Talking to Children about Racial Bias

Diverse Ethnic Kids

Most of us are aware of the racial tensions, struggles, and focus on things like racism and antiracism, white privilege and white supremacy, implicit and explicit biases, micro-aggressions. These are just few making the headlines and news stories we see on media.

Racial biases are important for all of us to understand and appreciate because we all have them.  Some experts would say everyone is biased in some way. “Implicit bias” exists when we unconsciously hold attitudes towards others or associate stereotypes with them… we often harbor negative stereotypes about others without consciously realizing that we do so…. [It] is a prejudice that is deep-seated within the brain, below the conscious level. Implicit biases are directly associated with issues around racism because it is these biases that are founded on inaccurate beliefs about negative attributes of specific races.

Elevated view of school children in a circle in the classroom giving high fives to their smiling teacher

In the article Talking to Children About Racial Bias the authors provide us with some helpful information on how children learn racial bias and strategies that parents can use to help children avoid becoming racially biased. They state the following: “Children learn about racial differences and racial bias from an early age and learn from their first teachers—their parents—how to deal with and react to these differences.

The process of learning racial bias is a lot like learning a new language (e.g., a child raised bilingual vs. a child who starts learning Spanish in junior high). Biology determines a critical early learning period as well as a later window where learning is much harder. They note that as early as 6 months, a baby’s brain can notice race-based differences and by age 12, they can become set in their beliefs.

The authors suggest the following strategies:

• Talk to your children

• Confront your own bias

• Encourage your children to challenge racial stereotypes and racial bias

Other experts also suggest that parents provide images and relationships with people of races other than those of the immediate family. They suggest to begin in the first several months of a child’s life in order to have that child’s brain feel safe around those who skin color does not match theirs. This can include making sure there are dolls and other toys that show people of other races and books that also show many races as simply a part of the story. Then the differing skin colors may not become a signal that these people are threatening or dangerous.

The brain creates biases in order to protect the individual from possible threats because someone looks different from the accepted members of that person’s “tribe.” By following these suggestions, a child’s “tribe” is enhanced to include races other than that of the child. By proactively working to prevent a child’s brain from becoming biased against certain races because of the lack of exposure to them, parents and can contribute to changing attitudes and beliefs that are unfair, unjust and unhealthy. A side benefit is that these practices can also help parents become more aware of and address some of their own implicit biases.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. to what extent are you aware of your own implicit biases that are racially focused? Can you recall how these might have been created based on what you saw and heard growing up?
  • What are some specific ways you can promote a reduction in negative stereotypes that create implicit biases in your own children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute