Black History Month is a time for recognition, reflection and inspiration as we acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the progress of the United States. Dr. Nanika Coor interviews Dr. Lucretia Carter Berry about how her new book gives language and a framework for understanding skin tone, plus ways to keep the conversation with kids about race and racism open and ongoing.
This week, I interviewed Dr. Lucretia Carter Berry, author of the book Hues of You: An Activity Book for Learning About the Skin You Are In. Dr. Berry’s book gives children and families a foundational understanding of skin tone, as well as the language and framework for supporting a healthy and evidence-based understanding of skin tone.
Below, you'll find some of the key takeaways from our conversation:
Babies notice skin tone differences beginning as early as 3-6 months of age, and by the age of 5 kids understand skin tone as a major point of distinction and difference between people, whether or not anyone has explicitly mentioned it to them.
Be proactive about talking about race, racism, and skin tone—don’t wait until your child is the perpetrator or recipient of a racist incident or until race-related tragedies happen in the news. Otherwise, kids may begin to associate skin tone with behavior when genetically they have nothing to do with each other.
Acknowledging the existence of different skin tones doesn’t make kids racist. In fact, it makes the noticing and discussing of skin tone less taboo and associated with shame. Research shows that explicitly talking about race and skin tone improves racial attitudes across groups.
Dr. Berry created Hues of You… to help normalize human differences, give kids permission to have conversations about race, and give adults the language and framework to meet the natural curiosity children have with evidenced-based information.
The book is divided into four sections: the hues of you, the hues of your family, the hues of your ancestors, and finally, the hues of your friends. This puts the idea and fact of skin tone in social context and begins to plant the seed that skin tone is biological, but race is not.
Start with explaining what makes a person’s skin tone when children are very young. As they gain understanding, you can begin to slowly layer in the complex social construct of race, such as: the ways race is about rules, the boundaries created by those rules, and why those rules were put in place.
The more kids know about race and racism, the more they have the freedom to ask questions, and the freedom to be upset about painful historical facts. And it’s okay for kids to be upset about upsetting things! Being upset about racism means a child has empathy and compassion, and that’s a good thing. Dr. Berry recounted a time when her 7-year-old child became extremely upset after learning about laws like the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, put in place to prohibit interracial marriage. Her daughter felt that it wasn’t fair that race determined who gets to be born and who doesn’t. If it weren’t for the fight for civil rights, her daughter said, she would never have been born since her mother, Dr. Berry, is Black and her father, Dr. Berry’s husband, is White.
When talking to kids of color about race, it’s important to center skin tone and the reasons skin tones are different. Kids of color need to know that they are not the exception to a White "default." This is why it’s important to discuss skin tones/skin colors—because everyone has a skin tone, White people included. Make these regular conversations at home.
Once kids understand the melanin/genetics part of skin tone, share stories and books with kids of color about important figures in Black history. As you read these books with kids, give some historical/racial context and climate these folks were dealing with at the time. Dr. Berry gives an example of watching a film with her kids that mentioned an integrated swimming pool, and she took that opportunity to explore their knowledge of what that meant in the time period in which the film took place.
In order to have these kinds of open conversations with kids, adults need to make sure that they have a general understanding of how race has worked as a construct in America, so they can give accurate, age-appropriate, and non-traumatizing information to kids. Adults shouldn’t feel that they need to give the entire history of African Americans in the New World in one sitting. Give information in bite-sized pieces, letting the child lead the conversation. Answer the questions they ask until they run out of questions, and that’s all they need to know in that sitting!
To help kids be upstanders rather than bystanders if and when they witness racist or exclusionary incidents, model empathy for all people. When world events occur or racial incidents happen in the news, talk about it with kids from the perspective of “What are we going to do about this as a family?” Talk about how your family is feeling and caring about these incidents, what your family will and won’t tolerate, and your family’s values around social justice, inclusion, and belonging.
Many adults of all races avoid talking to kids about race because they fear children will feel ashamed or guilty. It’s important that when talking to kids of color, we’re sure to explain that though the story of race is unfortunate, it’s not the fault of African Americans or other people of color. People of color did nothing to bring racism on themselves.
Similarly, White teens that Dr. Berry has worked with have expressed feeling discouraged about things that have happened in history in the name of Whiteness. It’s important to check in with the emotions of the kids you’re having these conversations with, and help them understand that these conversations are in the service of healing and the hope that we can make things better. We are not beholden to the way that things have worked in the past.
In multiracial/multiethnic families, there are nuances of these conversations, especially when one parent is White. Parents have to learn to talk about the painful parts of Whiteness without making White family members look bad, and they have to talk about the trauma and suffering of Black ancestors, or other ancestors of color, without painting them as victims. So frame these conversations with the goal that when we know better, we can do better, create better, and learn from past mistakes.
A misconception about anti-racism is that it’s a dark and heavy subject that can’t be discussed in age-appropriate ways. Dr. Berry likes the “anti” part of anti-racism. Racism is about a scarcity mentality, power hoarding, and degrading and devaluing humans. But ANTI-racism is the antithesis of that. It’s about cultivating justice and belonging, fostering community, connection, liberation, and valuing the diversity of humanity.
When children are seen, heard, and valued by their adults, and there is a sense of safety and openness at home, a child of color can more easily share instances of racism, bias, or microaggressions they might experience, so parents can better advocate for them.
The more open conversations are had at home, the less likely children are to internalize and perpetuate hurtful and faulty stereotypes. We don’t have to be complicit with the world we inherited. Instead, we can create the world that we long for.