Cogsci-toddler is not colorblind

Cogsci-toddler is very interested in black people. We live in a famously Latino neighborhood (East LA!) and he attends a diverse church/preschool but even so, there are fewer black children/adults than Latinos/Asians/whites. Right around the time cogsci-toddler turned three, construction started in the lot right next to our house and the investors/foreman were black and many of the construction workers/contractors were also black. Cogsci-toddler would say, “Hi black guy!” with enthusiasm.

But it’s not just cogsci-toddler that notices race. Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt from NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (reprinted in Newsweek):

When the kids turned 3, Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

Phyllis Katz, who basically wrote the book on how racial and gender attitudes develop in young children, once wrote that parents (and teachers) often hold two strong beliefs about racial attitudes in children: (1) that kids are color-blind and (2) they won’t become racist if they are not explicitly taught to be racist. Katz has done huge longitudinal studies of black and white children (see Katz, 2002; Katz & Barrett, 1997; Katz & Downey, 2002; Katz & Kofkin, 1997; Kofkin, Katz, & Downey, 1995; Walsh, Katz, & Downey, 1991) that showed that both of these beliefs are dead wrong. For white children in the preschool years, they grow in their own group bias in general and this preference is stronger in children without cross-race friends. For black children, they decrease in their own-group preference. This occurs even when the parents have quite liberal views about race (Katz & Kofkin, 1997).

Anyway, knowing that cogsci-toddler was interested in race (rather — he was particularly interested in black people), I turned to my friendly neighborhood library for help on how to talk to him about race.

I realize most library books that we checked out about race (Shades of PeopleI’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother, Skin You Live In) were not that helpful! (If you have suggestions about a good kids’ book on race, leave it in the comments!) A lot of these books default to talking about skin color in food terms! For example from the Skin You Live In:

“Your pumpkin pie slice skin,
your caramel corn nice skin;
your toffee wrapped,
ginger snapped
cinnamon spice skin!
Your butterscotch gold skin,
your lemon tart bold skin;
your mountain high apple pie,
cookie dough rolled skin!”

This may be exacerbating a tendency for non-black children to say stuff like this to black children: “Uhm, is your skin brown because you drink so much chocolate milk?” (from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?). YAR.

And I’m not sure that these food-based coloring descriptions satisfy cogsci-toddler’s fascination with different colored skin. I doubt he’s looking for metaphorical language to describe other shades of brown.

Interestingly, we have found other not-strictly-about-race books that helped us have conversations about race. I like Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons which helped us talk about culture and language in relation to how people look. There is even a subtle moment in this book that depicts a mother who tells her African-American son to be brave as he goes off to an integrated school walking past irate protestors. We also like A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat which we initially checked out because cogsci-toddler likes cooking. The book depicts a family where the girls serve and only the men/boys eat at the table, a slave family cooking for a white family, and a modern family where the boy and his dad download a recipe from the internet and serve this dessert (spoiler alert: it’s blackberry fool) to a multiracial dinner party. Through this book we talk about cooking, history/time (which is super abstract!), technology, gender, and race.

But I wish there was a really good children’s book that talked directly about race! So in my next post, I’m going to put up a draft of what I would write if I had to write a preschool book about race! Stay tuned…

I haven't had time to make blackberry fool with my boys yet but here's a photo of them chowing down on blackberries...

I haven’t had time to make blackberry fool with my boys yet but here’s a photo of them chowing down on blackberries…

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2 thoughts on “Cogsci-toddler is not colorblind

  1. treevalley says:

    love the way you combine humor with research with explorations of heavy topics…but then again i am biased. 🙂

  2. Margaret says:

    I taught a class on this topic in my Diversity and Social Justice class. I showed this clip and it’s really interesting to actually see the kids processing their decisions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h55plaSVkkw

    So I’m pretty sensitive (maybe overly sensitive) about the kind of race worldview I am intentionally or unintentionally creating for Elise. So I wonder to what extent I should go out of my way to do things like buy non-white dolls, think about who she sees our family hanging out with, book selection (and changing some animals to he-to-she gender pronouns)– all of these things I’ve done. Like one time we got a Black woman pediatrician because ours was out and I considered changing pediatricians. I’m neurotic! In an ideal world, I wouldn’t even have to do any of this, of course, but our reality is still so biased in many ways.

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