BURLINGTON, VT -- In the aftermath of George Floyd's 2020 murder by former police officer Derek Chauvin, many families may find themselves actively engaging in--or uncomfortably fumbling around--discussions about race. For white parents looking to clearly communicate antiracist ideologies with their preadolescent children, a new study offers some insight.
"There's a difference between saying race "shouldn't" matter and race "doesn't" matter," explains Jamie Abaied, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Vermont and lead author of the study, co-authored by Sylvia Perry, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Though "shouldn't" and "doesn't" may seem similar, the study reveals just how different they can be.
Released online by the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology on Monday, the study analyzes data collected in summer 2015 (in the weeks immediately following the Charleston church shooting) from a sample of white American parents responding to questions about how they talk about race with their children, ages 8-12. It aims to understand whether or not white American parents communicate contradictory messages about race to their children; and if so, how and why?
The short answer: Yes, they do--but probably unintentionally. The study found that more than a third of parents communicated mixed messages about race, whereas the remaining two-thirds either communicated consistent ideas about their racial ideology or simply communicated no ideas about race at all. "Before we really develop specific interventions to help parents talk to their kids about race, we need to know what they're currently saying to their kids and how they're currently thinking about these discussions," she says. Until now, there hasn't been much research on that, particularly among parents of children older than age 7.
"When parents offered mixed messages about race, they were saying really positive things like, 'Racism is real and it's wrong,' but they were also saying that race isn't that important, or that 'It's only skin deep,' which is a type of thinking that researchers call colorblindness," she explains. About half the parents endorsed colorblindness at least once in their responses, and more than twenty-one percent of parents in the study only communicated colorblind thinking to their children.
Though not the focus of the study, these findings add to an existing body of psychological research that recalibrates the scales from simply "racist" or "not racist," to "racist" or "counteractive to racist." It's a concept known as antiracism, and it significantly impacts today's understanding of racial colorblindness.
The study describes colorblindness as "a modern form of racism, which can take the form of either color-evasion (claiming to 'not see' race) or power evasion (denying that racial inequality is a reality)." It can downplay race, imply that it isn't important, or divert awareness. And according to Abaied, it's the most problematic takeaway from the study.
"The problem with colorblindness is that race is real. It has real effects on people's lived experiences. If you don't think race is real, it makes it easier to go a step further and believe that racism isn't real," Abaied says. "I think some of the parents were well-meaning and trying to voice egalitarian beliefs, such as, 'I believe people of different races should be treated equally,' which is different from, 'I don't see color, everybody's equal.' In doing that, they are implying that race doesn't matter. The difference is very nuanced, but also very important."
"Colorblindness is not a pathway to racial equality," she adds. "There's a false belief that if we just stop talking about race, everything will be fine." In fact, Abaied found that most white parents, sixty-three percent, reported that they didn't discuss race-related news with their children at the time, which included the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray in addition to the 2015 Charleston church shooting.
Reasons for that ranged from parents wanting to shield their children from difficult topics--"No, a child should not be told about death and murder. Those are adult topics," one parent said--to perceptions of relevance--"I have not. Why would I bring that up?" stated another.
"The results indicate that white parents have the potential to be agents of change that socialize color conscious beliefs in their children, but many are reinforcing the current system of colorblind indifference to racial inequality," the study explains.
However, the researchers also found that nearly thirty-four percent of participants exclusively communicated in color conscious ideologies, which directly challenge colorblindness. In practice, that looks like white parents "celebrating racial diversity rather than minimizing it, openly acknowledging rather than denying the impact of race on people's lives through discrimination and structural racism, and advocating for equal rights and treatment across different racial groups," the study explains.
Many parents voiced this belief in response to a hypothetical question that asked what they would say to their child if they encountered an incident of race-related prejudice together. Roughly half the parents endorsed the idea that people should receive equal treatment, regardless of race. "I would tell her that what she witnessed was wrong and only hurtful people act like that and we should accept everyone as equals," one parent stated.
However, another parent stated: "I would tell her that everybody is different and the color of your skin is no reason to treat anyone any differently." Both parents endorse equal treatment regardless of race, but differ on how they define the incident itself as "wrong" to their children--only the former explicitly mentioned race in their answer.
Abaied sees the study as a first step toward developmental trainings and programs designed to help guide parents--or possibly even teachers--through these messaging nuances and straight into constructive, intentional conversations about race. "Kids' ideas about race start to solidify in adolescence, so it's not too late to have these conversations during the elementary school years. I think it would be good for parents to talk about this early," she says.
Though family conversations are just one piece of the puzzle to be solved, Abaied points out by engaging multiple generations through one conversation, those conversations have potential to be highly impactful.
Follow-up research to the study is currently underway, with Abaied and her team analyzing a new data set for the study collected in 2020 (after the murder of George Floyd) that will enable them to track and compare progress over time.