Young Children’s Racial Identity Matters
Children may be born colorblind, but they don’t stay that way. It is important that adults recognize and address the role that racial identity plays in childhood development. Although parents and educators may think it is best to ignore children’s racial identity and allow them to discover and explore it on their own, it is very important that adults guide children in this process. Here are the stages of racial identity development in young children so that adults can have a better understanding of just how and when children start to become aware of race and its role in society.
Yes, even in infancy babies start becoming aware of race, as around 6 months of age they start to notice and respond to differences in skin color. They also start to absorb the culture around them provided by their caregivers.
Toddler (ages 1-2)
Toddlers are very curious and start to observe physical differences in those around them, such as size, age, skin tone, hair color and texture, and gender. They may match or group people together based on these categories. They are also starting to figure out their identities as individuals.
Preschool (ages 3-4)
As children this age become more verbal, they continue to match and group people together based on physical characteristics, which they may now be able to express fully with words. They also can understand what skin is at this age and that everybody has it, and appreciate all the different skin tones. Even at this early age children may have absorbed stereotypes from the media or from others and may tease, fear, distrust, or stare at people who are different from themselves in any way. It is at this age that children show signs of superiority or oppression based on stereotypes and social cues.
Kindergarten/First Grade (ages 5-6)
As children enter formal school, they are interested in skin color and what makes the colors different and can start to have a basic scientific understanding of melanin. They can be social justice warriors, and/or show prejudice through name-calling and bullying. It is a time of transition where children must learn to reconcile their “home culture” with “school culture,” and adjust to being around many people who are different from themselves. They may show preference to people more similar to themselves, or start to reject their home culture in favor of culture they adapted from others at school.
It is clear that children form a racial identity very early on, perhaps much earlier than adults may realize. It is important for parents and educators to be aware of these stages of racial identity development so they can help guide children to understand and embrace not only the cultures of others but of their own identity, as well.