Teach your kids about race. Tell them it's OK to see color.

But be prepared for those kids-say-the-darndest-things moments that Gail Ferguson has learned to expertly navigate. Like when her 4-year-old daughter can't help but declare upon seeing a stranger walking by, "Mom, it's a brown man!"

"We live in Minnetonka, and Minnetonka is not very diverse," said Ferguson, who is Black.

Is Ferguson mortified? Does she hide behind the nearest shopping cart?

"I'll say, 'You're so excited to see someone who looks like you. Let's go say hi,' " said Ferguson, an associate professor of developmental psychology at the University of Minnesota. "Children notice those things. We have to let them comment, and we have to just talk it over with them and carry on. It's not the end of the world."

For a generation that grew up being socialized to think of colorblindness as the ideal, Ferguson's ideas may seem radical.

Yet she knows that children can distinguish between races as young as 3 months old, and they begin to internalize biases and racial stereotypes by age 3. They are making sense of their surroundings, with or without us. What alarms her is the silence, particularly among many white parents, about our differences and about racial injustice. These conversations must start in the home.

Ferguson and her research team wanted to see just how deeply that silence prevailed. One month after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, they surveyed about 400 white Minnesota mothers. Most of the moms lived in the Twin Cities metro region, were highly educated and considered themselves liberal. Their children were between 2 and 11 years old.

The online questionnaire asked how the moms were talking to their children about any current events in the news. On the heels of Floyd's murder, there was no way Minnesotans — at the epicenter of a worldwide reckoning — could have been unaware of the killing, she reasoned.

What she found was the majority of mothers who took the survey were "totally silent," saying nothing about Floyd's murder or its impact on their community, or race or racism.

"After such a heinous murder in your own community — when you hear helicopters and sirens, and when you see all of this happening outside your window — that white parents were still silent, that was very surprising," Ferguson said. "And a very sad reality."

Of those who did cite Floyd's murder by then-officer Derek Chauvin, most did not allude to racial injustice. Only 17% directly acknowledged race, racism or the Black Lives Matter movement with their children.

The small percentage of white moms who did talk to their kids talked about how they could support their family and friends of color, and how they, as white people, could change their own behavior. They spoke of white privilege and protests. And while they were concerned about systemic racism, they also gave their children hope about how they could stand up for justice.

Her study also found that moms who were more advanced in their own racial identity were more likely to parent their children with more racial awareness.

The findings by Ferguson and graduate fellows Lauren Eales, Sarah Gillespie, and Keira Leneman, are resonating in the research world. Their published article was recently honored by the American Psychological Association.

But their study didn't end there. When Ferguson and her team revisited half of the moms a year later, they found reason for hope. The parents showed significant growth in how they were teaching their kids about race. They followed the Chauvin trial and shared the verdict with their kids. Those who had been silent one year earlier were starting to address race and were becoming more conscious of color and power.

The most advanced moms? Racial discussions were so normalized that they were talking about race to their kids casually at the dinner table.

Where to start

OK, for those parents just dipping their toes into trying to raise anti-racist children, where do they begin? I asked Ferguson for advice:

"Name one's race. And name one's whiteness," she said. "Name inequalities. Name oppression."

Don't put this off, like a dreaded talk that can be one and done. Find ways to weave it into short, everyday conversations, building off events in the news in age-appropriate ways.

Watch educational videos with your children. She recommends kid-friendly programs like "PBS KIDS Talk About: Race & Racism" and "The Power of We: A Sesame Street Special." You can find a plethora of resources Ferguson has compiled at bit.ly/3QPAASY.

Remember, she says: Teaching your kids about race won't make your kids racist. But it does open a conversation so you can hear the biases young children may already have absorbed.

"Talking about race can actually help you address stereotypes that are forming before they get baked in," Ferguson said. "The answer is not to say, 'There are no colors.' Acknowledge there are colors and differences, but they're all OK. No group is better than the other, and we have to make sure that people are treated equitably."

Ever the observer on human behavior, Ferguson shared one last story with me.

When her daughter moved into a new preschool class, she brought pictures of her family to introduce herself. One was a photo taken of them at George Floyd Square. The classmates saw a picture of Floyd and asked, "Who's that?"

"Well, he died," Ferguson's daughter said. Her teacher then explained what happened to Floyd, and that they, as a community, needed to remember him and work together to make sure things like this didn't happen again.

Using her classroom app, the teacher shared that moment with all the parents in her daily newsletter. Only one parent commented — and it was about something unrelated to Floyd, race or racism.

"It highlights the white silence," she said. "But we can all make a difference. One little action can spark racial learning for others."