It’s Never Too Early to Talk About Race


Feast for 10, a children’s book by Cathryn Falwell, recently found its way into a lesson at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Cooperative Nursery School. The book, focusing on counting skills, follows a family through the relatively mundane task of grocery shopping and preparing a meal—from one grocery cart to 10 hungry people.

But when the group of predominantly white 3-year-olds listened to and asked questions about the story, none commented that the family in the book was black.

Is this seemingly color-blind attitude a good thing? Not necessarily.

For Shannon Nagy, the preschool’s director, the key to addressing race is talking directly about it––and starting young.

“Young children are hard-wired in their brains to notice difference and to categorize it,” Nagy said. “So it is vital during early childhood to put some context around making sense of differences.”

The book NurtureShock reiterates this in the chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman found that some parents choose not to discuss race with their children, assuming they are making them extremely tolerant and “color-blind” by not pointing out obvious differences. But according to Bronson and Merryman, all children will inevitably stereotype and categorize people based on race, much to their parents’ dismay.

This is why Nagy said her teachers at LPCNS focus on openly acknowledging and discussing differences in the classroom, especially through children’s literature.

“I think it is important to address issues of tolerance in a context of meaning in the preschool setting with the relationships they have, the materials and activities they interact with and the literature they are exposed to,” Nagy said. “There isn’t an age when this isn’t important and appropriate.”

Emily Cresswell, an LPCNS teacher, said she and her colleagues routinely find ways to acknowledge and discuss differences, despite the school’s relatively homogenous classes.

Discussion of race often begin when the children notice differences amongst themselves, Cresswell says. Other times it happens while reading illustrated books about children from diverse backgrounds. The school also takes care to present diversity in teaching materials. They might include dolls of different skin tones, puzzles that depict people with physical handicaps, and photos that show various kinds of families.

“Children are going to be drawing their own conclusions anyway,” Nagy said. “So it is best to try and influence those conclusions now.”

Butler is a Wisconsin college student majoring in English and journalism. 


My question is "how do you

Submitted by Kimberly Moon on 17 October 2011 - 8:42pm.

My question is "how do you talk to a 3 year old about race?" My 3.5 year old refused to play with a boy because he had dark skin and spikey hair. It turns out two boys in her preschool class fight and she doesn't like them because they fight. One has dark skin and the other spikey hair. She has identified the two most obvious features and uses them to judge people. I'm trying to talk to her about this, but don't know how to get down to her level, a very complex subject.

Children do notice race and it would be strange if they didn't. The problem is when we judge others based on race. People are wired to use heuristics to make split second decisions. The problem is when those heuristics lead to the wrong decisions.

I was asking my 4 year old

Submitted by Trista Thompson on 27 March 2011 - 8:34pm.

I was asking my 4 year old little girl who she liked in her class. She said she liked the little girl with the pony tail. I also teach at this school and know everyone in her class. I started naming the girls off and she kept telling me no. I finally asked her if the little girl was black. She had no idea what i was talking about. She kept telling me ink is black. we dont describe people by color in our house. I don't say that white girl with a red shirt on. i say that girl with a red shirt, so i don't say the black girl with the red shirt. I am ok with my child not knowing her friends are "black", "spanish", "white",russian etc. I would rather her just have "friends" than having a rainbow. We are white but my child doesn't know we are called "white" either. She has never once mentioned anyones skin color being different. All she is worried about is who she can play with next. When the time comes and i do have to talk about skin color she will be told how beautiful people are and that if we were all one color it would be pretty boring world.

My son (a very pale white kid

Submitted by Cathryn Falwell on 21 March 2011 - 3:27pm.

My son (a very pale white kid with red hair and blue eyes) attended a diverse, multicultural, multiethnic public elementary school. The first week of kindergarten, he came home and announced that he had a new friend named Kelly. I hadn't yet learned all the children's names, so I asked him about Kelly. "She has these thingys in her hair," he answered, "Like little balls. There's a red thingy and a blue thingy and a green thingy and...." so on. This information not being very helpful, I asked my son to point her out the next day on the playground. Kelly, it turned out, was an African American child with lovely dark skin. My son's description of her focused on the cool hair ornaments, not her skin color. This was not because he was being coy or politically correct. It just wasn't her most intriguing feature to a five-year-old. Kids DO notice things, but they do it selectively. So was it a bad thing that the Lincoln Park preschoolers didn't point out this "difference?" I don't think so.
When I was a parent at that school, I started a tutorial program for kids. Back in that time (late 1980s) it was difficult to find simple concept picture books with families of color. So I wrote and illustrated "Feast for 10," which was then published by Clarion Books/HoughtonMifflin. I'm happy to say that it's still in print 18 years later, and is enjoyed by children of all different colors.

Children will inevitably

Submitted by Anne Blair on 17 March 2011 - 3:31pm.

Children will inevitably stereotype and categorize people based on race? Really? Oddly enough, I grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood with parents who never, to my recollection, mentioned race, and yet I don't recall ever stereotyping those neighbors who were of a different race from me. In fact, it didn't really occur to me to think about race at all until middle school, when I started meeting people who did think about race. Even then, I still didn't learn to accept stereotypes or categorize people by skin color. To this day, I still don't understand what the big deal is about.

So if I understand the

Submitted by Keith Moore on 16 March 2011 - 3:00pm.

So if I understand the premise here, if preschool children reading a book don't pay special attention to the skin color of the characters in that book it's a... bad thing. This seems a very peculiar argument; if the point of tolerance and race education is ensuring that the children are distinctly aware that their black classmates are "the other", are "not like me", why do people get so bent out of shape about racism? Children are naturally without guile or sophistication; they must be taught that certain things are worth paying special attention to. Generally, the "special attention" things are "zip up your pants" and "comb your hair" and "wear clean clothes" and the like but there are other things that children can be taught to give special attention to that are less good. Teaching them to notice skin color implies that skin color is important to notice, that it says something about the other person in the way that clothes or mannerisms do; is this REALLY a lesson that we want to be teaching small children? That it is good to take a moment and pay attention to another person's skin color? It seems to me that if your goal is to teach the children that they're all equal, differing only in appearance, teaching them to give notice to skin color works against that goal.

The thing is that children do

Submitted by Meg Thomas on 12 April 2011 - 3:10pm.

The thing is that children do notice race. Numerous studies tell us this. But we also see in multiple studies that children tend to take their exploration of race into the far corners of the playground, where; unheard by adults they tease and exclude each other based on race and gender. They can't help but notice that adults notice race and gender, and make decisions based on it, but they seem to get the message that adults don't want to talk about it.
So I don't always point out skin color or culture or gender, but I try to do it often enough that kids get the message that I am happy to talk to talk about them with it, if and when they are ready.