Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”
Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.
Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that <insert your ethnicity here> is better than everybody else.
Surprised? So were authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman when they started researching the issue of kids and race for their book NurtureShock. It turns out that a lot of our assumptions about raising our kids to appreciate diversity are entirely wrong:
It is tempting to believe that because their generation is so diverse, today’s children grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact.
Since it’s Black History Month, I thought it would be a good time to talk about race, particularly some of the startling things I found in this particular chapter of NurtureShock. What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good.
And what are they learning? Here are a few depressing facts:
- Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.)
- The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships.
- 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
- A child’s attitudes toward race are much harder to alter after third grade, but a lot of parents wait until then (or later) before they feel it’s “safe” to talk frankly about race.
We’re very comfortable now talking to our kids about gender stereotypes: we tell our kids that women can be doctors and lawyers. Heck, Barbie can be a computer engineer! What Bronson and Merryman point out is that we should say the same thing about race: doctors can be any skin color. A (half-)black man can be President. Black people can be very cool geeks.
So, in honor of Black History Month, talk to your kids about race. Need some help? Parenting.com recently posted 5 Tips for Talking About Racism With Kids. I would argue, though, that “most important” should be say something, because simply “being a role model” is apparently not having the effect we think it does. Oh, and also? Make sure if you use that eggs analogy that your kids don’t think you’re encouraging them to crack people open.
Buy NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children on Amazon
You can see more of Marcus Kenney’s work at his website.
[This post originally ran in February, 2010]