway here is that basic morality -- kindness, fairness, opposition to injustice -- isn't a subject that's too advanced for your child to handle. On the contrary, it's one of the subjects your child knows the most about.

Young children are especially interested in how human beings interact with each other. They are little anthropologists trying to learn how we behave. So when we talk to them about treating others fairly -- and how we ought to respond to racial injustice -- we aren't pushing a grown-up agenda on them. We're speaking to concerns they already have.

2. What if I teach my kids the general principles of fairness and egalitarianism? Without bringing attention to race and racial labels? Isn't it best if I raise my child to be "color-blind"?

This seems to be a very common approach. White parents avoid using race labels, like "black" or "white." They deliberately steer away from talk about race itself, in the hope that it will help prevent children from developing racial biases.

Does it work?

Not really. In the few cases where researchers have studied child outcomes, they've noted a telling pattern:  The white, school-aged children with the lowest levels of racial bias weren't the ones whose parents have taken a "color blind" approach.

On the contrary, the kids with the lowest levels of racial bias were the ones whose parents were "color conscious" (Katz 2003; Vittrup and Holden 2011).

Color conscious parents acknowledge and address the existence of racial categories. They acknowledge and address the existence of racism. And they do this with their kids -- tackling the subject explicitly in family discussions.

3. But if I start talking about race -- and using race labels -- won't that put ideas in my child's head? Isn't it better if my child never learns about racial categories to begin with?

I can see the reasoning. It's a kind of utopian science fiction premise, a "Garden of Eden" theory.

If we never tell kids about race, they won't learn to do bad things in the name of race. The future world they create will be humanitarian and harmonious.

One big problem with this theory? It presupposes that kids won't become aware of race unless we talk to them about it. And that's been disproven.

For example, do parents talk to their 3-month-old babies about racial categories? Do they train their 3-month-old babies to sort faces by race?

No. Yet babies can do it.

In experiments, 3-month-old infants show a basic ability to sort female faces into at least two categories: "my own race" and "not my own race." Babies prefer female faces of their own race, probably because these faces more closely resemble their mothers (Them at al 2015; Liu et al 2011).

And when researchers have tested 8-month-olds, babies show a bias in facial recognition. They have little trouble distinguishing individuals of their own race. But when it comes to members of another race, they struggle. They have difficulty telling individuals apart (Anzures et al 2012).

Why so hard? It's probably because babies haven't yet encountered many faces. From day to day, they mostly see members of their own family, individuals who often look quite similar to each other.

So it's like face recognition software. To improve facial recognition abilities, your baby needs a more diverse range of examples to study. When researchers have actively trained babies by showing them daily examples of other-race faces, the infants become more proficient (Anzures et al 2012).

But the point here is that babies notice differences that can map onto our culturally-defined racial categories. And young children notice other markers of "in-groups" and "out-groups," like differences in language and clothing.

By the time children are preschool-aged, they know a lot about the way that society divides people up, and this happens whether or not we've had family discussions about it.

Even more importantly, young children are exposed to racial biases and value judgements -- simply by living in our culture. Which takes us to our next point.

4. Why should I have to worry about my child absorbing racial biases and attitudes? I don't endorse racism myself. Isn't it enough if my child grows up around people with good intentions?

Once again, there's a problem with the underlying premise.

Studies confirm everybody is affected by bias -- even people who are consciously opposed to racism. Good intentions aren't enough.

As Beverly Daniel Tatum has put it, racial stereotypes surround us like smog.

We're exposed to them in books, movies, television, and the internet. Biases can be observed on our streets, and in our classrooms. We absorb these biases, whether we like it or not. Even if we don't realize it.

The biases don't have to define us. Not unless we go through life acting on our impulses. The biases operate on auto-pilot. They influence behavior by affecting our intuitions, our immediate, knee-jerk reactions.

So if we're open to discovering these biases -- if we question, analyze, and reflect -- we can counteract them.

That's why the "color blind" approach doesn't work. That's why the "Garden of Eden" approach fails. Ignoring race doesn't make racial problems go away. It allows them to persist.

It makes privileged people less likely to notice racial biases -- in themselves, and in others. It makes white people less likely to notice biases in the way society itself is structured.

And children are not immune. On the contrary. By the age of 3, 4, or 5, kids have already been affected by the racial "smog."

For instance, in a recent study, American preschoolers were shown photographs of other children, and their responses were recorded.

The preschoolers responded positively to all the young faces they saw. Good news, right?

But some faces got more love than others. Kids responded most positively to white female faces, and least positively to black male faces.

This pattern held for white and non-white children alike, and it was observed in kids regardless of how much prior exposure they'd had to ethnic diversity (Perszyk et al 2019).

A similar pattern was observed when researchers presented 5-year-old girls with the opportunity to invite fictitious characters to a pretend party. Girls preferred the invite white characters, whether or not they were white themselves (Kurtz-Costes et al 2011).

5. What about interracial friendships? If my child has friends from different backgrounds, won't that prevent my child from developing racial biases?

Cross-race friendships are rewarding on many levels, and they do appear to reduce prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp 2006).

But they don't, by themselves, prevent kids from downloading the racial biases that are embedded in our culture.

Interracial friendships don't necessarily make children aware of the history of racism, or the ongoing forms of institutionalized racism that reinforce inequality.

So we still need to tackle racism head-on. We still need to talk about it. White kids need to know that it isn't an even playing field. They are accorded certain privileges in society just by virtue of being white. Privileges that their non-white friends are denied.

6. I'm going to be tense, though. Won't that undermine the message when I talk to my kids about racism? Maybe it's better if I stay quiet, and stick with a "color blind" strategy.

A new, yet-to-be-published study has addressed this question.

White parents were asked to watch brief, animated videos with their 9-year-old kids -- cartoons that showed everyday incidents of racial discrimination.

Afterwards, the parents were instructed to talk about these incidents with their children.

The researchers measured children's implicit racial biases before and after the experience. They also measured levels of tension and anxiety that parents experienced.

Did parental emotions affect children's outcomes?

Yes. Children with especially tense parents didn't improve as much as children with more relaxed parents.

But here's the thing. The kids didn't become more biased. They either made less progress, or no progress. They didn't get worse (Perry et al 2020).

And that should encourage you, even if you anticipate being tense or anxious. You're unlikely to cause any harm. And after making that first attempt, you will have broken the ice. You should find it easier the next time.

So how do you take the first step?

Tips for talking to your kids about race and racism

1. Learn and keep on learning.

To help your child learn about race and racism, you need to know what's going on. And chances are, it's worse than you think -- especially if you're white. White people don't have direct experience with being a person of color in a racist society.

Of course, there's nothing we can do about that. There's no way for a human being to re-live his or her lifetime in someone else's shoes.

But human beings can learn crucial lessons by listening to the personal experiences of others, and many people of color have generously shared their stories.

First-person accounts -- like those of comedy writer Amber Ruffin -- teach us things we can't grasp from experiments and surveys. I highly recommend her collection of video talks, "Amber Ruffin Shares a Lifetime of Traumatic Run-ins with Police," which you can watch on YouTube.

And of course parents also need to learn about the raw statistics and facts. For example, in the United States:

  • Victims of fatal force  -- who were unarmed, male, and non-suicidal -- are 13 times more likely to be black than white (Schimmack and Carlsson 2020).
  • Black people are more than 3.5 times as likely as white people to die of COVID-19 (Gross et al 2020).
  • Black women are three times as likely as white women to die of childbirth complications. Their babies are more likely to die, too (Vilda et al 2019).

These are just a few of the disparities -- a small glimpse at the problem. And in case you are wondering, these really are racial disparities. Most remain significant even after researchers control for an individual's level of wealth and education.

Yet make no mistake, race-biased economic disparities contribute mightily to these problems. There is a profound racial wealth gap.

On average, black households have only 10% of the wealth that white households do, and structural racism is to blame.

As researchers at Duke University explain, "it takes wealth to make wealth," and "blacks largely have been excluded from intergenerational access to capital and finance" (Darity, Jr., et al 2018). Read their report here.

2. Check out the excellent article, "Talking to kids about race," by Heather Greenwood Davis.

The author interviews a variety of experts, and presents specific examples for discussing race with both preschoolers and older kids.

For instance, what should you do if hear your child make a value judgement based on race?

Expert Maggie Beneke advises that you respond with "open, non-judgemental questions to understand why your child might be making that assumption." Get the conversation started by asking "Why do you think that?" Then explain what stereotypes are, and "work with your child to think about examples that show how these stereotypes aren't actually true."

For more helpful tips, read the article on National Geographic.

3. Reinforce lessons about racial justice by nurturing your child's socio-emotional skills.

See these Parenting Science articles for help:


References: Common mistakes that white parents make about race

Anzures G, Wheeler A, Quinn PC, Pascalis O, Slater AM, Heron-Delaney M, Tanaka JW, Lee K. J 2012. Brief daily exposures to Asian females reverses perceptual narrowing for Asian faces in Caucasian infants. Exp Child Psychol. 112(4):484-95.

Gross CP, Essien UR, Pasha S, Gross JR, Wong S, and Nunez-Smith M. 2020. Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Population Level Covid-19 Mortality. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.07.20094250. Preprint accessed 6/6/2020 from medRxiv.

Katz PA  2003. Racists or tolerant multiculturalists? How do they begin?  Am Psychol. 58(11):897-909.

Kurtz-Costes B, Defreitas SC, Halle TG, Kinlaw CR. 2011. Gender and racial favouritism in black and white preschool girls. Br J Dev Psychol. 2011 Jun;29(Pt 2):270-87.

Liu S, Quinn PC, Wheeler A, Xiao N, Ge L, Lee K. 2011. Similarity and difference in the processing of same- and other-race faces as revealed by eye tracking in 4- to 9-month-olds. J Exp Child Psychol. 2011 Jan;108(1):180-9.

Pahlke E, Bigler RS, Suizzo MA. Relations between colorblind socialization and children's racial bias: evidence from European American mothers and their preschool children. Child Dev. 2012 Jul-Aug;83(4):1164-79.

Perry S, Skinner AL, Abaied JL, Waters S. 2020. Preprint.  Exploring how Parent-Child Conversations about Race influence Children's Implicit Biases.    DOI: 10.31234/osf.io/3xdg8

Vittrup  B. 2018. Color blind or color conscious? White American mothers’ approaches to racial socialization. Journal of Family Issues 39: 668–692.

Vittrup B and Holden GW. 2011. Exploring the impact of educational television and parent-child discussions on children’s racial attitudes. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 11: 82–104.

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Content last modified 6/2020


Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
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