Author tells parents, educators to speak openly with children about skin color

An author/activist implored parents to speak to their children about racism because silence about skin color, she said, implies that it must not be OK that people have different colors of skin.

Katie Kissinger, best-selling author of "All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color," spoke recently to about 50 people at a Penn State Center for Education and Civil Rights (CECR) Lunch & Learn for Families and Educators at Pasquerilla Spiritual Center.

The Portland, Oregon, resident – an activist since the 1960s – wrote the children's book for adults. "I wanted adults in the lives of children to have a tool to use to start a conversation about skin color," Kissinger said. "Because what I saw was many adults, and this includes family members and trained teachers, have been socialized to think that this isn't something that's polite to talk about."

She said what children are getting instead of accurate scientific information is too often silence or sees the adult become very uncomfortable. "The message that gets conveyed to children is that this is something that's not nice to talk about, and that actually lays the foundation for fear and prejudice," Kissinger said.

Kissinger claims it's the opposite to what children believe that colorblind is. "Actually, when we say things like people are all alike, meaning that we should all be equal, it is basically lying to children and they feel confused, because people are not all the same," she said. "It's not that we are different that is the problem, it's that in our society we value people differently because of our differences.

"What I say is they've (children) already been socialized into the silence; it doesn't take long in our society to learn that this isn't something that we talk about. It's our job to be the ones who model for them that we do notice and think it's interesting that people come in different colors," Kissinger said.

Associate Professor of Education Erica Frankenberg, director and co-founder of the CECR, said the luncheon was part of an initiative to work with child care centers.

"It's about the importance of talking about race with young children and also how to do that," Frankenberg said. "It was really great to have her (Kissinger) here talking about skin color and how it connects to anti-bias. She's also doing some observations and some work with the leaders, but this was a chance to invite parents and help them learn more, too."

Kissinger stressed that children notice everything around them. "To think that they don't notice that people come in different colors is ridiculous," she said. "And I think what's happened is the adult world wants it to be true that children aren't prejudiced and so we say they're colorblind.

"In fact, they are going to become prejudiced in our society that's so full of bias and prejudice and one of the factors in making sure that happens is when adults pretend that people don't come in different colors or that we silence them when they notice differences."

Another problem, Kissinger said, is an increase in bullying, hate words and hate crimes from pre-school through college. "There are 150 new white hate groups on college campuses that started in 2017; we are going backward in many ways," she said. "The flip side of that is I've seen more people step up and come out who thought this wasn't their issue before. I have to hope -- and I'm an activist from the 60s -- I have to stay grounded because I know we have the potential to do better."

But to become a better society means that adults have to do a better job with educating children, Kissinger said. She tells students that they get their skin color three different ways – from our ancestors, from the sun and from melanin in our bodies. "The simple science that almost no children learn is that people come in all different colors of skin to protect us from the sun," she said.

The overall education process of getting past the silence is not as simple, Kissinger said. "The silence is killing us. We have not moved ahead enough as a society in terms of understanding the impact of race and racism on who we are as a people at this point in time," she said.

"And we are passing that on to the upcoming generation, and so we'll have another generation of children who internalize the idea we don't talk about skin color differences and therefore it must not be OK that people have different colors of skin."

One of her basic tenets is that children are born wanting to be treated fairly and they learn to treat other people fairly.

"I always tell early childhood educators that we're really the lucky people on Earth because we get to be with kids every day who remind us of the joy and authenticity of the human experience," Kissinger said. "That's what we're striving for when we try to eliminate bias and oppression and discrimination, that place where we can be with other human beings as equals, as allies, as fellow humans.

"All of this stuff gets in our way of having that happen."

Last Updated February 06, 2018