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In My Skin: Supporting Positive Racial Identity Development in Black Children

Talking Race & Kids

All of us receive powerful messages about race and our racial identity all the time, messages that can significantly affect how we think and feel about ourselves and others. All this may be especially true for Black children living in a racialized country.

The Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Childhood program at the University of Pittsburgh (the P.R.I.D.E. Program) works with the adults in children’s lives to help them foster positive racial identity in Black children, aged 3 to 8. We talk to Dr. Aisha White, one of the principals of P.R.I.D.E., to talk about what's meant by “positive racial identity,” to discuss the challenges Black children, in particular, face in developing a healthy racial identity, and to hear some practical, research-supported ideas for how those of us who love young Black children can support them on their paths to healthy growth and development.

A transcript, lightly edited for understanding, follows.

EmbraceRace: Welcome to EmbraceRace. Today we're talking about supporting positive racial identity development in black children. We met Aisha some years back in the work and we're glad to have her on tonight!

Dr. Aisha White

Dr. Aisha White

Dr. Aisha White, is the Director of the P.R.I.D.E. program. P.R.I.D.E. stands for Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education, out of University of Pittsburgh. She runs their Speaker Series and their professional and curriculum development, their fundraising, supervises the staff, leads the Parent Village which you'll learn a bit about. She supports development of communication strategies and provides guidance and advice for all the operations of P.R.I.D.E. including their pop up mini art festivals.

She also promotes the P.R.I.D.E. message of positive racial identity development in early education through written publications and coordinates the P.R.I.D.E. teacher cohort group and acts as a liaison to the research and evaluation team there at U. Pittsburgh. Aisha, thank you. Welcome. Thank you for being here.

Dr. Aisha White: I'm happy to be here, thank you.

Girl dancing at one of P.R.I.D.E.'s pop up mini art festivals

Girl dancing at one of P.R.I.D.E.'s pop up mini art festivals

EmbraceRace: I wonder if you could just tell us a bit about how you got into this work first.

Dr. Aisha White: Yes. I've been working in a variety of early childhood realms for quite some time - since the late 1980’s. I have worked for an emergent literacy program. I also work for a company which was the producer of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. I used to work with Mr. Rogers. I helped with their childcare partnership program that brought the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood program to childcare providers, both in Pittsburgh and across the country through connection with PBS stations.

Then more recently, I worked as the Director of a program called Ready Freddy Pathways to Kindergarten Success, which was a kindergarten transition program in the Office of Child Development where P.R.I.D.E. is located. There's a very interesting serendipitous story that led us to P.R.I.D.E..

My supervisor at the time had gotten an email message from someone suggesting that she read an article about a black fathers struggles to find quality and diverse childcare for his twin daughters. In the article, he talked in detail about some of the challenges that he faced. He would find quality but not diversity, diversity but not quality. Then at the end, he had a number of recommendations.

[B]lack families have the extra burden of actually helping their children to survive and thrive physically, emotionally and psychologically in an environment that does not value blackness. That's where racial socialization comes into practice.

Dr. Aisha White: My supervisor at the time, in her email to us, with the article attached, suggested that perhaps we could read the article and maybe be part of the solution. I was very brave at the time. What I said was, “I don't see how we could possibly be part of the solution because we never even talk about race in our team meetings.” There was a follow up and I said, “But I'm happy to find articles for us to read and discuss at our bi weekly meetings.”

We read articles for at least six months. The more we read, the more concerned we got but then we also began to learn more about positive racial identity. At the end concluded that there has to be something we can do to develop some kind of programming to support children's positive racial identity. From that point, we actually applied for internal funding from our office to do an environmental scan. The scan basically was looking at who is doing work around positive racial identity in the area? What do people know about it, including parents, teachers, key stakeholders?

At the end, we compiled that into our final report, Positive Racial Identity in Early Education, Understanding P.R.I.D.E. in Pittsburgh. Within the report, there are findings and recommendations and from the recommendations, that's where we decided, well, we need to find out where we can get funding so that we can take some of these ideas and put them into practice.

We were very lucky to be connected with a program officer at W.K. Kellogg Foundation, who surprisingly at the time, is an African American program officer, was actually working on her dissertation and writing about positive racial identity. We were very lucky. She was as excited to talk to us as we were to talk to her. One thing led to another, we sent in something along the lines of a concept paper, she requested that we send in a whole grant application and we were funded for over a million dollars to do the program [starting in March 2017].

EmbraceRace: Wow. That is quite a nice start.

EmbraceRace: So, what do we mean by positive racial identity? And say a little something about how would we know it if we saw it?

The components of racial identity

Dr. Aisha White: You probably wouldn't know it if you saw it and I'll tell you why as I describe it. When we think about racial identity, it refers to three things.

  1. One is our attitudes and our perceptions and our beliefs. What are our attitudes, perceptions and beliefs with respect to the racial group that we are a part of? Attitudes means obviously, do we feel good about the fact that we're part of a racial group? For someone like me, do I feel good about being part of the diaspora of black people?
  2. Then secondly, what's my perception? What do I observe? When I observe black people, is it something that makes me feel good? Is it something that concerns me? Or is it something that's really negative?
  3. Then lastly, what are my beliefs? Do I believe that we are a good people, a hardworking people, people who can strive and survive or not? If all those things are positive then I have a positive racial identity.

Racial identity development in children

But when it comes to children, we need to think about it a little bit differently and look at four different things. One is awareness, the second is attitude again, the third is preference, and the fourth is socialization. Thinking about those first three - awareness and attitude and preference - that can take us all the way back to the Clark and Clark studies because that's some of what they look at. Mamie and Kenneth Clark. I say Mamie and Kenneth because it was really Mamie’s research. She started that in graduate school, and Kenneth Clark came along afterwards. I want to make that point!

What they looked at - in addition to looking at children's preferences and their awareness, and attitudes - they asked children a series of questions about the dolls. Some of the people who are online know about them, some may not so I'll describe it very briefly.

They asked a series of about seven questions. “Which is the good doll? Which is the pretty doll? Which doll would you like to play with? Which one looks like you?” What they found was pretty disturbing to them. It was that although children knew what race they were, the black children did not have positive attitudes toward the black doll, and they did have a preference for the white doll.

Now, there have been lots of other studies since the Clark studies that kind of dispel their conclusions because they concluded that black children didn't feel good about themselves. But there's research that shows that children can have twin conceptions along racial lines, they can prefer white, but they can also still have a positive self-concept. So, when we think about those things, we need to keep that in mind as we think they're very complicated.

The role of racial socialization in racial identity development

The most significant part of that is the last component which is socialization. When I think about children's positive racial identity, I prefer to think about how is it they are socialized by their parents. We know that all parents have to figure out ways to socialize their children to survive in society. Know things like etiquette, know how to behave in some places and behave differently in other places.

But because of raising their children in a racialized society, in a racist country, black families have the extra burden of actually helping their children to survive and thrive physically, emotionally and psychologically in an environment that does not value blackness. That's where racial socialization comes into practice. So you're asking, what does a child with a positive racial identity look like? I would ask instead, what does the environment of the child look like for them?

There's not really something you can see [outwardly] that's different about a child who was raised in a [racially affirming or] positive way. But parents can do a number of things to racially socialize their children so as to promote their positive racial identity development. There are three aspects of positive racial socialization that I want to describe.

Strategies for positive racial socialization of Black children

  1. One is they engage their children in consistent affirmations. They do things like say to their children to repeat after me. “I am beautiful. I am smart. I am a good person. I'm not better than anyone. No one's better than me.” That's part of socialization.
  2. The other is engaging children in conversations. Those conversations could just be regular conversations when a child is picked up from school or picked up from the bus stop where you ask your child what happened today and dig deeper and deeper and deeper that you can figure out if there were some incidents in school, for example, where they were bullied racially. That kind of conversation might come out of that. I don't like to call it interrogation, but I'll call it interrogation, because that's a way for you to begin to have conversations with your child, and then build in them positive racial socialization, in response to what happens to them.
  3. Then the last is immersing your child in experiences that represent the black diaspora. The perfect example of that is P.R.I.D.E.'s pop up mini art festivals. In our mini art festivals, what children do is they come to a half day event where they are immersed in an Africana experience. There are African drummers and dancers. There are Africana story tellers. There's a variety of world African music. This year we were privileged to contract with a steel pan group, which you see on screen, which was fabulous for children to experience.Then there are also activities that are sort of like block party activities. Things like face painting, there are giant bubbles. I am the master of the bubble recipe, the bubbles are unbelievable. Then there's free food. Children have an opportunity to engage in creating activities at a station with an Africana artist, whom by the way, has been trained to understand child development. That's something that's really unique about our pop up mini art festivals.

Steel Drums

Dr. Aisha White: Those three things are really important for children, to be engaged in affirmations and in communication and in experiences. And you go back to communications again, one of the things that we highly recommend is that parents and other people who are important to young children, read quality picture books to them and have conversations with them about the content of the picture books. What we learned in leading the research is that very often parents and educators think that they're helping their children understand race just by reading a book, but that's the minimal that you can do. The most important thing is to have a conversation about what you're seeing and reading together with your child.

EmbraceRace: Thank you, Aisha. There's a lot to unpack there that you mentioned. I'm wondering, of course, at P.R.I.D.E. you all focus on the positive racial identity of black children three to eight years old? But some of this applies across the board, right. To have a positive racial identity development as a Latina kid, as an Asian kid, you need to have a positive self-concept, but also a positive idea of your referential group, the group which you belong. It's more challenging if there's a lot of smog, if there're a lot of negative images that serve a purpose that is not to include people in the culture and that kids have to face. That's where the socialization comes in. Can you go through those four [elements of racial identity development] again? They do apply to other kids in other racial groups, yes?

What we learned in leading the research is that very often parents and educators think that they're helping their children understand race just by reading a book, but that's the minimal that you can do. The most important thing is to have a conversation about what you're seeing and reading together with your child.

Dr. Aisha White: Yes. The four are [first] awareness, are children actually aware of what their race is? The second is attitude. Do they have a positive attitude towards their race and their racial group? Do they have a preference? What we found is that at a certain age, and actually they've identified it as at around three years, the majority of children of color prefer white, because of living in a racialized society. The third is preferences. And then socialization is the fourth one. Socialization is so significant for children. I really think that a lot more money and work needs to go into helping parents to be able to do it appropriately.

EmbraceRace: I have at least two classes of questions. One is around kids with biracial identity, so let's say a black parent and a non-black parent. Then another is relatedly about non-black parents, often white parents, at least in terms of the questions that we got, and I'm wondering, is their role different? Do they have a different role to play or a different approach to the work you do and how to apply the principles that you're talking about when is a white parent engaging a black identified child? Any general thoughts about that?

Dr. Aisha White: Yes. In thinking about families that are biracial, so a dad is black, a mom is white. What we do in our program is we allow any child who their parent identifies as black to participate, as well as when we have our pop up mini art festivals, we will not turn anyone away but they are designed for children who are identified as black. To answer your question, I think that what children need is protection from the messages, the negative messages that they will receive from society that says black is lesser than.

We know from the literature and just from general experience that children who are biracial experience those negative confrontations with people. Sometimes they experience negative confrontations at a higher level because they look so different from everybody else. They don't look like the white children. They don't look like the black children. They may get bullied by both groups and so they might need even a double whammy. So to speak of positive racial socialization, the [biracial] children need the same things [as black children].

In terms of adoptive parents of children who are not the same race, we have not done much work at all in the program with that population. We've gotten a request to do that work, but we're just not prepared. We don't have the capacity. But again, I believe the same message is necessary for those children and also more so because they may be even more confused, because they're not with their biological parents. They are with people who are brand new, and people who also may not know how to provide them with the socialization that they need.

EmbraceRace: EmbraceRace has some great resources around that. One is webinar with Dr. Sandra "Chap" Chapman. I think one of the things, one of the recommendations to know as an adult is to make sure you have a positive racial identity, all parents really, but especially if your racial identity is different from your child's, in order to be able to navigate and socialize your child in a way that's positive for them. In that webinar, Chap was able to talk about racial identity development across races, and had a lot of great tips around that for parents.

Then EmbraceRace has created and collected some transracial adoption resources. Some of you on the line are also recommending which we agree is a go-to for transracial adoption resources.

This was a thing that we hadn't realized until we were preparing for a webinar on transracial adoption [with the fabulous Professor Gina Samuels], that most black children, most Latinx children and most Asian American children who are adopted are transracially adopted. The adoption phenomenon for children of color is very much a transracial adoption phenomenon, which is amazing that, not surprisingly perhaps, is not true of white adopted children.

People were asking about cross race is when you look at the racial identity development models. A lot of people don't actually fit because there aren't models for every racial identity. I'm [Melissa speaking] biracial and there's kind of one but there's so many different ways to be biracial. You can be white presenting biracial. It's actually just a place to start but really you have to, as Aisha said, ask the questions and figure out how the child's experiencing things and think about how you did as well.

Aisha you have clearly started to or more than touched on this, but I wonder if we can go back to the question of what's at stake. You used the words “protection” and “protective.” What might we expect to see with a child who does have a positive racial identity versus a less positive one? How does that play out in that child's life, in the different arenas of that child's life?

What's at stake? Good outcomes for Black kids with positive racial identities

Dr. Aisha White: There are two buckets of research.

Research on Upper Elementary through College Aged Black Children

The wealth of it is research that looks at older elementary through high school and college age children. There's been lots of studies of primarily educational outcomes for those children. There's a slew of positive outcomes that have been documented from children having better grades, higher GPA, higher self-esteem, more resilience. The ability to reject risky behavior. The list just goes on and on for older children.

Research on Black Children 6 Years Old and Younger

It's pretty clear and that's part of what stimulated us, was reading that literature and finding out how many benefits come from children having a positive racial identity. There hasn't been as much research looking at younger children, meaning children say six years old and younger, but there is a study by Caughy and some others that looked at a couple things.

One was the environment and the household. She did an Afrocentric assessment of the household to see if there were images, and books and resources in the household that reflected the child's race. They also looked at the parents positive racial socialization practices. What they found was that in families where there was an Afrocentric household, the children had improved problem solving skills. They also had better recall of facts. Then for the children whose parents socialized them in ways that were positive, they had improved behavior in school. There were three positive outcomes that are clearly connected to young children being socialized in positive ways racially.

EmbraceRace: Thank you for that. I think of it as this cultural empowerment piece, saying that, we, as African Americans, come from a people who are a part of a racial, ethnic history that did XYZ and survived and has this resilience and is joyous in these ways. Then on the other hand, talking to kids about unfairness.

I think that a lot of people worry who aren't doing this already, those who feel, “How can I tell young kids about things that are unfair? Won't I be affirming a negative?” What would you say to those kinds of questions or concerns?

Dr. Aisha White: So helping children understand that the world is unfair, it could be helping children by talking to them about heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr. who did struggle against racial discrimination and who did overcome some barriers. You can’t avoid talking about segregation and discrimination and violence. I would try to limit that to children who are a little bit older, because again, I think it is a little scary and you could cause harm if you don't do it correctly.

EmbraceRace: There's some disagreement about when to start. But part of what you're saying is that in the earlier years, building kids up is the really key piece. And not just building up Black kids but it's also important to celebrate black kids and black people in front of all kids, if you're a teacher. Everyone needs those books and those experiences that counter negative stereotypes and really harm kids targeted by them.

Dr. Aisha White: Yes. I'll use Martin Luther King as an example again. So let's say, for example, that a teacher using a book about Martin Luther King, Jr., in the classroom, the children are not only getting one message about Martin Luther King. They're learning that he experienced segregation, and he is helping people to overcome segregation and they were successful at that. If you think about it, it's a representation of resistance that was successful and that's something that is positive for children. It’s not all negative even when you're talking about the experience of racial bias towards a certain group.

Community Q & A

EmbraceRace: Aisha, Patty wants to know how has your work changed over the last few years given this “new climate of intolerance”, certainly an even stronger climate of intolerance compared to what preceded it, how's that affected your work?

Dr. Aisha White: It hasn't affected our work, I think because at the same time that there's been this growth in white nationalism and white supremacy, that's pretty obvious. There's also been a parallel increase within the education field, especially of people who are talking more about race, who are talking more about equity. For us, what we've seen is increased interest among organizations trying to change their practices to reflect equity. We haven't seen any kind of backlash. We've actually seen an increase in interest.

EmbraceRace: That's great. That's really hopeful. Sheila says: "I have a 9 year old daughter, as do we, who has encountered racist comments by her friends. She doesn't fully understand the term racism but refers to it as bullying. I explained as much as I could without making her feel bad that her friends are racist." So she's looking for additional ways to talk about it and language to use with Black children who are attending a multiracial school community.

Dr. Aisha White: That's a tough one but it's one that there are some things that parents can do. I am a strong believer in dialogue and communication. I would be interested in knowing how much the parent knows about the specific incidents that the child is experiencing so they can come up with, again specific responses and strategies for the child.

Participants in P.R.I.D.E.'s Parent Village program

Participants in P.R.I.D.E.'s Parent Village program

Dr. Aisha White: In our P.R.I.D.E. Parent Village program, we have a program component called Using Words. The whole session is about how you can use words to help your child. We've come up with some actual language that parents can use and that children can use in talking to their children. Things that may sound hokey, but we really think are valuable because it gives children something to stand on.

For one, we have parents actually write down what they would say if someone did something or said something that was racially insensitive to their child. We also give them some language.

For example, sometimes children who are darker because of colorism are treated differently, we all know that. If they're called ugly because they're black, then the child would have a response, something like “I'm not ugly, I'm beautiful. My mom tells me that every day and I'm not sure why you're saying that to me.” If they're old enough they say all that, but parents really need specific language because they don't know what kind of language to use.

This is something that's often very new and it comes often as a surprise. The situation with my grandson that you mentioned earlier, Melissa, I was like a deer in headlights when my grandson said that he didn't like a girl in a book because she was too dark. I just didn't know what to do. I just moved on to the next page so that I wouldn't show emotionally how distraught I was at that moment.

I described the feeling in the article that I wrote as being like the character in the French film, Amélie, when she actually turned into water and dropped into a splash onto the ground. That's exactly how I felt! Like I just needed to dissolve. I came back to that because of my communication with colleagues who said, even if you don't know what to do in the moment, it's okay. You can come back to that again and you can bring it up again.

I brought it up again with my grandson. He was very calm, cool, collected when I asked him these questions. “Do you remember we were looking at this book?” Mm-hmm (affirmative). “Do you remember which person you said you liked?” He told me which one he liked. The very pale white girl with dark hair and blue eyes. “Do you remember what you said about this girl on this page?” Said, “Yes. I said she was too dark.” I went and got his brother and had his brother put his arm next to the page. His name's Sundiata. I said, “Sundiata is just as dark as her.”

My grandson looked at me, he looked at the page, he looked at Sundiata and an odd smile appeared on his face and that was the end of it. But I think he got my message without me trying to lecture him. But I showed him that what you're saying makes no sense because you love your brother, and he's very dark and you're saying you don't like this girl because she's very dark.

EmbraceRace: I really felt that. When I read it and I feel it again when you're talking. Even people like us who are doing this work. When you're there in the moment and it's your grandson. It's just like, “Ahh!!” So emotional, but it's a great lesson that you can come back.

We got some questions related to what you experienced with your grandson. There was one question about what do you do when your Black child wants blonde hair, blue eye, that kind of thing. One of the things is that that doesn't go away quickly. It's sort of a long conversation. I think parents are desperate for that kind of thing to go away, and also just feel like they failed if their kid prefers the white doll, or whatever it is. What do you say in those circumstances? Or what has been your experience in terms of how to handle that?

Dr. Aisha White: It's interesting that you say that parents want those incidents to go away. My first reaction is that parents shouldn't be unnecessarily concerned or disturbed by that. Because it's just something that comes from being immersed in a highly racial society where the images that children see are predominantly white images. If they're in a school environment that's predominantly white, then that's a double whammy. I would say that [the remedy is] there should be lots and lots of conversation.

Getting to the bottom of why it is the child wants to look that way. There should be both conversation, as well as that socialization that helps children see the positives of Black people. One book that comes to mind for me is called Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut. This is a little older, but it is a fabulous representation of positive racial socialization in a setting that you don't often see in children's picture books. It's a barber shop, but there are males and females there.

It's an opportunity for the child to look at the wide range of blackness and in a way that's affirming and positive. Another book that I would recommend which is also a tried and true one is Shades of Black. It helps children understand that there are positives to all the shades of black, all the different types of hair, different eye colors, that sort of thing. I would say a combination of presenting to the child, black that’s in all its glory, but also having conversations to dig deeper to find out where that desire is coming from.

EmbraceRace: It's a marathon not a sprint, right?

Dr. Aisha White: Yes.

EmbraceRace: So, Aisha, we at EmbraceRace working on a video and resources for a project called Reading Race in Picture Books (coming out later this year). For the project, we've been going around to different classrooms and filming story hour. And what's been really fascinating is just how often the kids are not bringing up race. Even though the book is about a contemporary kid of color and you ask all the questions, “What do you see? Describe the kid. What do they look like?” They describe everything, the polka dot bandana and not skin color. I'm really talking about not just white kids. Rooms of all kids of colors often but not always with white teachers.

For so long race has been something that we either don't talk about, or we talk about with our own families and within our racial groups. So there's this dynamic where you still don't talk about it in the classroom. As a teacher or adult, sometimes you really need to signal that it's okay to mention skin color, for example, before kids will. I know P.R.I.D.E. does some work with teachers. How do you advise them?

Dr. Aisha White: Yes. That has not come up with teachers, but it has come up in some of our readings. What we've learned is that very early on, kids learn that they shouldn't talk about race and they shouldn't bring it up, including children of color. I would agree that teachers need to figure out ways to prompt children, they need to have that understanding that just like them as adults, children learn early that race is something that's taboo unfortunately.

Children will overlook things like skin color, or even hair texture in a picture book. But teachers need to be adamant. If that's the lesson that they're trying to teach, they need to figure out ways to get around that.

EmbraceRace: We know that this isn't your core area in terms of age but here's a question about supporting positive identity development among black teenagers when they are more consciously aware of societal individual biases and prejudice, as well as structural racism. Let's say the 15 year old, who has a more sophisticated understanding of what she/he/they may be facing in the world and how things are... Systems and structures and how things might be stacked against them, at least in some cases. Do you have any ideas about how you handle the child who has that more sophisticated understanding than the 5 year old, as a parent?

Dr. Aisha White: Well, I can use my own children as an example. They haven't been teenagers for a long time, they're full adults. Lots of this comes down to the same basics, I think. Which is having conversations about race be something that's natural and normal in your household and making sure that not only is it natural or normal, but that it's welcome and something that everybody leaves feeling better having had that conversation.

Then again, always digging deep because you might get surface information, you need to figure out ways to ask questions and a number of different ways to get at the same information from a child. Teenagers may be more forthcoming than young children, because they have stronger emotions and they want to vent more. But sometimes they don't. I think that parents need to come up with strategies for how to dig deeper and get that information from their children.

They need to be prepared to have more sophisticated conversations. That means that they need to learn more as well. One of the things that we found, as we did our focus groups for our environmental scan was that parents complained about the fact that they never learned about their history, and therefore they couldn't share it with their children and they felt that their children were getting the short end of the stick around learning about African American history and culture.

It was really a running joke by the time we got finished doing our focus group because all the groups of parents said that children learned about the same people every year. Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. As a teenager, they will have much more information if they're going to the school that's providing these kind of resources to them. A parent needs to be prepared to be able to have those conversations with their child.

EmbraceRace: So, what is the trajectory of the work? You have a particular agenda now. You're doing a lot of work toward it or let's suppose you got a bunch more resources to expand your capacity, what's on the horizon? What would be next for you?

Dr. Aisha White: If we got the funding, then we would figure out ways to do some planning and do some hiring to support people who could help us to expand into areas such as biracial families, transadoptive families, immigrant families. We'd be happy to do that work if we had the capacity. But we also, in our recent prior retreat, came up with some strategies for making the work a little more embedded, because we don't want to constantly be dependent on funding from soft money.

We've been thinking about ways to work with organizations so that they embrace this as part of their everyday work. One example might be family support, which is our primary and our best partner. Family support centers help us do our Parent Village because they do the recruiting for that. They also help us with our pop ups, they help us with volunteers and spaces and that sort of thing.

But we really would like to see family support take that on as their work versus P.R.I.D.E. do it as our work and partner with them. The same thing with organizations like public schools, we've been not very successful in integrating some of our work into Pittsburgh public schools. That may change over time. But we think that this is work that maybe we could do training for teachers and then teachers could continue to work on their own, so it's more embedded.

EmbraceRace: Here's an interesting question, how can adolescence in high school or middle school or older siblings, support elementary students with positive racial identity development?

Dr. Aisha White: Just like adults, they would have to have positive racial identity themselves. They have to have had that experience already. I would think that they have to be pretty sophisticated to actually transmit that to other children. But I think it's possible. I mean, a teenager can read a picture book and ask questions just like a parent could. I think it's possible, but there would be some pre-requisites.

EmbraceRace: Earlier, I asked, maybe we might have been one of the first questions we asked about how you would know if a child did not have positive racial identity. You said it's very possible you wouldn't. That said, if there is a parent now wondering if their [Black] child has a positive racial identity, are there anything that that parent should be looking for?

Dr. Aisha White: Starting that conversation and finding out what their reactions are. Again, using my grandson as an example, I learned from some teachers that it probably wasn't appropriate to ask my grandson which person he liked in the book, but I think it was okay for me to do it as a grandparent, not as a teacher. I think that if parents do things like read the book, All The Colors We Are, which we learn about where you get your skin color from, they can just look at their child and see what their reaction is to the words and the pictures in the book.

It talks about things like, we all get our skin color from three things, the sun, melanin and our ancestors. Then there are pictures of a white child with a black child and then see how the child reacts. They could ask questions, “What do you think about how he looks?” That gives you an indication of how they feel about people who have darker skin, and then they can begin to do their work based on that. They can engage in activities where they see the child's reaction.

EmbraceRace: Aisha, we have a question also about affinity groups and the benefits of racial affinity groups for kids. I mean, that's purely something you do with P.R.I.D.E.. Do you have more to say about that? Especially for kids who are the only minority at their school or in their neighborhood or they are one of the two black kids at their school or whatever it is. If your kid is not getting supported socially in their identity. It seems like P.R.I.D.E. would be a great way to expose kids and trying to create situations where they are playing and befriending kids who have more in common with them or who at least are racially similar so that that's the thing they can groove on, right?

Dr. Aisha White: Yes, or the Parent Village sessions. During the Parent Village sessions, they do bring their children with them and the children are cared for in a separate room. We're encouraging the family supports center staff who are caregivers of the children to engage in activities that mirror what we're teaching the parents in the Parent Village sessions. We're hoping that they'll be engaging in children activities around skin color and hair texture as well.

EmbraceRace: Give us a taste of what you're finding when formally evaluating P.R.I.D.E.?

Dr. Aisha White: One of the things that we're finding is that parents appreciate the Parent Village program. They have learned more about how important it is for them to give their children affirmed messages, and they are grateful to have the information that we provide on a regular basis during each session because each session includes information that's historical information that builds up what was missing from what we heard from parents at the very beginning when we conducted our scan.

You also find out from teachers that they understand now how important it is to have conversations with children about race. They are more aware of the fact that they lacked that information when they are in either undergraduate school or graduate school. They also have more resources that enable them to do that work. We're finding that people come to the realization that these things are probably more important than they thought they were and in turn, change their behavior.

EmbraceRace: You're obviously providing an invaluable service.

Dr. Aisha White: We need more P.R.I.D.E.

EmbraceRace: We need more P.R.I.D.E.! Thank you Aisha. Thank you so much, we're at time.

Dr. Aisha White: Thank you.

Related Resources

My 6-year-old grandson thought a book character’s skin was ‘too dark.’ Here’s how I handled it. by Dr. Aisha White

Understanding Racial-Ethnic Identity Development - Tools for raising brave kids in a world where race matters

It's Never Too Early to Talk About Race and Gender by Christina Brown Spears and Riana Elyse Anderson, Human Development, 2019;63:1–3, published online on July 22, 2019.

The Influence of Racial Socialization Practices on the Cognitive and Behavioral Competence of African American Preschoolers by Margaret O'Brien Caughy, Patricia J. O'Campo, Suzanne M. Randolph and Kim Nickerson, Child Development, Vol. 73, No. 5 (Sep. - Oct., 2002), pp. 1611-1625.

Transracial Adoption - various EmbraceRace resources, your go-to for transracial adoption resources

Children's Books

Crown: Ode to the Fresh Cut, Written by Derrick Barnes, Illustrated by Gordon C. James

Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children, Written by Sandra Pinkney, Illustrations and Photographs by Myles Pinkney

All the Colors We Are, Written by Katie Kissinger

Aisha White

Dr. Aisha White is the Program Director of the University of Pittsburgh's Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education (P.R.I.D.E.) Program. More about Aisha >
Dr. Aisha White