Babies are born colorblind. At birth, they cannot distinguish black from white, yellow from red. Color vision begins to develop in the ensuing weeks. By six months of age, they can see every pigment of the rainbow, easily differentiating different skin tones. A sense of wonder and joy develops as they begin to appreciate the diversity of God’s creation around them.
But interestingly—or perhaps, insidiously—babies take longer looks at unfamiliar faces from different racial backgrounds than at ones from those of their own.1 By the age of three, children begin to develop racial biases, not necessarily mirroring those of their parents.1-4 Is this surprising? Popular belief tells us that young children are racially colorblind, and that it’s too early to discuss issues of race with them, that doing so will only pollute their minds.
Yet, the sin of racism has existed since the fall of humankind. Original sin marked the inauguration of prejudice. Born with a sin nature, the beauty that children discover can easily be distorted by those around them. Satan can convince young kids and youth to think they are better than others, in part due to their racial category. The deceiver misleads us to believe that others are less than we are.
What can churches do to combat the sin of racism within their congregations, families, and communities? Coupled with sound theology, current research encourages them to engage their infants, toddlers, and young children early instead of waiting. Combatting the sin of racism requires thoughtful words, careful planning, and timely conversations. Here are several principles that pastors, church leaders, and parents can follow.What can churches do to combat the sin of racism within their congregations, families, and communities? Sound theology and current research encourages them to engage their infants, toddlers, and young children early instead of waiting. Click To Tweet
Principle 1: Foster Trust by Exposing Infants to People with a Range of Ethnic Backgrounds
Characterized by the sensorimotor stage of development by Piaget, six-month-old infants can nonverbally categorize individuals by race and gender. So it is essential to expose babies to different ethnic groups as early as possible. Though they are not able to communicate orally, their interactions with others are crucial to engendering trust while chiseling away at fear.
Our eight-month-old infant has caretakers from a variety of different backgrounds. Through his exposure to different ethnicities and languages, he is increasingly comfortable around each of them. It confirms what psychologist Kang Lee’s research posits, that “racial bias later in life may arise from our lack of exposure to other-race individuals in infancy.”5
By taking care to schedule volunteers from a range of different ethnicities within nurseries and in fellowship activities at church, pastors and parents can paint a picture of the Kingdom of God for their infants. Over time, this portrait becomes imprinted on their hearts. We allow our children to approach the Savior unhindered by following Jesus’ command in Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Principle 2: Teach Preschool Children that People from Every Racial Category are Created in the Image of God
Well known to parents, the terrible twos are a normal time of development when toddlers vacillate between independence and reliance. At that time, they begin to assert their own will within social interactions. Even at the age of two, toddlers use racial categories to reason about people’s behaviors. Those between three and five not only categorize by race but also express bias. Research within an ethnically-diverse daycare center shows that preschool children use racial categories to identify themselves.6 They include or exclude children from activities, negotiating power in social and play networks through prejudice.
For Piaget, these children are in the pre-operational stage of development. They can think about things symbolically while possessing the ability to make one word (or object) stand for something other than itself. Thus, it’s a perfect time to teach toddlers and preschool children about the Christian concept of the imago dei, that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Psychologist Beverly Tatum provides the following example: a white mother and preschool child are shopping at the grocery store. They pass a Black woman and child, and the white child says loudly, “Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so dirty?” (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among white preschool children.) The white mother, embarrassed by her child’s comment, responds quickly with a “Ssh!”
An appropriate response might have been, “Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different color hair, people have different skin colors.” If the child still seemed interested, the explanation of melanin could be added. Perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, however, many parents don’t offer an explanation. They stop at “Ssh,” silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away; they just go unasked.Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away; they just go unasked. Click To Tweet
If properly taught, young children can understand the inherent worth of others around them. They can appreciate the uniqueness of a friend’s racial identity. When they do, they will begin to see beauty in diversity, significance in language, goodness in color. Eventually, appreciation of other image-bearers of God will accompany understanding of the Creator Himself.
Principle 3: Provide Opportunities for Elementary-Aged Children to Engage in Issues of Injustice and Inequality
Piaget characterized children between seven and 11 within the concrete operational stage of development. At this age, children begin to work out problems internally. Operational thought and logic start to crystalize as they consider numbers, mass, and weight.
As these children start to navigate the world, there is no better time to engage in issues of injustice and inequality within a fallen world. The tension between following justice in Deuteronomy 16:20 (“Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you”) and realizing that injustice is widespread leads naturally to questions of evil and sin. This type of dialogue can be challenging yet potentially eye-opening and transformational. At this age, children are well-positioned to grapple with these conversations.
Our 8-year son continually asks questions about injustice in the world. Not only does he inquire about the details of slavery in America, he openly wonders why it was freely accepted in biblical times. Through curiosity and learning, open dialogue with his parents and classmates allows him to begin formulating his views while understanding prejudice.
Allowing children to explore challenging questions in Sunday school teaches them the value of critical thinking. When such exploration is linked to self-reflection and repentance, kids begin to understand the words of the Psalmist: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts” (Ps 139). In time, an understanding of the sin of racism becomes clearer.
Principle 4: Foster in Adolescents an Environment of Activism against the Sin of Racism
Within the formal operational stage of Piaget, adolescents think abstractly. They are ready to speak, act, and engage in issues of racism. Not only must we encourage them, but we must empower them as well. Tatum, once explained that in the same way residents who live in highly polluted areas cannot avoid becoming “smog breathers,” Americans who are immersed in the structures and practices of white supremacy unwittingly become “racism breathers.”Tatum says that in the same way residents who live in highly polluted areas cannot avoid becoming 'smog breathers,' Americans who are immersed in the structures and practices of white supremacy unwittingly become 'racism breathers.' Click To Tweet
In Galatians 2:11, Paul opposed Peter face-to-face because he stood condemned for his prejudice against Gentiles. Paul reminded Peter that what God made clean, he should not call unclean. Peter’s actions were inconsistent with the Gospel, and Paul was not afraid to confront him, correct him, and rebuke him.
We need to foster an environment where our youth are unafraid to speak against the sin of racism while having the freedom to act in non-violent protest. Understanding that silence is sometimes complicity, we can encourage activism instead of passivism. This may include speaking out against racism in youth group and classroom settings, joining their parents during protests, or penning dissents in solidarity. Living the gospel involves loving others regardless of the color of their skin, the nature of the language, and the nuances of their culture. May we be a people that follow justice and justice alone, that we may live and possess the land the Lord has intended for us.
- Katz, P.A. and J.A. Kofkin, Race, gender, and young children. Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder, ed. S.S.L.J.A. Burack. 1997, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
- Aboud, F.E., A social-cognitive developmental theory of prejudice. Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child, ed. S.M.Q.C. McKown. 2008, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons
- Hirschfeld, L.A., Children’s developing conceptions of race. Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child ed. S.M.Q.C. McKown. 2008, Hoboken, NJ John Wiley & Sons
- Patterson, M.M. and R.S. Bigler, Preschool children’s attention to environmental messages about groups: Social categorization and the origins of intergroup bias. Child Development 2006. 77: p. 847-860.
- Xiao, N.G., et al., Infants Rely More on Gaze Cues From Own‐Race Than Other‐Race Adults for Learning Under Uncertainty. Child Development, 2017. 89(3): p. 229-244.
- Van Ausdale, D. and J.R. Feagin, The first R: How children learn race and racism. 2001, Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield
- Tatum, B.D., Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And other conversations about race. 1997, New York, NY: Basic Books