Kids playing with bubbles

Giving children a voice about race

At a moment when race and racism are prominent in the national conversation, Erin Winkler listens to people often unheard. She researches the formation of racial beliefs, particularly in young children.

“We don’t listen to children enough,” says Winkler, an associate professor of Africology in UWM’s College of Letters & Science. “And adults haven’t done a great job in fixing this problem.”

Erin Winkler
Erin Winkler

Kids as young as 2 1/2 reason people’s behaviors based on skin color. Winkler says they can answer questions such as, “What patterns do they see? Is this place safe for brown people or for white people?”

Winkler was part of a team at the Smithsonian Institution that taught schoolteachers how to have productive conversations about race in the classroom. She says adults often deny children’s emerging insights and questions about racial differences by avoiding discussions of race altogether.

But ignoring such questions or using colorblind language denies children’s natural awareness of skin color differences and their observations of who seems to belong where. “We’re more comfortable talking about culture than race, so that gets expressed in multiculturalism, like International Day,” Winkler says. “But that brings kids to the conclusion that we’re all the same. So, if they see inequities, they reason those must be deserved.”

When she interviewed mothers and children in Detroit, exploring how African-American children begin to understand race, they provided valuable information about the family’s role. But they also led her to a new observation: Place itself creates racial identity.

Now she’s planning a project in New York City, working with African-American and Latino children and youth experiencing homelessness or other forms of marginalization. They’ll use digital cameras to “take photo journeys of their neighborhoods.”

Winkler will conduct group and one-on-one interviews about which photos they find most evocative. She wants to know, “Does it seem like the space belongs to anyone in particular? Who belongs? Who’s excluded? Does it feel safe or unsafe? Does the picture tell anything about themselves? And does any of that relate to race?”

Winkler hopes her research will help the next generation find ways to make every place welcoming to people of all races.