Skip to content
We're happy to announce the launch of the EmbraceRace Podcast!

Do young kids (and babies) really see race?

ER Podcast Web Banner C 2x

Welcome to this season of the EmbraceRace podcast, How Kids ACTUALLY Learn About Race - we're so excited about this launch!

On this first episode, hosts Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas briefly share the backstory of EmbraceRace, and then dive into a conversation with developmental psychologist Tara Mandalaywala about what we know about whether and how babies and young children perceive racial differences. Most importantly, they talk about how to translate that understanding into everyday parenting and caregiving choices. Listen and find all the links, supports and related info below.

Listen below or on your favorite podcatcher

Get more out of the episode by following the steps below!

1. Reflect

  • How does it feel to know that children are noticing skin color, observing racial patterns, and developing racial preferences and biases within the first few years of life?
  • What are the messages that the toys, books, and other parts of your child's home or school environments sending them about race? Who is represented?
  • How comfortable (or not) are you communicating about race and skin color openly with young children? How could you practice?

2. Follow & Share

Miles room 700 x 460

3. Learn more!

Melissa Giraud: About a decade ago (it’s 2014), Andrew and I are sitting in a school library. It’s early evening. We haven’t had dinner yet. And our two kids — one a preschooler and one a kindergartener are playing in the next room, interrupting us at times. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We’re sitting around a table, listening to people we have come to know through these meetings — There are about a dozen of us. Some parents, some teachers, some admin folks. And when I look around, I am appreciating that we're a pretty mixed group racially. 

Melissa Giraud: We just moved to Amherst, Massachusetts — a town of 40,000 residents — surrounded by beautiful mountains. It’s a college town, famously progressive, somewhat diverse, still mostly white. Lots of organic farms. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: It’s the kind of place whose residents are always referring to it as a “bubble.” As in the safe, secure, progressive Amherst “bubble.” 

Now, every week the police log in the local paper has entries like this: “​​A man yelling at people at the corner of Main and North Pleasant streets was just being loud and was warned to quiet down.” [laughs] Now having lived in big cities like Chicago, D.C., and Boston, Melissa and I are LOVING this stuff. So, on one hand, we’re having these formal diversity committee meetings about how to make good on our diversity goals in the school community. 

And on the other, we’re also having these very informal, sometimes pretty intense conversations with other parents, other caregivers about their own experiences with race and their kids’ experiences with race, like…

Melissa Giraud: An incident at school where someone touched a kid’s hair because they had never seen hair like that before.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Kids ask why skin-colored Band-Aids never looked like THEIR skin.

Melissa Giraud: A child wanting a white mermaid doll. There were no mermaid dolls that looked like them!

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We start looking around for resources to help us navigate all this with our kids.

Melissa Giraud: We read. We Google. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We find articles about how to talk to kids about race after police shootings or we find academic pieces that are good about naming the problem, but not so good about saying what we should do about it.

Melissa Giraud: Advice that honestly seems addressed at white kids and families.

Andrew Grant-Thomas & Melissa Giraud: We literally turn to each other and say, “You know what, maybe we can help!”


Melissa Giraud: Andrew — with your background as a political scientist doing research and advocacy around racial justice. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And your background in education and media, Ms. Giraud. We were raising two Black, multiracial kids. Maybe we can create the resources and community, or at least start to, where people like us, and especially parents, could learn to guide our kids around race.

Andrew Grant-Thomas & Melissa Giraud: And so, in early 2016, we did! 


Andrew Grant-Thomas: Welcome to the EmbraceRace Podcast! 

Melissa Giraud: A show about how to raise kids who are thoughtful, informed, and brave about race.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: I'm Andrew Grant-Thomas, a Black man born in Jamaica on the 4th of July. I am also a co-founder of EmbraceRace and a dad who is raising two kids.

Melissa Giraud: I'm Melissa Giraud, a Black and white multiracial mom to those same two kids. I was born to a mom from Quebec and a dad from Dominica and co-founded EmbraceRace with Andrew.  

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We are really excited about this first season, where we take on myths about race and kids. Like… 

Melissa Giraud: That multiracial kids will lead the way to racial harmony.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: That the passing of older generations of Americans will end racism.

Melissa Giraud: That talking about race makes you racist.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And we’re going to poke some holes in them. 

Melissa Giraud: On this episode, we’re tackling Myth #1: Young kids, especially babies, don't see race.


Tara Mandalaywala: [talking to Miles] What about us, bubs? Do we look the same or different? Same and different is a very complicated concept for a baby, but you know what? I believe in you. 

Miles: [baby squeals] EEEEEEE! 

Melissa Giraud: This is Miles. He just turned 1. 

Tara Mandalaywala: [talking to Miles] Look, you've got so many books to read. Let's read this!

Melissa Giraud: And this is his mom and our guest today, Tara Mandalaywala. 

Tara Mandalaywala: [reading to Miles] You say, when I'm proud, I feel a beautiful brown in my heart. But for me, brown is more than feeling proud. It's the color I see when I see me! Do you see? What color do you see when you see you, buddy? 

Melissa Giraud (Narration): Tara is a new mom. She is also a developmental psychologist. She knows that from as early as 3 months old, kids are starting to make sense of race. She uses opportunities like reading books to give Miles the tools and encouragement to grow into that conversation. 

Miles: [baby squeals] EEEEEEE!

Tara Mandalaywala: [talking to Miles] Yeah, yeah, you're like, “No, not right now, Mom, I'm playing.”

Melissa Giraud: Tara, that was adorable! Thank you so much for sharing that recording of Miles and for being here for this conversation.

Tara Mandalaywala: Thank you so much for having me on the inaugural episode of the EmbraceRace Podcast.

Melissa Giraud: I know! Tara Mandalaywala is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which is where Andrew and I live, too. We run into Tara and Miles at the library sometimes. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Tara directs the Cognition Across Development Lab (The CAD Lab), which explores how kids develop beliefs about the people around them. In particular, she examines how the caregivers and neighborhoods that kids grow up with shape how they begin to think about others in terms of their race, gender, or social status. Welcome, Tara! We’re really glad you’re here.

Tara Mandalaywala: Yeah, thank you!

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Tara, we know that there's very often a personal connection between our guests and the work that they do, given the kind of work we like to talk about on this podcast. Could you tell us what your personal connection to the work that you do might be?

Tara Mandalaywala: Yeah, absolutely. I would also love to say that I was really intentional about getting into this line of work, but in reality, I kind of stumbled into it. But now as I kind of reconstruct a story as to how I got here, I think it makes a lot of sense, to me at least. So, according to my mom, I'm an IndoRican. There's only a few of us out there. We're a very proud batch. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Small but mighty.

Tara Mandalaywala: Small but mighty, indeed. So, my dad immigrated to the United States from India when he was in his early 20s. And my mom migrated to the U.S. from Puerto Rico when she was around 5 or 6 years old. And they met in, of course, the cultural mecca that is Ohio. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: [laughs] Well-known cultural mecca, yeah.

Tara Mandalaywala: Because where else would an Indian and a Puerto Rican meet? [laughs] Fell in love in a cardiology lab, and then me and my little brother, you know, popped out.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Fell in love in a heart lab. Come on now.

Tara Mandalaywala: Oh, right! It's beautiful.I always loved hearing that story as a kid. I grew up in rural Ohio in a very white community that was very welcoming (I think I was really lucky in that way) but in which me and my brother were some of the very, very few people of color in this community.

And it was something that I think about a lot now, and I don't think I realized just how much I thought about it as a kid. And it's something that really shapes both my professional work now in thinking about how kids are navigating these spaces and how they’re making sense of themselves and who they are, and where they are, and the people around them and the places that they get to be in. As you mentioned since having Miles, my little adorable absolutely perfect one-year-old who definitely never throws temper tantrums.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: We can vouch for that. 

Tara Mandalaywala: I think about it even more because, I have a white husband but I'm still a Brown woman, and so we have another little multiracial baby that's growing up in a predominantly white space. And somehow, I've ended up back in the woods again. So again, in a rural white space. I'm thinking a lot lately about how I'm going to help Miles navigate this and hopefully help him avoid some of the pitfalls that I think I have run into both as a child and then that have even sort of stuck with me into adulthood.

Melissa Giraud: Thank you, Tara. So, we know that you are communicating, and have been early, with Miles about race, or the beginnings of his understanding about race. And I wonder whether you've come across it in your work, in your life (I'm sure you have) this myth that young people, and particularly babies, cannot perceive anything about race. How does that show up for you?

Tara Mandalaywala: It's been a really interesting, I guess, past decade since I got into this line of research because there have been huge shifts, I feel at least. And I would be really curious to see if this is something that y'all have noticed as well, in how the psychological community and researchers and academics have sort of begun to really embrace the idea that, no, like babies, infants, have really sophisticated reasoning about all kinds of things. 

They're clearly not adults, but they can do, and they can notice a lot of things that I think we just didn't give them credit for. Babies can notice things like skin color. Does that look like an adult racial category? Does it have all of the sort of baggage and challenges, but also joy and opportunity that come along with it? No. They're still babies. They still have their own little baby brains. They're developing. But they are really starting to notice it.

So, in the academic world, I feel like I'm not encountering that myth as much as maybe I would have, had I gotten into the space two decades ago instead. I think it's a vastly different landscape when we get outside of academia and start to think about what people in the U.S. are thinking about and the kinds of assumptions that they're making about what their babies and what their kids are doing and what they're noticing.

And there was actually a really, really cool study that came out a few years ago from Jessica Sullivan and some of her colleagues. They really asked this question- when do adults in the U.S., guess, when do they estimate that infants and kids start to pay attention to different aspects of skin color or race?

Andrew Grant-Thomas: FYI – Jessica Sullivan is a professor at Skidmore College, and the article cited is “Adults Delay Conversations About Race Because They Underestimate Children’s Processing of Race.”

Tara Mandalaywala: So basically, adults were kind of guessing that an eight-year-old maybe was starting to notice that in the U.S., white people tend to live in more wealthy neighborhoods than Black people do. When in reality we know that it's actually around three or four years of age that kids are starting to pick up on this.

We know that this myth can be really pernicious. It can have some really negative consequences and keep adults from either having conversations, or even just doing really small things to encourage their kids or their babies to be noticing things or to have different explanations for the types of things that they do notice.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: You know, thinking about some of the research done on infants of three months or six months or nine months- How do we know what we think we know, what researchers tell us is true, about babies engaging race? Can you give us an example or two of the kind of work they do that allows us to conclude that, yeah, the path really does start very early?

Tara Mandalaywala: Yeah. With babies, you have very limited ways to be able to ask them what they're paying attention to, what they like, or what they don't like, right? You think about a baby. A baby has a limited set of behaviors. Babies can cry, babies can nurse or eat, they can sleep really well, hopefully, and they can poop. They're very good at that as well, and they can look at things. Even a three-month-old isn't good at holding their neck up. Like, they don't have the neck strength to hold their head up. So really, when we're looking at newborns or really young infants, we have to be looking at their looking behavior.

So, in these types of experiments, what you often do is– and this is going to be grossly oversimplified - I apologize in advance to all the infant cognition researchers who are like, “It's more complicated than that.” But in my simplified view, we show babies pictures of things. And we measure how long babies look at these different pictures. And by looking at their looking behavior, we can get a sense of what our baby is paying attention to. 

Now, colloquially, we often say, “Oh, a baby looks longer at, say, a picture of a white person. That means that baby has a preference for that person.” But I think that we could sort of just intuitively be like, well, there's lots of reasons that a baby might look longer, say, at a picture of a white person than of a Black person, as they did in sort of these early studies.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And it could be the other way around, right?

Tara Mandalaywala: It could be the other way around. Exactly. They could be like, “Wait a second. That's threatening. I'm going to pay attention to that one.” Uh, it could be that it's unfamiliar, and novel and interesting, and so they want to pay attention. Or it could be the opposite- that it's really familiar and comforting.

So, we can make rich interpretations from this infant looking time data, but we probably shouldn't. We can tell that a baby can tell the difference between these two pictures, right? We can tell that they're noticing skin color, and for whatever reason, they're looking longer at certain individuals than others. But that doesn't necessarily tell us anything about what they prefer or who they like. In fact, as you mentioned, it could be telling us exactly the opposite.

In those previous studies where we just had to rely on looking time because our poor little babies can't do much more than look, people were really sort of like, well, what, what might we be able to do with infants who are just a little bit older who all of a sudden have the miraculous ability to reach for things, right? 

So, by six, seven months old, infants can start reaching for things. At that point, you can say okay, well, maybe a better measure of who babies prefer would be who are they choosing to associate with. Who will they take something from or give something to? Katie Kinzler, Ph.D. and Liz Spelke, who are two really lovely, wonderful developmental psychologists did exactly this.

They gave ten-month-old babies, and then two-and-a-half-year-olds, and then five-year-olds, the choice of either taking a toy from a Black or a white woman or giving a toy to a Black or a white woman. And the really cool thing that they found, in line with this idea that, like, babies are noticing things, but not necessarily preferring individuals, is that the ten-month-olds had no preference.

They were equally happy to take a toy from a white woman as from a Black woman. Same thing with the two-and-a-half-year-olds. They were equally happy, in this case, to give a toy to a white woman as to a Black woman.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Quick question, what were the racial identities of the babies?

Tara Mandalaywala: Oh, that's such a good question, Andrew. These were all white babies and white toddlers and white kids. Yes, I believe all of this research was taking place in Boston as well. So, you know, a city that has a fair amount of racial diversity, but when we think about who we're often including in our research studies, right? Often white and often, I'm totally guilty of this, children or babies of professors or other folks who are in these particular social and economic circles. So, I think that's an important piece of this, too. 

And yeah, so, these white five-year-olds were the only group that did start to show preference. When they were asked to guess who a baby would take a toy from, they said, “Oh, the baby's going to take a toy from the white person.” When they were asked who they wanted to be friends with, they chose to be friends with the white person instead of the Black person.

Melissa Giraud: So, when we talk about kids and their racial sensibilities and developing them early, can we go a bit further than babies? What does that mean to developmental psychologists?

Tara Mandalaywala: Yeah, I mean, this is my sweet spot. No shame to babies. They are, again, wonderful, and cuddly, and sweet. But I really prefer, like three, four, five-year-olds where they can sit still for at least a few minutes, and they'll play a game with you, and they think you're the best person in the entire world if you give them a sticker after you play the game with them. Like, oh my goodness. What a lovely job I have.

By five, it always blows my mind – kids are so sophisticated about what they know in these early childhood years. Between three and six, it is truly remarkable how much information kids get about race and the kinds of explanations that they start to come up with for the things they see in the world around them, and their knowledge of stereotypes. 

Melissa Giraud: And Tara, what about earlier than 5 – say at the age of 3 or 4? Is that a developmental stage where kids can move from, say, having preferences for people who resemble their caregivers, to having preferences based on associations they are starting to develop about people of different races?

Tara Mandalaywala: That's absolutely right. And, you know, I think there are a couple of places that those associations and those preferences might be coming from. One of them goes back to the idea that kids at these ages are starting to put the pieces together in terms of hierarchies and status and who in my classroom is likely to have better toys, or have more things, or have good snacks at their house, right?

So, part of it could be this awareness of these social hierarchies and how they map on to different social groups, especially race. Another thing that's happening, even from earlier, but by the time kids are three or four, they have the agency and they're able to sort of make decisions and choices about who they want to play with and what they want to do- is the existence of an in-group bias. 

So, kids sort of liking other kids who are like them. So, an in-group bias does a really good job of explaining why we might see white kids, like in that study we talked about earlier, starting to prefer to associate with, or give toys to, other white kids or white adults.

It doesn't do a very good job of explaining why we see in some of those classic studies, right from back in the late 1940s, why Black children would sometimes choose to play with a white doll or why they would choose to associate with white kids on the playground. And so that's where, you know, I and I think some others think this status piece is probably really important and just these other pieces of information, these cultural values, these stereotypes, these segregated communities that kids are growing up in, right? All of those pieces of information I think are probably kind of important for explaining when we see kids start to go away from exhibiting an in-group preference and actually start to show what we would call a pro-white bias.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Tara, can you explain how kids develop an unconscious bias? 

Tara Mandalaywala: Yeah, kids are much more driven by, what we often and what social psychologists would call, in-group love rather than out-group hate. They like their own group. They like people that are like them. This can be like them in terms of skin color. It can be like them in any number of ways. It can be like them in that it reminds them of their caregiver. So yes, that is definitely what seems to be driving these different patterns that we see in children. It's not that they're choosing not to associate with a particular kid. It's that they're choosing to associate with someone else. 

And I mean, of course, the unfortunate side effect of that is that someone does end up being excluded and someone is not the one that is chosen to be associated with. So, I don't think it's completely sort of innocent in terms of the repercussions that it can have. 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, I'm reflecting on this distinction that Tara draws between in-group love and out-group hate. And as she says, you know, the in-group love sounds much better, right? And surely, it's better to be drawn toward a group because you identify with it, than to pull away from a second group because you don't identify with that group, especially in terms of race or gender. 

But it brings me back to a summer in early graduate school for me. I was working for The Urban Institute, which is a think tank in Washington, D.C. But this work was happening in Chicago. And the question was, “Is there still employment discrimination in Chicago in entry-level positions, specifically in the restaurant business, in sales, and in hotel businesses,” right? So, in Chicago, there were five pairs of young men, Black and white. I was a young Black man paired with a young white man in our early twenties. 

And told to apply for dozens and dozens of jobs in these three huge industries.  The Black men were systematically given advantages, in terms of our resume, right? So, our GPA, our experience, et cetera, was a little bit better than our white male counterparts. And we were sent out and applied for dozens and dozens of jobs.

We were taught how to record what happened to us and all of that. And at the end of that summer, my partner, my white partner, John, said he had been told probably 15 times that he reminded the employer of himself, right, of the employer as a younger man. And all the employers who said that were middle-aged or older white men. I was told that one time, and it was by a Black man, right?

So, this is exactly the kind of in-group preference that Tara's talking about, right? Those white men were drawn to John because they saw him as a younger version of themselves, just as the Black male employee who said the same of me saw me as a younger version of himself. The problem is that there are a lot more older white men in these hiring roles than older Black men. 

And so, at the end of the day, what you have is John gets more offers than I do, even though on paper, I'm a stronger candidate. And in fact, across ten pairs of Black and white men in Chicago and in D.C., there wasn't a single case where the Black male outperformed his white male counterpart. So, you know, it's fine to say in-group love doesn't sound as bad as, it's certainly not as harsh, it doesn't sound as unpleasant as out-group hate, but the bottom line is, it advantages some systematically and disadvantages others in the world we actually live in. 

So, let's pick up that conversation again. 

Melissa Giraud: Even though it might be more of a love in one direction and not a hate, it happens to be true that our kids are living in diverse circumstances, hopefully, in a multiracial democracy, hopefully. We need to help them along, right? We need to help them be more embracing of difference or grow in that direction because the opposite could also be true.

As someone studying this, and you also have a baby, Miles, who we heard from earlier, and we’ve been talking a lot about. I'm wondering what you do to try to support Miles. We heard some of it, but if you could explain, what that's like for you, doing it at home, and what you're trying to do.

Tara Mandalaywala: I think I want to start by saying that just because I study this, I don't think it makes it any easier to do it. I second-guess myself all the time. In some ways, I also feel like I have the curse of knowledge where I know the pitfalls. I know the things that can lead to, you know, actual biased behaviors and that can be harmful.

And so, I'm just like, oh my gosh, did I just do that? I really hope I just didn't do that.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And you're super aware of the stakes, right?

Tara Mandalaywala: Exactly. Exactly, you know?

Andrew Grant-Thomas: More aware than a lot of people would be.

Melissa Giraud: Yeah. It's hard. I mean the more knowledge you have, that can be a powerful thing of course, and at times a slightly paralyzing thing that we really have to push through. And that’s parenting, right? Like parenting in general, parenting around race, in particular. It has its joys and its challenges and can be overwhelming. But we really have to just do it anyway. And I think maybe just accepting that we’ll make mistakes along the way helps.

Tara Mandalaywala: Absolutely. And so, you know, I have Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum's words in my head frequently…

Melissa Giraud: Oh yeah, Beverly Daniel Tatum, the psychologist and academic best known for her book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” So what words of hers are running through your head?

Tara Mandalaywala: It's okay to make mistakes. This is an ongoing thing, and you can always revisit a conversation, right? Like, okay, so you said something, or you did something that you didn't like. That's not the end of it.

You can come back to it and knowing and just reminding myself that I have the capacity to go back and try things again and hopefully, that me and baby Miles are going to be interacting with lots of people and lots of different circumstances and contexts. And it's not just a one-off thing. I can always go back and try and do better the next time.

So that I find reassuring when I feel a little bit paralyzed by, again, the stakes and all the things that I could do wrong.

Melissa Giraud: Absolutely. If it's about one conversation, there is no perfect one conversation, right? So, it's really, about the trajectory and about the ongoing work. Yeah.

Tara Mandalaywala: Exactly. It has to be a regular thing. It can't just be a one-off. And in terms of actual things that I've been trying to do with Miles – one thing that actually started even before he was born was when my husband and I were decorating his nursery. I grew up not seeing myself in children's storybooks or on TV at all. I grew up in the 80s and early 90s, and maybe they were out there, but they weren't in rural Ohio. And I want Miles to see himself, and I want Miles to see other kids. You know, in Amherst, there is some diversity in terms of race and socioeconomic and gender identity, but not as much as we would have if we were in a city or in some other places.

And I think about that a lot, about what he's not necessarily getting. And so, I was like, okay, we have a chance in his nursery. We can make this a space where he sees himself and he sees diversity and inclusion and just the beauty of our world. And then my husband and I really, really struggled to find art that we could put up that we liked that would be in his room and that would show this, and we found our solution in books. 

Melissa Giraud: Ok, I’m pausing this interview to highlight this hot decorating tip. If you’ve looked for inclusive art for your kid’s room, you know that your choices of posters and other commercial art that fit the bill are still, weirdly, pretty slim. So, what Tara and her husband did was put up lots of little wall shelves in Miles’ room so that Miles’ books are also displayed as art. Back to Tara.

Tara Mandalaywala: We're both avid readers as well, and our hope is that Miles will grow up to be an avid reader. And we find books everywhere we go. And our friends gift us books that have diverse characters and representation of all kinds. Every morning when Miles wakes up, I mean, of course he needs his diaper changed and wants his bottle, but as soon as he finishes his bottle, he turns around and points at the wall and says, “More, more.”

And so, we sit and read books together, and he gets to see things and be exposed to ideas about inclusion. And I just love that. And so that was a really easy thing to do that I think brings us, all as a family, a lot of joy every time we come in there.

Melissa Giraud: What would you say to families whose kids do see themselves all the time, right? I'm thinking of white families. What is the advice for those families?

Tara Mandalaywala: Oh my gosh, diversity is beautiful for everyone. You know, I think, use this as a chance to expose your kids to things that are different than them. Give them the chance to hear different ideas and see different worldviews and learn about the kinds of foods and games that kids in other places play.

And use that as an opportunity to start to have conversations with them when they get a little older and start to ask questions. “Well, why are they doing that?” You know, when they ask those questions, they're not asking them because they don't like the things that those other people are doing. They're really just trying to figure things out.

And you know, you're the one that can help give them some of that information. Maybe you don't know the answer and that's okay. Google is a beautiful thing. We all have laptop computers in our pocket. We can look things up and learn together. So, I think, yeah, even if you do see yourself in most of the things you consume, there's real value in being able to see other people too.

Melissa Giraud: And then, Tara, when you're reading to Miles, as we heard you do, how do you think about what he's learning? Because some people are going to look at that or listen to that and think, “Well, he's not even saying words in this conversation. How could he be taking anything in,” right? But there are building blocks, right?

Tara Mandalaywala: That's absolutely true. And you know, sometimes he's not even looking at what I'm showing him. He wanders away. I think he’s not paying attention, but then if I stop reading, he comes back to me and he's like, “More.” Really “more” is the one word that he has down very solidly now. 

So, you know, I think, sure, maybe they're not taking in absolutely everything that you're giving them. And that's okay. They're babies. They're little. They still have a lot of developing to do, and I think you put it beautifully. These are building blocks. It's a comfortable, easy place to start from. Why not do it? There's no cost in it.

I've been thinking also about how I change the way that I read as Miles gets a bit older. So, when he was really little, I wasn't necessarily stopping and pointing things out as we go, but now as he is a bit more engaged, you know, when he's in the mood to read and is sitting there with me, we can stop. I can point specific things out, or I can say, “Hey Miles, which of these looks most like you?” He has probably no idea what I'm actually asking him there, but we're building up the capacity to have those conversations, and again, even for the caregiver, that can be nice. You can practice with them before they get older, and you know, a little bit judgier.

Melissa Giraud: Tara, that is really helpful. You’re saying, it’s really not just about building Miles’ capacity to have these conversations. It’s also about building our capacities as parents to have the conversation and to be intentional when it comes to the images, the words, the messages we’re exposing our children to. And that training, you’re saying, can start for us when the child is a baby. That’s really important.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: So, there's this challenge of engaging. Certainly, for a one-year-old, books do a lot of work, what you've done in his room with the art on the walls. I mean, all those things make a huge difference. And it is a wonderful start. And I clearly hear that you and your husband are planners, right?

You were planning this before Miles actually entered the world. How do you think about how you can help Miles engage with diversity, as opposed to simply see it from a distance and appreciate it from a distance?

Tara Mandalaywala: Oh, that's such a good question. And yes, as planners, and as someone who studies this, this is definitely something I spend a lot of time thinking about. I got really good advice from someone who's a developmental psychologist in Michigan who lives in Ann Arbor. They're Black and they have two children.

And I got to talk to them while I was pregnant and shared this concern of mine. “How do I help Miles engage?” Well, he didn't have a name then, but you know, unknown, unnamed baby engage once they're born, when it's just not naturally right around here. And you don't want voyeurism. You don't want just traveling to communities and looking - like woke tourism. No. You want actual engagement and interaction and meaningful connection. And this researcher gave me an example from their own life about how they take their daughter to dance class in Detroit.

So, by going to the place that's further away, so it's like a 45-minute drive, rather than just being able to go right in Ann Arbor, where their kid is likely to be in a dance room that's full of white children, they take the time. They're intentional about this decision, to give their kid space to be in a place where there's a lot of kids that look like them, where they can develop those meaningful connections over a shared activity.

We know from the research that's a really important way of fostering connection is to share something that you both like. And so, when I'm thinking about Miles as he grows up and is starting to get involved in after school activities or develop hobbies, things like that, I think I'm going to be thinking a lot about where are those things taking place? What is not necessarily the most convenient, but what's going to be the context that's going to allow Miles to develop an appreciation and a value for diversity? Where is he going to be able to meet kids that look like him, or at least are, also coming from interracial families. So that's kind of how I've been thinking about it, and who knows? Hopefully he just picks some hobbies when he grows up that are amenable to those sorts of things.

Melissa Giraud: This has been really wonderful, Tara. I hope people feel that the myth that kids don't perceive race when they're young or when they're babies is put to rest for now, or at least complicated it. And we really want to thank you for sharing time with us today and for letting us interact with Miles when we see you at the library.

Tara Mandalaywala: Oh, anytime. He loves you guys.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: [laughs] Thank you so much. 

Tara Mandalaywala: Thank you both.

Melissa Giraud: Dr. Tara Mandalaywala is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she directs the Cognition Across Development Lab. 


Melissa Giraud: Andrew, I just love Tara's energy, right?

Andrew Grant-Thomas: I love Tara. Tara's absolutely fabulous.

Melissa Giraud: And she's so joyful about this. I mean, it's not that she didn't share her worries, right? So many parents are really afraid about communicating about difference or race in particular with their kids. And she's just delighting in exposing Miles to all kinds of things, including differences and celebrating those differences. 

Communicating about race is much more than talking. And you see that very clearly with a preverbal child, right? Babies really remind us that it's never only about talking or reading. They're learning from many sources, often from what they see, they hear, they feel in their environments, right? 

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Absolutely. And then our focus is always on books. And to be sure, books are a hugely useful tool, and they clearly are for Tara and Miles. But let's just take a little bit of time thinking about, you know, as you say, the nonverbal part of communication, which includes what your child sees, who your child is exposed to, right?

Who are your friends? Who comes over to your house? Whose homes do you go over to? Who do your, your baby, your toddler, your young child see as in your inner circle, the folks you love and admire and hug on and respect. Who are your babysitters? If you hire babysitters, can you try to get babysitters who don't look like you or your family? That's one thing, Melissa, I wish we had been more successful at, you know, whether with respect to racial identity, ethnicity, gender. You know, I wish we had been able to get more babysitters, a bigger mix of babysitters, so our kids could grow up knowing that, yeah, they can be loved by and love a whole range of people. 

Melissa Giraud: Mhm. I loved her point also that I hadn't quite thought about it this way, that as our kids learn to have these conversations, so do we. And it's another reason, besides the fact that kids are learning about race all the time with or without us from babyhood on. It's another reason to start communicating with them early. Even before you have them, as you plan for kids, to be thinking about your own education around race and to be planning the conversations and to be thinking about what neighborhood you're going to live in and who are your people and all of those things.

Who do you have trouble communicating with? I love that just as we're thinking about providing scaffolding for our kids, like that process of thinking about it, creates a certain scaffolding for us to practice and have the conversations from very early. I love that. I love that. We certainly have a lot of resources that would help people with that practice that we can share in the show notes. 


Andrew Grant-Thomas: The EmbraceRace podcast is hosted by me, Andrew Grant-Thomas.

Melissa Giraud: And by me, Melissa Giraud. Our Senior Producer is John Asante. Our Editor is Megan Tan.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Our Engineer and Sound Designer is Enrico Benjamin. And our Consulting Producer is Graham Griffith.

Melissa Giraud: Special thanks to Team EmbraceRace – Robin Deutsch Edwards, Andrea Huang, Tamara Montes de Oca, Christina Rucinski, and Maryam Zahid.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And a huge shout out to our two kids – Rio and Lena – and to the EmbraceRace community.

Melissa Giraud: Subscribe, rate, and review our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcatcher. That really helps us.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: And for more resources related to today’s show and other topics about race and kids, please visit us at To learn more about Tara’s work, check out our show notes. 

Melissa Giraud: Thanks for listening.

Andrew Grant-Thomas: Thank you so much.

Tara Mandalaywala

Dr. Tara Mandalaywala is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She directs the Cognition Across Development Lab where they explore how children develop beliefs about the people around them. More about Tara >
Tara Mandalaywala Baby Miles