While touring an Atlanta private school she was considering for her 5-year-old daughter, Stacey Walford asked a question many Black parents have: “How diverse is the school?”
What happened next still surprises her.
“A teacher – a white man who had been at the school for 20 years – told me, ‘I guess the diversity here is good,’” recalls Walford. “So, I asked him how many kids of color were in his class. And he answered, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t know.’”
That comment alone was enough to make Walford cross the school off her list of potential places to enroll her child. The teacher’s lack of awareness about the racial make-up of his students was a glaring red flag. If a teacher doesn’t “see” color, then how could he possibly see her child?
Walford is hardly alone. Many Black parents have found themselves in conversations with teachers, school administrators and even parents who insist they don’t see race. These conversations can be awkward, even enraging. Educators and parents may be giving themselves silent kudos for their open-mindedness and “nonracist” stance whenever they claim to be colorblind. However, Black parents often receive a very different message.
When they say, “I don’t see race,” Black parents hear, “I don’t see the beauty of you or your daughter’s Blackness. I don’t see her beautiful hair, skin, and all of the things that make up her Black girl magic. I also don’t see the realities that she will face as a Black girl in a society that is both racist and sexist. Instead, I claim to see a whitewashed world that makes her experience look like mine.”
In other words, the person of color and the person who claims to be “colorblind” are having two very different conversations. So how can we respond when speaking across this divide?
“It can be difficult to find the words to reply to someone who says, ‘I don’t even see race,’” says Kenrya Rankin, activist and author of Anti-Racism: Powerful Voices, Inspiring Ideas and How We Fight White Supremacy. “What can you really say to someone who is proudly declaring their willful ignorance? You are being thrust into a situation where you have to assert and defend your humanity.”
Do you say something, or do you write the person off as a fool? That is ultimately your choice. But if the person is a parent or teacher who will be interacting with your child, there are many reasons to set them straight. Try the talking points below to explain why seeing race isn’t racist; it’s necessary, honest and glorious. Furthermore, it’s what you demand for your child.
Start with the positive: Begin by explaining that not acknowledging race can do more harm than good. “You can say that teaching children to ignore the realities of race is not only dishonest, but it’s also the opposite of being anti-racist,” says Rankin. “When someone says they are colorblind, they are literally saying that they do not see you, a person of color. How can they dismantle a system that harms you if they can’t even admit that they see you?”
Throw in some science: For more than a decade, social scientists have been pointing to the myriad benefits of teaching children not only about racial diversity, but also about racism. One seminal study published in The Society for Research in Child Development in 2007, found that white children who had been taught about racism held fewer biases against their Black classmates.
Other studies have shown that Black students who are intentionally taught about the impact of racism and imbued with racial and cultural pride at home have better outcomes at school. “Our findings challenge the notion that ‘race blindness’ is a universally ideal parenting approach,” said University of Pittsburg Professor of Psychology in Education Ming-Te Wang, describing his landmark 2012 study. “When African American parents instill a proud, informed, and sober perspective of race in their sons and daughters, these children are more likely to experience increased academic success.”
Get historical: Being Black is more than skin deep. While the rich hues of our skin are beautiful, so too is our culture. Explain that you are nurturing your child’s understanding of African American history and instilling pride about her ancestry— and that you hope her teachers are not undermining your efforts by insisting our history is less than unique.
Encourage them to be progressive, for real: Point out that racism is not going to be eradicated by folks insisting they are colorblind; if they truly want positive change, they must roll up their sleeves and do the work. “Let them know that being anti-racist requires them to actively work to dismantle white supremacy,” says Rankin. “They must be courageous in holding themselves and other white people accountable for the ways they uphold the system of white supremacy and use that same energy to reverse its harms.”
Make recommendations: Suggest that your child’s teacher diversify her classroom’s reading list by including age-appropriate books that speak directly about race. The New York Times has an excellent list to get you started. Race-blind adults will also benefit from doing some reading of their own. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has compiled an extensive list of recommended reading. Beyond books, you can also suggest podcasts, such as The New York Times excellent 1619, and documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s gripping 13th, or the iconic Eyes on the Prize series. Sometimes, all it takes is a little education for a “colorblind” person to finally see the truth.