For decades, we assumed that children will only see race when society points it out to them. That approach was shared by much of the scientific community--the view was that race was a societal issue best left to sociologist and demographers to figure out. However, child development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue--but we tell kids that "pink" means for girls and "blue" is for boys. "White" and "black" are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.
We might imagine we're creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender--they're plainly visible. We don't have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors.
Don't be afraid to talk about it:
The point Katz emphasizes is that during this period of our children's lives when we imagine it's most important to not talk about race is the very developmental period when children's minds are forming their first conclusions about race.
It's possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it's safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed.
Environment isn't enough:
The other deeply held assumption modern parents have is what Ashley and I have come to call the Diverse Environment Theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don't have to talk about race--in fact, it's better to not talk about race. Just expose the child to the diverse environments and he'll think it's entirely normal.
Those increased opportunities to interact are also, effectively, increased opportunities to reject each other. And that is what's happening.
Race can be discussed like gender:
What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race.
To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakeable terms that children understand.
From Chapter Three: Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman