Thursday, October 08, 2009

"Is Your Baby Racist?" - Newsweek, September 14th, 2009

I was reading some older magazines at the gym and came across the
Newsweek from September 14th, 2009 with the cover story "Is Your Baby Racist?". I found this story totally fascinating! It's culled from a chapter in a new book called Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Lucky for me, I have a friend who has already purchased this book, so I will get to read it whenever he is finished, but this article definitely helped pique my interest in the book.

You should take the time to read the entire article (linked above) if you get the chance, but I'll summarize some of the most interesting points for discussion:

  • Even among families that volunteered to participate in a study that investigated children's perceptions of race, researchers found that parents were reluctant to discuss race at all with their children because they felt that not discussing race allowed their children to be "colorblind." In fact, the study found that children are able to distinguish differences in race as early as 6 months old

  • Researchers found that parents who did discuss race used vague terms like "Everyone is equal" or "We're all friends" which did not actually help children process their own questions about race. This leads not necessarily to discrimination but rather to preferences for one's own group. To quote the article:

    Kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own. Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible....children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn't like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism.

  • Research suggests that by age 8 or so, when most parents finally figure it is necessary to talk about race, children's opinions about race have mostly formed, whereas discussing it earlier tends to allow children to openly question their curiosities about race. The idea is that they are not necessarily prompted to discriminate immediately, nor do they see any specific reason to, but rather that their self identification with their own race can lead to classifying others precisely as that -- "others."

  • Sadly, school integration may not be the key. Research found that "the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down." This is perhaps because students recognize more social constructs around them that center around race (one example might be a lunch table that a student assumedly cannot sit at because it is populated by another race) and thus is less likely to pursue opportunities to interact with students of other races.

  • Interestingly enough, informing kids about the sordid history of racial discRimination at an earlier age may be the key to preventing such group discrimination. Another interesting excerpt:

    Bigler ran a study in which children read brief biographies of famous African-Americans. For instance, in a biography of Jackie Robinson, they read that he was the first African-American in the major leagues. But only half read about how he'd previously been relegated to the Negro Leagues, and how he suffered taunts from white fans. Those facts—in five brief sentences were omitted in the version given to the other children.

    After the two-week history class, the children were surveyed on their racial attitudes. White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks than those who got the neutered version. Explicitness works. "It also made them feel some guilt," Bigler adds. "It knocked down their glorified view of white people." They couldn't justify in-group superiority.

Anyhow, that's just a tiny snippet of some of the interesting stuff contained in the article, and it really makes me wonder how racial discrimination has shifted, especially with the election of a mixed-race president, which seems like it would be an opportune point for discussion between parents and their children.

It seems especially poignant that as older generations who grew up with more prevalent racism age, the newer generations are faced with their own unique obstacles to discussing race, such as the assumption that children are "naturally colorblind," which seems a bit idealized when you think about it. That said, I don't think children have a natural tendency to discriminate, and it seems to me to be more of an issue of not addressing a natural curiosity that arises about something in the child's world.

I know I have a couple parents who read the blog, how have you tackled the question of race with your children? How did your parents tackle it with you?


Emily S said...

For awhile there every time Ethan saw a black man he thought it was Obama. That has changed over the last 6-8 months though. I guess we have kind of just done the not-worry-about-it-too-much approach like the article said, mostly because I don't worry too much about race myself. When we see people of another race I treat them just the same as I do my own race and I guess I figured he would take it from my cues. I have banned the racist jokes my dad makes though when Ethan is around because I don't want him learning that garbage.

harpermc said...

I saw read this article also.
We actually started this conversation quite young with Demma because we lived in a very diverse neighborhood in Rome, GA before moving to Carlisle. I distinctly remember the first time skin color came up -- we were stopped at a stop light and a group of high school students, cheerleaders, were collecting money at a stop light for a local cause of some sort. Demma was probably 2, 2 and a half, sitting in her car seat in the back. I got some money out and 2 of the girls came over to the car, very exuberant and friendly, thanked me and then looked in at Demma in the back. The windows were down and they went on about how cute she was. One girl reached in and said, "can you give me five, Baby?" Demma gave her five and as we pulled away from the light, in the rearview, I saw her looking back at the girl. She sort of waved and then sort of looked at the back of her hand and then back at the girl a couple of times. It just sort of hit me that she was processing the thought that her hand was decidedly pinker than the hand of the girl she had "given five", and this was even when she had seen children of all different colors at the park, in a play group, in her swim class at the Y, so I just said -- "That was a very sweet girl and wasn't her skin a beautiful color?" Demma almost seemed relieved -- she said "yes and her hair was different. Pretty. But different." And I said "isn't it great that people come in so many different colors with different hair?" Demma agreed and, like I said, almost seemed relieved to have had just that bit of a conversation about differences in skin color.
I thought of that when I read in the article about the kid who quite loudly pointed out to his mother all of the "people from Africa" after his school had a discussion about African American history. I am sure he was relieved also. It has always seemed silly to me to ignore the fact that people come in different colors, sizes, shapes and styles -- kids aren't stupid, they do realize this so I think it is important that parents acknowledge the differences in a way that says "yes we come in different colors and styles but we are all people". In the infamous words of the Dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding -- "we may be apples and oranges, but in the end, we all are fruit."