On the occasion of unrest across the U.S., we wanted to revisit this 2017 interview with Dr. Jennifer Harvey, who spoke to us about why telling kids “we’re all equal” does nothing to teach them about racial inequality.
In a 2017 op-ed for The New York Times titled “Are We Raising Racists?,” Dr. Jennifer Harvey, a professor of religion at Drake University, whose work focuses on the intersection of race, ethics, gender, politics and spirituality, argued that the common technique of telling young children “we’re all equal” and “all the same beneath our skin” does nothing to combat racism.
Such phrases, Harvey argues, stunt kids’ understanding of racial inequality and decrease the likelihood they’ll recognize or combat racism. She added that, in our current political climate, white parents who tip-toe around discussions of race run the risk of raising children with retrograde views.
Fatherly spoke to Harvey, who is also the author of Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation. She was eager to have a conversation about racial inequality with children and help provide parents with a skillset for having more meaningful discussions.
You argue that white parents are guilty of skirting over the issues of race and inequality. Why do you think that’s the case?
Families of color are already thinking of their children’s well-being in our society where racism is all over. And many, many families of color are already clued in and attending to that in a very active way. I think for white families, white parents, parents of white children, and so on, that has not tended to be the case — not even for those of us who are really committed to equality, and who want a society that is characterized by equality.
Can you elaborate?
A lot of white parents worry about the incident in the grocery store, where their kid’s going to point at someone who is African American, and point out their skin color. And a white parent’s response is often to shush that and quickly get away because they feel so awkward. White folks aren’t sure if we’re supposed to notice that or not supposed to notice that, whether we’re supposed to talk about that or not. So our children then don’t get some development along those lines.
The Three-Pronged Approach to Teaching Race Equality to Kids
- Have a conversation with your child about race. Children are exposed to racialized rhetoric at a younger age than many parents realize.
- Avoid saying “we are all equal,” even if that’s the point you’re trying to make. The phrase is extremely vague to children.
- Talk about race with your kids early and often. Research finds that waiting, or neglecting, to have this conversation can lead to kids drawing their own conclusions about people of color.
What can white parents do to get better?
Parents need to recognize — and most parents and children of color already recognize this —that our children are so exposed to all of this racialized rhetoric and imagery and dynamics that they internalize much younger than we realize they do. Even if they’re getting positive messaging at home, they’re being exposed to this. And so they need to have conversations about race at a young age.
Because of this, you believe that the ‘we’re all equal’ or ‘we’re all the same on the inside’ conversation that so many parents have with their kids is wrong.
Yes. I don’t think it’s wrong for our children to value equality and I do want to teach my children that. But I don’t teach them that by telling them that that’s how things are, because that’s not how things are. There are numerous great studies that show that when parents tell their children “we are all equal,” the children don’t know what that means because it’s so vague. It’s like me saying to my kids, “vegetables are really good for you,” but then never giving them an actual vegetable.
So what do you think is the most effective way parents can discuss race with their kids?
I think an effective style is — and this isn’t my term — “race-conscious parenting.” When people say “we’re all equal, we’re all the same underneath our skin,” I tend to put that in the realm of “colorblind parenting.” It’s good, it’s an aspiration, and of course I believe we should all be equal. But when we teach that aspiration as if it were fact, that’s when we do a disconnect with our kids.
If the aspiration actually is equality, what we have to do is teach in a very race-conscious way. That means you must talk about race early, often, and all the time, as a matter of sort of day-to-day discourse. And you have to fight your initial impulse to shy away from the conversation.
What’s an example of this?
For really young children it’s as simple as, and lots of parents think about this, of having diverse kind of imaging in their books, in their dolls, in their toys, and whatever. But not just sort of only doing that, but also talking about skin color when they’re really little. Discussing language and physical observation early with our children also sets them up a little bit developmentally for the next stage of life when they are learning that race is this thing and they start having words for some of that.
So what do you tell parents who say that such topics as racial inequality shouldn’t be brought up with their kid until they’re older, or that kids shouldn’t be exposed to such conversations about racism because they’re too young?
I would say that every study out there shows that they’re wrong. They’re just wrong. It’s like saying it doesn’t matter what your kid eats.
If you’re just parenting and hoping for the best, which is what that model of parenting is doing, it’s almost certainly the case that you’re negatively impacting the child. It’s like telling your child to eat whatever you want until you’re 15, and then saying you’ll teach them about nutrition. Well guess what? By the time your kid’s 15, all they’re going to have eaten is cookies.
And what could this lead to?
Because the U.S. is so very racially loaded, our children are eventually going to come to their own conclusions. And, more often than not, the result is that they’re going to make racist assumptions about people of color. This is not because our kids are bad kids or because we’re bad people or parents, but because we’ve left them on their own to let the society they live in help them draw their own conclusions. But discussing topics early and often can put an end to this.