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Does talking about race make you racist?
Episode 44th March 2024 • The Embrace Race Podcast • EmbraceRace
00:00:00 00:41:13

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One child says to another: “Your skin is darker than mine” or “Why are your eyes that shape?” You overhear them. How do you react? Too often, adults shush kids when they talk about race because they don’t want them to “say things that are racist.” 

In this episode, hosts Melissa and Andrew speak with Brigitte Vittrup, a developmental psychologist who studies how kids are socialized around race, about why avoiding conversations about race is actually harmful for all kids. They talk about how kids learn about race, why guiding children on matters of race is necessary, and give tips on how to do it. 

Professor Brigitte Vittrup is a developmental psychologist and chair of the Department of Human Development, Family Studies and Counseling at Texas Woman’s University. Her research deals with child and family issues, including racial socialization, racial attitudes, and media influences on children. 

The EmbraceRace Podcast is an extension of the work of EmbraceRace, a community of support for caregivers, parents, educators, and other adults in the lives of kids who strive to be informed, thoughtful and brave about race so that their kids can be too. At EmbraceRace, we create and curate the tools, community spaces, and networks we all need to raise a generation of kids who are resilient, empathetic, critical thinkers on race and who are committed to racial justice.


Melissa Giraud: A 10-year old recognizes someone across the street as the parent of a teammate and tells his dad.

His dad asks, “Which one? The Black guy?”

His son responds, “Shhhhh! That’s racist!”

Andrew Grant-Thomas: A white parent picks their child up at preschool. The child points to a picture of their teacher on the wall in the hallway and says, “She’s brown!” “Shhhhhh!” says the parent, thinking maybe someone's overheard. “We don’t say that!”

Melissa Giraud: Two young girls – one Black, one Asian American – are at camp together. They are playing and one girl points to her friend’s eyes and to her own eyes and says, “Your eyes are a different shape than mine.” A camp counselor overhears and chastises the girl. “Don’t talk about her eyes!”

Andrew Grant-Thomas: These three stories expose a common and very consequential misconception. We’ll explore it today.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Hi, I'm Andrew Grant-Thomas. I’m a Black man who was born in Jamaica on the 4th of July and came to the U.S. at age 7. I’m also a dad to two kids who are 13 and 15 years old.

Melissa Giraud: I’m Melissa Giraud, I’m a multiracial woman - Black and White. I was raised by immigrant parents - one from Quebec and one from Dominica. And I’m a mom to those same two kids.

And you're listening to the Embrace Race Podcast, a show about how to raise kids who are thoughtful, informed and brave about race.

Melissa Giraud: This season, we're looking at popular misconceptions about race and raising kids. On this episode, we’re tackling Myth #4: talking about race makes you racist.

Melissa Giraud: Welcome, Brigitte.

Brigitte Vittrup: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Melissa Giraud: Let me tell everyone listening a little more about you. Professor Brigitte Vittrup is a developmental psychologist and chair of the Department of Human Development, Family Studies, and Counseling at Texas Women’s University. Her research deals with child and family issues, including racial socialization, racial attitudes, and media influences on children. We have had the pleasure of collaborating with Brigitte almost from the beginning of EmbraceRace and are thrilled that you’re here, Brigitte.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Brigitte, welcome, welcome. And if you don't mind, could you tell us one or two things about your personal history and experience that helps explain why you're moved to do the work that you do?

Brigitte Vittrup: Sure. So I grew up in Denmark, which was, very, white, homogenous. And so growing up, I was never really forced to think about my race. And it was something that came up more when I moved to the United States when I was in my twenties. At the moment also, I am married to a Black man. I have two biracial children.

And so with studying children and looking at how they perceive the world, it became very interesting to me how they see the concept of race and how they understand that. And then also noticing that adults, especially white adults, really don't talk about it a whole lot.

Melissa Giraud: I like Brigitte that you said, I'm married to a Black man at the moment.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: At the moment, yeah.

Brigitte Vittrup: [laughs] We've been married for 17 years, so…

Melissa Giraud: It's been a long moment/.

Brigitte Vittrup: Still going strong.

Melissa Giraud: [laughs] Okay, Brigitte. So the myth we're putting to bed for all time today, is that talking about race makes you racist.

We hear this a lot at EmbraceRace from people. We hear that belief that parents don't want to, guardians, teachers don't want to talk about it, ‘cause it'll make kids think about race for the first time is the idea. There are even more people who maybe wouldn't subscribe to that belief, but who act as though talking about race make you racist or will make a kid racist.

So I'm wondering, from you, if you get a sense that this is a common belief and how it shows up in your work and life.

Brigitte Vittrup: Yes, absolutely. And especially among white adults, there is disbelief that we really shouldn't talk about race. And a lot of times, it's well intentioned from parents because they're afraid that if they start talking about race, then their kids will notice something they hadn't noticed before. They will start noticing that there are differences, and they will start discriminating, or saying things they shouldn't be saying.

And so it, it's really coming out of, of that belief that we need to be colorblind and not talk about it so that our kids will grow up and be colorblind and not discriminate against people.

Melissa Giraud: And what's wrong with that? What's wrong with being colorblind?

Brigitte Vittrup: So the problem is that society is not colorblind, and our kids are not colorblind. Kids notice race. They actually notice very early on, as early as preschool. My son was in kindergarten, it was about maybe three weeks in, and I was picking him up.

And I talked to him, you know, “How was your day? And, you know, what did you do at school today?” And he said, “I made a new friend. He said his name is Omarion. “And so over the, these days, he kept talking about this kid named Amarian. It was like, “Omarion was playing basketball at recess,” and “Omarion was wearing these shoes today.”

And it was Omarion this, Omarian that. And so, I finally said, well, Tell me about this kid, Omarion. And the first thing he said was, “Well, he kind of looks like me.” Turns out, Omarion was another biracial kid with a Black dad and a white mom. And it just, that was the first thing he mentioned. And it just made it very clear to me that that was really important to him.

Because that's important to kids to kind of feel validated that there are other people that look like them. And so these are some of the things that we just have to be aware as adults, that our kids are noticing everything. They already have some understanding of, rac- based differences and the fact that people sometimes are being treated differently based on race.

You even see it, as early as preschool that sometimes there are behaviors that kids engage in, based on the race of other children. And sometimes it can be exclusion. It can be things that they're saying. And so if we don't talk to them about race, about race related issues, then this silence is essentially telling the children either that this is a taboo topic, this is something dangerous we shouldn't talk about, or really that these differences based on race are okay, because we're just silently ignoring it, accepting it. And then that can lead children to be more influenced by other sources such as the media, the societal structures, everything that's around them.

And so we don't have an opportunity to intercept those messages that come from the outside if we don't have these conversations and expose children to other messages.

George Floyd's murder in May:

With the Black parents, not surprisingly, what they found, is that they ramped up the frequency with which they had these race conversations with their kids. And they were typically quite explicit about race, racial discrimination, racial identity. With the white parents of white kids, their frequency of talking about race with their white children remained the same or possibly even went down slightly after Floyd's murder, which is an interesting finding. And they had race conversations in which they actually were more likely to downplay the significance of race.

So they were actually more likely to have quote unquote “colorblind conversations,” but they identified those as race conversations. Colorblind, meaning conversations in which we say, we should treat everyone the same, the color of skin doesn't matter, those sorts of things. So Brigitte, as a researcher who's steeped in this work, in your experience, what do people mean when they say “talking about race?” And what do you mean when you say “talking about race?”

Brigitte Vittrup: Yeah, I think a lot of times I have asked a lot of parents in my research, whether they talk about race and a lot of them will say yes. And then if we ask them what types of conversations they have, they will say, as, as you partly mentioned, that, we're all the same on the inside. You know, treat everybody the way you want to be treated.

God loves everyone and they believe that that's sending a message to their kids that we should treat everybody the same regardless of their race and everybody is, you know, should be treated equally. Except that's not really the message the kids are receiving because those statements say nothing to kids about race, because you're not actually mentioning it or really diving into these messages.

So really, if you're going to be talking about race, you have to actually mention skin color and that some people are treated differently because of their skin color. Some people are not getting the same opportunities because of their skin color.

Some people are portrayed differently in the media – portrayed more negatively in the media – because of their skin color. And really having these conversations so that kids understand that this is what we're talking about when we're talking about race, and so that they can become more comfortable and know that it's okay to ask questions about it.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So at this point you might be asking yourself, what do those conversations that Bridget mentions we should have about skin color and people being treated unfairly, what might those sound like? For one thing, as she says, it might start with actually talking about skin color being explicit. So Melissa and I are gonna offer some ideas right now about the kind of points you might want to hit.

Melissa Giraud: Right. And so it's not that you wanna make a big deal about it, especially early on. But you are making the point to your infant or toddler that it really is okay to talk about skin color or the curliness of someone's hair, just as a matter of description.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, for example, when our first kid was two and would plop herself into my lab with, uh, one of her favorite books, even before opening the book, maybe I'd start talking about the kids and the adults on the cover of the book, right? So what are they wearing? What color are their shoes? What color is their hair? Do they have lots of different skin colors among them or just a couple? Do we think those two kids over there are related or are they just friends?

Melissa Giraud: As adults, even with picture books, it's easy for us to pay more attention to words because we've become used to words as the main carriers of information. But for kids who aren't reading yet, pictures are a big deal. Ask them questions about what they see, what they think is going on, what's gonna happen next. Encourage them to ask any questions they have.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And it may well happen that a kid makes a negative comment about race, or at least what sounds to your ear like a negative comment.Try not to freak out about that, right? But don't let it go either. So be as non-judgmental as you can be and ask. What makes you say that? A child who hasn't really interacted with the Black people, for example, might ask me, a black person, if my skin is dirty. And in fact, that's happened in real life to me more than a handful of times.

Now, I'm not saying that the question feels awesome, even coming from a really adorable 3-year-old. But I appreciate that kids are trying to make sense of new circumstances with reference to stuff they're already familiar with. And it's true that dirt can make things brown.

Melissa Giraud: Right, and that's a great opportunity to talk about something in our skins called melanin that almost all of us have, and how the color of your skin depends on how much melanin you have. And once you have these kinds of conversations with kids about skin color, eye shape, and hair texture and what they mean, you'll be set up for conversations about what they don't mean.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So a huge part of what we're saying here is that conversations about race need to be explicitly about race if you're talking to your kids. So kids, and especially little kids, they aren't great at reading between the lines, right, so don't expect them to. Be explicit, be super clear about what you and your family think about race and about racism. Okay? Let's get back to Bridget.

Brigitte Vittrup: I think that's something that oftentimes, parents will say, “:We'll talk about it if the kids have any questions.” But the problem is, by never talking about it, the kids sort of learn that this is not something we talk about. And so then they're less likely to ask the questions. And so then the parents assume that they are colorblind because they never say anything. Because these conversations are not actually happening.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So Brigitte, tell me if this sounds right to you then. So when you are talking about talking about race and, you know, in the rest of this conversation, what we mean is being explicit about race, right? So that may be naming race, naming racial identities, naming skin color, right? It means being explicit about the consequences, right, associated with the racial identity. And being explicit about the explanations about why, what connects those two things.

Brigitte Vittrup: Yes.

Melissa Giraud: And Brigitte, can you give us like an example that shows how talking about race in this explicit way is more helpful for the kid?

Brigitte Vittrup: Yes, I remember one time I was with my son on a field trip. He was in kindergarten or first grade.

My son is biracial, so he has the curly hair and darker skin. And so, we came back from the field trip and my son was calling me. He goes, “Hey, mom.” And then one of the little kids was like, “Wait, you're Alonzo's mom?” And I said “Yeah!” And she's like, “How can you be Alonzo's mom? Like, he's brown and you're a white.”

And the teacher was about to go shush him because she just felt like, "Oh my God, this is the most offensive thing this child said.” And I told the kid, I said, “Well, actually my husband, his dad is Black and I'm white. And so he's sort of an in between color.” And the kid goes, “Oh, that makes so much sense.”

And so it's sometimes really just an educational opportunity because it;s happened before where, you know, kids have made comments ‘cause they don't really understand, like they're not used to seeing interracial couples, and then they'll ask about it. I had a kid that asked why, you know, I was married to a dark brown man when I was white, and his mother could have crawled in a hole. She was so embarrassed that he asked that. But really it's just because the kid had never seen that before. And so then it's sending a message to the kids that this is okay.

This is okay to talk about. You can ask questions, and this is completely normal, whereas if you try to silence those questions and comments, it sends a message that They're doing something wrong. There's something wrong with these people, so we shouldn't talk about it. And so you're really opening up, you know, just the child's worldview, and allowing them to ask questions so that they can be educated about race-related issues.

Melissa Giraud: Mmmhmmm.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So Brigitte, you know, this, uh, reminds me of a personal story to us, which is, you know, here we are in Western Mass, we move into this neighborhood, there's a little, uh, Asian American boy. Right? Three years old or so at the time who lived on the corner, we had seen him and his mom, but hadn't met him yet. We actually met for the first time at a restaurant when he came over. So our family was there at the restaurant. He came over, he was with his mom, you know, we said, hello, Hey neighbors. Hmm. All the things. I was sitting down and he actually put his hands on my face, right? And he was clearly fascinated by, yeah, my skin color. He asked some questions. He did something similar the next time we met, I mention it because A., it's exactly what you're saying, right? So here's a little boy who probably hadn't met any African Americans before.

Certainly hadn't interacted with them. Again, he was just three. But what was really nice about the moment was A., first of all, I'm open to that, right? I think it's a natural exploration. Obviously not everyone would feel that way. So it was really important that his mom check in with me, right? Which she did, right? So we exchanged this, uh, glance where she was clearly asking me, “Is this okay? Like, my kid has, you know, his hands on your face, is that cool?” And I essentially signaled back, “Yup, it's fine. No problem.” And he asked a couple questions. I don't remember exactly what they were, I answered the questions and then he quickly ran onto other things.

To me it both points to, yeah, it is a natural part of the exploration process for kids. That doesn't mean they obviously should be able to explore at your expense if you're not comfortable with that. It is important for parents to check in, but it's also important, I think, for his parent in this case, not to freak out and assume that, you know, some huge transgression was happening.

Melissa Giraud: Andrew, it's true. Parents often freak out when kids ask questions about how someone looks in public. I think it's because they're worried. Their kids will be seen as racists. They're worried they themselves will be seen as racist. They're worried they'll offend. But also when it comes to race. I've noticed that we sometimes forget that kids are not adults. Many of their questions would be considered totally problematic if adults ask them, but generally, we give kids a lot of leeway because they don't have an adult understanding of the world around them, and we should do the same when it comes to their questions about race and difference.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: In our last episode, Melissa, we talked about the experiences of being considered racially ambiguous and then being questioned about it – sometimes repeatedly. Our advice to would-be adult questioners was not to ask people about their racial identities out of the blue, if you don’t know them, just to satisfy your curiosity.

But if you’re the object of a kid’s curiosity – a kid's curiosity – we hope you’ll find it in yourself to engage their well-meaning questions if that makes sense. No obligation for sure, especially if satisfying that curiosity means going beyond answering questions to, for example, having your skin touched or your hair touched. So I hope that makes sense. Now let's get back to our conversation.

Melissa Giraud: So many stories like that. And, and what you were saying earlier, Brigitte, that oftentimes because kids learn very early not to talk about race, parents will understand that. Or not parents, teachers as well. I hear from teachers all the time. You know, uh, we have an emergent curriculum and what we teach comes out of what the kids are asking about, and they're not asking about race.

So we're not talking about it, you know? So yeah, it's sort of that cycle because they've been shushed, they don't talk about it. And because they don't talk about it, adults are not going to pursue the conversation. So we need to open it up and, and pursue it.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, Brigitte, given the argument you've made and certainly one that we make all the time ourselves in our EmbraceRace work, that it is really important to talk about race, that it's important to do so explicitly and so o – why is it that so many people believe just the opposite, that it's actually racist to talk about race and certainly has a racist impact on your children if you talk about race explicitly with them. Why is that so prevalent an idea?

Brigitte Vittrup: I think part of the reason is that a lot of people just didn't grow up talking about race because of this colorblind ideology that has sort of permeated through society, especially among white people becoming aware that, you know, it's good to be colorblind. Colorblind is the way to go. We're gonna get rid of all the racism by, you know, being colorblind. And so they feel uncomfortable talking about it.

There is a stereotype about white people being racist. And so because they are not used to talking about it, they're not comfortable talking about it. They're afraid that if they say something or if they mention race, that somehow then people are gonna think that they're racist. Like if they mention the skin color or the race of another person, because you will see that sometimes too, they kind of say it with, like, a little lower tone when they mention somebody's race.

Um, which by the way also sends a message to, you know, kids that are hearing that. But I think they feel uncomfortable and so they want to avoid that for their children because they think just talking about it like, I shouldn't be mentioning race. I should be colorblind because that's the way to go. So any mention of race would be racist. And so that just sort of perpetuates, you know, through generations and has for a long time.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And I think it's worth mentioning that while white people are more likely to have that fear of, you know, being seen as a racist, if they mention race at all, that they're not the only ones, right? This is not exclusively a white people phenomenon. There are definitely a lot of people of color who also effectively subscribe to this colorblind idea that race is a thing that's not mentioned at all.

Melissa Giraud: Right. I mean, I think of that in my own family. Um, you know, I grew up in a bicultural, sort of multiracial family. So my parents who've both passed, my mother was French Canadian. My father was from Dominica, the Island of Dominica. I think of that in my own family and, and really they raised me not to talk about race. They really did. They, of course, didn't have the same context for talking about it. Dominica is a majority Black and brown island. My mom grew up in a very rural, French Canadian town. They weren't prepared to raise kids in an American context, I would say.

You know, I remember in elementary school, I went to this almost all Irish Catholic school. And my nickname was “N Lips.” That's what they called me. And I had a carpool with the people from my Puerto Rican neighborhood, the few of us that went to this school. And I never told my parents that.

And I remember when we had this recital, it was a Christmas, like a pageant kind of thing. And I was going to Dominica with my family, so I was going to miss the pageant. And I felt so out of place in so many ways. And I literally screamed at my dad and I said, “Why can't we be Irish?” You know, my parents just laughed and didn't say anything, but as a parent today, I know that that was racially coded, right? That I felt left out racially as well and would have felt safer if I'd been, you know, have the same background as the other kids at the school.

So I think there are so many ways in which we just weren't able to have the conversation, and I never talked about those things with my parents, and it would have been really helpful too. But again, you learn those messages that that's on you. It's not a societal structural thing. That's kind of your problem.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Now, this business about immigrants and race is tricky, and I want to be super clear that we’re not slamming your parents for not knowing what they didn’t know.

Melissa Giraud: Mmmhmm.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: They came to the U.S. as adults from two different countries with very different racial context and histories from the U.S. and from each other. So that obviously wasn't a plus for you as a preteen, right, as a 10, 11-year-old who didn't see her parents as a resource, even when kids were using the N-word to describe your lips. But we are not blaming your parents for what they didn't know.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah, thank you for that, Andrew. Absolutely. Um, I think it does underline a really important point though that not all families of color talk about race and not all those that do know how to do it well. And that applies to immigrants of color and to native born people of color. So I wanted to make sure that was out there as well. But Bridget, so kids learn about race, right, and about racial hierarchy from many sources, not just from what caregivers say or don't say. Can you talk us through a bit of that? Like how are kids learning about race outside of their families?

Brigitte Vittrup: Sure. I mean, certainly they are very observant of their environments from very early on. And so what happens is they go to school, they see oftentimes the principal is white. They see that the janitors are people of color. The cafeteria staff are people of color.

They see that most of the people in charge in government and the legislature or white people. The doctors might be white people, and then maybe the nurses or the receptionist might be, um, people of color. And so that sends a message to who holds the power and who is more important. They see the messages on TV, in video games. They see that oftentimes the villains in these stories are people of color and the heroes or the white people. You could say the same thing with men and women. Men are often portrayed as, as, um, more important and in power compared to, to women in the media. And so that sends these messages to children.

They see how society is organized. They look at their schools and their environments. And so if we don't have these conversations about it, then they begin to just think this is normal and this is the way things should be. And because some people just are more important and some people deserve more. And that's why it's even more important for us to have conversations and even to expose them to counter examples and point those out to make sure that they understand that it doesn't have to be that way.

Um, because we also don't want to limit them. Especially for children of color, we don't want to limit them to think that they can't reach certain, you know, certain status or a certain job or, you know, certain place in life, and we don't want white children to perpetuate that. So that just makes it even more important for us to be actively engaged in having conversations and exposing them to counter examples from what they're seeing.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Brigitte, you've, uh, said some just hugely important things. I want ,I want to tease out a couple of them So one is you know, your point is, there are strong racialized patterns out there, as another guest put it – human beings are pattern recognition machines, right? Ao we ourselves our kids we recognize patterns – who's teaching the course, who is running the school, you know, who is cleaning the floors in the school, I mean, kids will, will appreciate the patterns that they see about who's doing what. That's not the issue, right? I mean, of course, there's an underlying issue about why that is and how we might change that if we think it's unfair, but that kids will make those observations is guaranteed, right, over time.

The critical piece is how do they explain tha, right? Do they normalize that? Do they think that's the way it ought to be, because that's the way it is? You know, can we suggest to them, at least encourage them to think about how it came to be that way, because it's not natural, right? It may feel normal, but it's not natural. It wasn't inevitable.

And then the other piece is, if it was created, right, if things were done to make it the way it is, then is it possible to change it? And the answer is yes. If it was created. Then we could create something different and just pointing that out to kids as a possibility and even something that they can, might choose to participate in feels like a really important message to send.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah.

Brigitte Vittrup: Yes, absolutely.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, Bridget, you're originally from Denmark and you came here as an adult. How did coming to the US as a Danish immigrant shape the research you would later do on race and kids?

Brigitte Vittrup: Sure. And this is not to say that there are no issues regarding race. There is anti-immigration ideas over there as well. But I think part of it is just, it became so obvious to me because I had grown up and we'd learned about the Civil Rights Movement. Wwe'd learned about, you know, some of the history of the KKK.

And growing up, I really just thought that was a thing in the past. That's how things used to be, now everything is great. Very naive of me to think that, but also because this wasn't something I was experiencing in my daily life. And so I think I came to the U.S. kind of as an outsider and was able to kind of look from the outside in.

And so I probably saw more things that I wouldn't have seen if I had grown up and all of this had just been sort of quote unquote “normal” to me and so I think it just has given me a different perspective in looking at that because they were experiences that I didn't have and also I came here as an adult and I, I was asking a lot of questions and then kind of noticing that people had some interesting reactions sometimes when you mention anything to do with race where there is sort of this “you shouldn't be talking about that.”

And so that was always very interesting to me. And then, you know, I got to graduate school and started thinking about how, well, how do kids think about this? And so it just kind of developed from there.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah. I mean, that's, that’s a beautiful story. Brigitte, just thinking about how you came here from Denmark and had heard a lot about race relations and history in the past in the U. S. and then realized when you got here that the past was very much present, that things were not all resolved. And so kind of what was familiar to, uh, people who'd grown up here, you know, what became sort of normalized for many of us was just kind of shocking to you.

And I think that that really is the opportunity we have with kids if we really listen to kids, right, that they ask a lot, “Why is something this way, right?” I think Brigitte that a lot of parents, and, uh, educators, adults who come to us just feel overwhelmed and think they have to have a Ph.D, to talk to their kids about race.

So I wonder what advice you would have for those parents that just think, how can I do this and get in their own way? Like, just how to start?

Brigitte Vittrup: Sure, and I think it probably is a little bit different for me because... I'm not a white parent raising white kids. Race is very salient in my household because I'm white. My husband is Black. We have two biracial children. But even then, I think it's important for parents to know that you don't have to be an expert in this and you don't have to know everything.

It is okay if children ask questions and you don't have the answer. What we want to teach them is that we can go and get answers. Well, let's look that up together. Let's do some, you know, research on this. Let's, let's go read about it. Let's find a book. Let's find somebody we know who might know about this.

Because kids are going to ask questions that you can't always answer, especially when they ask the question of “wWhy” That's the hardest question to answer. If you were talking about inequality and discrimination, it's like, why? And I know that's something that my children have had a hard time understanding, especially as little kids, because they think you should just be nice and fair to everybody.

“Why is it like that? Why do people make this decision? Why don't they treat them right?” It's a really hard question to answer. And it's okay sometimes to not have the right answer. But I think if you just make a commitment to have conversations and just to start it and to know that this is not a one time thing or a one time conversation. This is something that goes on, you know, continuously. And so it could feel very kind of awkward for parents.

Um, we had this book called “All The Colors That We Are,” and kind of the, the story of how people got their skin color, and that sparked a lot of interesting comments and questions in the kids where they started saying, “Well, my skin was more yellow or orange.” And you know, they're telling my husband, they're like, “Dad is not Black,” because to them it's brown because they were little and of course his response is, “What do you mean I'm not Black?” I'm Black.

And so it really is just these very basic conversations when they're young. I actually think it's easier to talk to young kids about it because you could put it in these very basic terms. And when they get older and they start to understand more about social realities is when you can start talking more about kind of the socio-political aspects of it and, and people's intentions.

And I think it's important for adults to not put adult intentions behind children's questions and comments, that they really are just pointing out things that they haven't seen before.

And it's okay to point things out and to talk about them. And it's not always going to be easy, and I always say to parents, “You're not always going to get it right.” I don't always get it, right? I mean there are times that I make comments or I say something and then afterwards I'm like, “Ew. Maybe I shouldn't have said it that way.” But you know what, that happens.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: You know, we're so many adults, uh, whether we're teachers, parents in dealing with kids who are conditioned to think that we need to have all the answers. You know, we need to be the experts with our children. And you're saying, no – not only can you almost surely not be. In fact, even the experts, you know can as it were get things wrong mess things up need to revisit and so on. But it's more than that it seems to me. It seems to me that it actually can be a real strength, right?

It can be a real way of modeling, you know, what it means to be uncertain to not know to explore together. You know that to some degree we and our children can walk this path of learning more, understanding more, doing better over time. So I love that advice.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah. I mean, Andrew gets things wrong all the time.

Brigitte Vittrup: [laughs]

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Oh my gosh. I can't think of the last time I got right.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah, it sort of exposes the reality and will make kids understand a bit if you say, “If this was true for your family, you know, gosh, we didn't talk about race when I was growing up. So it's so great that you're asking all these questions that I didn't, wasn't brave enough to ask. And please, I'm learning from you and we're learning together.” You know, ‘cause that will make them go like, “Wow, there are a lot of adults who feel a little uncomfortable around this,” you know? And it's not just, and this might be why, because they learned something different.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And we know that that's true, right? We know as a fact in within our EmbraceRace community, for example, because they tell us that there are a lot of adults who don't have these conversations in large part because they don't feel secure in what they know, right? And that, you know, and, AND what they feel, because they have big feelings, right, around race. And so they don't want to have the conversation with their kids and you're saying, do it anyway.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah. I mean, it's parenting too, right? Or teaching. It's never one conversation and you mess up. God, you mess up and you ju – it's, that's not the end of it. So Brigitte, we really appreciate you for your expertise as an expert in this area, but also as a parent. And we're so grateful that you had this conversation with us.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We're so grateful you came from Denmark.

Melissa Giraud: That was a good idea for us.

Brigitte Vittrup: Right. Well, I appreciate you inviting me and having this conversation. I think it's an important conversation.

Melissa Giraud: Let's keep talking.

Brigitte Vittrup: Yes.

Melissa Giraud: Thanks, Brigitte.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Thanks, Brigitte.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Professor Brigitte Vittrup is a developmental psychologist and chair of the Department of Human Development, Family Studies, and Counseling at Texas Woman’s University. Her work has been featured in academic journals, as well as major news outlets including The Washington Post, Newsweek, and NPR.

Melissa Giraud: [snores]

Andrew Grant-Thomas: What’s that sound I hear? It’s the myth snoring, because we’ve put it to bed.

Melissa Giraud: Mmmhmm.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Right, talking about race does not make you racist. And talking about race with kids doesn’t make them racist. In fact, our experience and a lot of research shows that not talking to kids about race can lead them to normalize racial inequalities, to think that they’re deserved, to think that they are the way things should be.

Melissa Giraud: Honestly, you know, Bridget's point about how a lot of people think they're talking about race was a little disturbing, right? So people who intend, who know they should talk to their kids about race but aren't because instead they're telling their kids things like “there's only one race, the human race,” or about how “we are all the same on the inside.” That's disturbing, right?

Because these are people who really do mean well, but they're actually not doing their kids any favor. So I'm glad that researchers like Bridget are asking more specific questions about what parents are actually doing and are generating more and more great research and practical guidance for parents and other adults who wanna do better.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: There are some real evidence-based consensus here, folks, start early. Give kids the words they need to name differences in skin color and facial features and hair texture. Think about this. It goes without saying that we should teach the kids their colors, right, their shapes, other adjectives. They need to describe what they're seeing. It's part of the same process.

Pretty early on, we then need to talk about unfairness in some of what they're seeing around race and about all the people who are working to make things more fair and who are succeeding, at least in part, in spite of the obstacles. You might also consider pointing out that your family and your child can be part of that effort to make things better.

Melissa Giraud: There are so many resources to help adults guide kids around race, from early communication to later conversations. And we’ll link to some of those in our show notes.

Melissa Giraud: The EmbraceRace podcast is hosted by me, Melissa Giraud.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And by me, Andrew Grant-Thomas.

Melissa Giraud: Our senior producer is John Asante. Our editor is Megan Tan.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Our engineer and sound designer is Enrico Benjamin.

Melissa Giraud: Our consulting producer is Graham Griffith. Special thanks to Team EmbraceRace, Robin Deutsch Edwards, Andrea Huang, Tamara Montes de Oca, Christina Rucinski, and Maryam Zahid.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Much love as always to our two kids without which we wouldn’t be doing this work, and to the EmbraceRace community.

Melissa Giraud: Subscribe, rate, and review our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcatcher. That really helps us.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Learn more about Brigitte and her work in our show notes. And for much more on today's topic and related topics, check us out at embrace race dot org.



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