Growing up the daughter of a Black mother and white father, I was often acutely aware of race. You might think we talked about it often as a mixed-race family, but the opposite is truer. The topic of race very rarely came up in our household. When it did, both my mother and father responded as most good parents did in the ’80s and ’90s: They insisted that race didn’t matter and that it is what’s inside that counts.
That “color-blind” response made sense to an entire generation of parents and resonates with a lot of us today, as we explore talking with our own children about race. But as a kid, I had more questions.
If race doesn’t matter and it’s what’s inside that counts, then why did my dad’s side of the family live in manicured, leafy neighborhoods, while my mom’s side of the family mostly resided in poor, cramped conditions? Why were the heroes in my favorite books white characters, with characters of color relegated to sidekick roles if they were present at all? Why were most of our doctors, elected officials, and other trusted leaders almost always white men?
If it’s what’s inside that counts, I wondered, maybe white people just had better insides. Smarter, richer, more heroic insides. With no one to help me understand the history of race and racism in our country, I was left to create my own stories to make sense of the glaring disparities I saw. The stories I concocted made it easier for me to ignore scary topics like racism and injustice and view disparate racial outcomes as the simple result of bad luck or bad decision making.
Unfortunately, it’s not just what’s inside that counts. People of color are treated differently in everything from how often police pull us over to how often preschool teachers eye us expecting misbehavior.
That’s right: using eye-tracking technology, Yale University researchers discovered that preschool teachers spend more time watching Black children, particularly Black boys, for behavioral infractions. The study’s lead researcher, Walter Gilliam, confirmed that, “implicit biases do not begin with Black men and police. They begin with young Black boys and their preschool teachers, if not earlier.”
It’s not just preschool teachers and police officers who are acting on years of implicit biases, it’s our children, too. Research by Dr. Mary Ellen Goodman found that children aged 2.5 years to 5 years expressed explicit social preferences for people of their own race. Riana Elyse Anderson, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Michigan, confirms that children as young as 5 years of age are “not only seeing (race) but they’re ascribing some sort of meaning to it.”
Unfortunately for me, the meaning I ascribed to race as a child left me internalizing many of the negative messages our society sends us about Blackness. Luckily, I went to Rice University and started learning more about the systemic structures of inequality. Working with professors in history and sociology, I learned about issues like redlining, over-policing, and underfunded schools that were never addressed in my earlier school years.
I began to see disparate racial outcomes not as a result of individual shortcomings, but as the result of a systemic structure that makes it harder for Black people to access credit, economic opportunity, and quality education.
After becoming a mom, I struggled to comprehend how I might explain these weighty topics to my own children. What could I do to empower them to recognize and properly respond to racism? What could I do to empower other parents to raise the generation that will finally dismantle racism, once and for all?
With those questions in mind, I sought out academics and activists to guide me. I met Dr. Keffrelyn Brown and Dr. Anthony Brown, the co-directors of the Center for Innovation in Race, Teaching, and Curriculum at the University of Texas. Their whole body of research investigates how teachers can most effectively engage children on topics like slavery, segregation, and systemic racism.
I spoke with countless parents who wanted to embrace their children’s natural curiosity and extend it into a healthy framework for talking about race. I realized that we all craved a community we could turn to for practical support in raising kids who are excited to stand up for racial justice.
Through all of this work, I’m more convinced than ever that one of the best ways to improve racial attitudes and resilience in children of all races is to have regular, honest conversations about race. Armed with that knowledge, I created Ripple Reads. As a family book club, Ripple Reads facilitates these conversations in three ways.
First, we scour the internet for the very best books on race, justice, and empathy. The books we select are the ones your children will ask to read every night, the ones they’ll remember fondly as they grow, the ones they’ll read to their own children. Next, we turn to experts, like Dr. Keffrelyn Brown and Dr. Anthony Brown, to provide parents with an overview of key themes of each book. This helps ensure parents feel confident delving into conversations on potentially uncomfortable topics, like repression and racial bullying. Finally, we work with experts to create discussion questions and activities that will help children solidify their identity as people who can and will stand up for racial justice.
We’ve been trying to create racial justice for centuries. From abolishing slavery through the Civil Rights Movement, which of our parents, grandparents, and other ancestors believed we’d still have so much farther to go in 2020? What the research proves is that open, honest conversations, starting at a young age and continuing often, *will* move the needle on positive racial attitudes in children of all races. It’s up to each of us as parents to have those conversations. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.