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While many Black and Hispanic parents talk to their children about racial discrimination before they start school and explicitly teach the concept of racism, white families are far less likely to broach the topic and shy away from identifying racism. The absence of these conversations could make it difficult for white children to identify racism and intervene in situations where it exists, experts say.

This is one of the main findings of research released last month by several children’s media organizations, including Big Heart World, a social and emotional learning initiative created by the nonprofit Sparkler Learning, Content for Change, an initiative by Paramount meant to combat racism, bias and stereotypes and by Noggin, Nickelodeon’s platform for young children. Researchers surveyed more than 15,000 families in 2019 and 2020 to examine the experiences and perceptions around conversations on race. Those findings were followed up by observations of 24 children and parent pairs to examine the similarities and differences in the language families use to discuss racist scenarios.

The report found that the conversations families have — and when they occur — differ depending on a family’s race, findings that echo previous research. Nearly one in three Hispanic and Black parents reported discussing racial discrimination with their children before kindergarten, compared to 12 percent of white families. An analysis of parent-child conversations about racist situations pointed to another large discrepancy: Families vary greatly in the language they use during these conversations, depending on family race and ethnicity.

“We know there’s a problem,” said Colleen Russo Johnson, a developmental psychologist and vice president of digital and cultural consumer insights at Nickelodeon. “There’s a group of parents who are eager to have these conversations, who need the help and don’t know what to do,” Russo Johnson said. “But then there’s the group of parents who also don’t know that they need to have these conversations, and don’t realize why they need to have these conversations.”

Most notably, researchers observed:

  • All parents reported feeling unprepared to talk about race and racism, and all families used words like “unfair” and “fair” or “right” and “wrong” when having these discussions.
  • Black families were more likely to use the terms “racist” and “racism” when discussing racist situations, while white families were more likely to use words like “bad,” “mean,” and “rude.”
  • Black families were more likely to use emotion-based words, like “angry,” “mad,” and “sad.” 
  • White families were more likely to use “color-evasive statements,” such as, “We don’t see color” and “Color doesn’t matter.” This tendency to shy away from identifying racism “ignores the suffering of those who experience racism, and does not set children up to successfully identify racism and intervene,” researchers wrote.

Talking about race, ethnicity and racism with young children is important, experts say, as awareness of race starts early. Children start to show a preference for faces from their own ethnic group in infancy and begin to internalize racial bias by preschool.

“If we’re saying, ‘We don’t see color, we don’t see racism,’ [we’re] unintentionally denying that racism exists,” Russo Johnson said. “We can’t say everyone is treated equally or everyone is equal, because right now everyone is not treated equally,” she added. “Until we can face the reality that racism does exist, we can’t actually solve it and work against racism to be anti-racist.”

Black and Hispanic parents are also far more likely than white parents to state racial bias is commonplace, according to a forthcoming section of the report. Eighty percent of Black parents and 61 percent of Hispanic parents said Black people face “a lot” of discrimination, compared to 41 percent of white parents.

Black children have largely internalized the fact that racism exists, while many of their white peers lack such awareness. When children were asked what their lives would be like if they were a different race, 75 percent of Black children said their lives would be easier if they were white, while about one-third of white children thought their lives would be harder if they were black, suggesting that “most white children may not be aware of the discrimination Black people face or the heavy impact that it has on their lives,” researchers wrote.

The report’s findings were published in conjunction with two new interactive guides, including one for parents or caregivers and one for teachers. Many of these adults may feel constrained by their own lack of knowledge about these issues or are unsure how to handle these topics in a school setting, said Michael H. Levine, senior vice president of learning and impact for Noggin. Evolving state policies that are “less inclusive” of these conversations compounds this uncertainty, he added. Both interactive guides provide tips on how to have conversations about race with young children, with a focus on topics like identifying similarities and differences, building empathy and standing up for others.

Racial stereotypes portrayed in entertainment media may also play a role in children’s perceptions of race. More work should be done to combat “character tropes” in TV, film and other media, said Makeda Mays Green, senior vice president of digital and cultural consumer insights at Nickelodeon. Half of children surveyed saw or heard racial stereotypes in movies and on TV, and more than half of Black children said their race was not portrayed well in media. Black children were most likely to say it’s important to see their own race and ethnicity on screen.

“What kids see can impact their self-esteem,” said Mays Green. “When you think about that in the context of how much media kids are consuming, it underscores the importance of kids being able to see themselves represented accurately and positively.”

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