When Do We Start Talking To Our Children About Race?

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Victor is 4 1/2 years old and he is “colorblind” to race, meaning the color of people’s skin is a non-issue. He doesn’t see it; he is not aware of it; he doesn’t register it. I don’t know if this is normal on kids his age, or, if it is the result of living in West LA, where friends, teachers, and neighbors come in every color.

It goes without saying that this makes me very happy, but, I know that at some point this is going to change. At some point, he is going to be aware of the existence of different races, and he will learn about racism. As a Latina, I wish this moment would never come, and I try to put a break to it by ignoring the topic. We just don’t talk about it.

Cut to: Martin Luther King Day.

Of course, I want Victor to learn about MLK. Of course, I want him to know about the civil rights movement and the struggle that minorities have gone through the years, but, when I heard that his school was going to have a MLK week, I got scared. I was afraid that talking about this very topic would open his eyes to something I don’t want him to see.

I believe race is a cultural concept that is acquired and learned. If you talk about MLK, you need to talk about race, and, I don’t want Victor to know what race is at this point.  So, how do you solve this Catch-22? How do you teach children history and, at the same time,  keep them “race-blind”? Is this possible? And, more importantly, at what age is it better to start talking about issues like these?

This past week, MLK and Rosa Parks mesmerized Victor. He came home from school everyday talking and singing songs about them while I listened, trying to find hints of race awareness. None were present.

By Friday, he came home and told me Rosa Parks’ story: how she got into a bus and bad guys wanted her to move to a different seat, and how she didn’t do it, and MLK defended her against the bus driver (story details get lost in 4 years old), etc, etc. I listened to him, trying to decipher what was he really telling me. Has race registered at any point in this story?

By the end of his tale, I ventured a little further and asked him who were the bad guys. He said, “the people that wanted Rosa to find another seat.” So, I went even further, fearful to ask what was at the core of my concerns, “why did they want her to sit down on a different seat?” I asked. To which he answered: “because they are BAD GUYS, mom! They are selfish and wanted all the seats for themselves (eye roll ensued).”

My baby is still race-blind, but now I have to worry about that teenager behavior. Sigh.

So, what do you think about this? would it be better to delay teaching our children about the civil rights movement (or, other minority movements)? Or, would it be better to talk about these issues at a young age? I would love to hear your opinions on this.

Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King!


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5 replies
  1. Elise Xavier says:

    I’m flustered. Thomas told me he read this article of yours this morning, and briefly asked me what I thought on the topic (BEFORE I read your post myself) and I was like “well I’d probably tell them at around age 7.” But if this stuff is coming up in school, I guess it’s a bit different.

    If it was on his radar, I’d bring it up. Since it isn’t and he’s still color blind, I think I’d do what you’re doing and wait.

    It’ll be so nice when he’s an adult to hear him (and others like him) say, “When I was growing up, I didn’t think about race. I didn’t have any idea that people were discriminated against because of it and I didn’t know what it meant to feel out of place or looked down upon because of your skin.”

    Looking forward to the kind of world where that’s every kid’s life, honestly. But yeah, I’d say around 7-10 probably is when I’d start thinking of bringing up the topic, if of course it hadn’t been already been brought up (on a personal level) by bullying.

    Tough question, but I can’t help but feel your gut instinct to avoid the topic right now and save the conversation for another day is right.

    That being said, I don’t have a kid, so what do I know.

    • Mila says:

      I agree. I think I will probably wait until it comes up in conversation. that is, at least, what I am trying to do right now.
      Also, I do not mind receiving advice from people that do not have kids. On the contrary, most of my friends do not have children and they always give me terrific tips. They were children, too… don’t like when people use the “you don’t understand because you don’t have kids” phrase. It is very unfair, I think.

  2. Carina says:

    A very thought-provoking post. I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to this question because it is so individual, and I am hesitant to offer an opinion for that reason. At the same time, I know that it is good to hear different perpectives to help you realize how you feel (by the reaction and feelings they create). Perhaps I’ll share some ideas that come to mind, and you can see how they resonate. Food for thought, as they say.

    My general experience has been that kids start to learn and hear things at school pretty early, so sometimes it is good to talk openly as things come up, to help prepare them, and open up a supportive dialogue at home. It is so individual, and only you can judge what is right for your family. I have found that, as things (whatever the delicate topic might be) come up, I’ve tried to gently explain them in simple terms. I try to frame things as positively as possible – focusing on the fact that there are good people, that things are improving because…, that we can make difference by… Also: By “simple”, I mean that I don’t try to explain a whole complex topic in one sitting. Little by little, kids can start to grow into more complex understandings of difficult things. And by “when things come up”, I mean when my son starts asking questions or hearing about it from other sources. Sometimes, just when I think the time is right.

    One last thought, being colour blind sure is something to be proud of, and I don’t think that you lose that just because you know that some people have been taught to discriminate. Being colour blind, in my way of seeing it, is a state you carry with you in your heart. It’s that you don’t judge people based on colour, you don’t consider anyone less because of colour – including yourself. Being colourblind is in the heart, and as he gets older and learns that others discriminate, it doesn’t need to change his colourblind heart. It will just open his eyes to injustice. So there is no rush, when the time feels right, just introduce the topic gently and simply, support him in learning to deal with the saddness that comes from realizing these things.

    Remember that children are resilient. If I look at my life, I know that hard-ships have made me stronger, and they will do the same for your children. Xo

    • Mila says:

      Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment (Same goes for Elise, who wrote the first comment about this topic) I really like what you said about not giving complex explanations about complex topics to young children, I will follow that advice. Also, I like your point about how understanding that discrimination exist will open his eyes to injustice, and that this will probably empower him to do the right thing. I will follow your advice and wait for the right moment to talk about this topic with him. I just don’t think the time has arrive yet, but I am sure it is around the corner.


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