School Friends

How to Raise Racist Kids

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School Friends
“School Friends” by Flickr user woodleywonderworks, used under Creative Commons License.

A version of this post was first published on GeekDad in February, 2010. In light of current events, I thought it would be relevant now. Before you comment, please actually read the post—while this should go without saying, I got enough responses four years ago from people who actually agreed with me but somehow didn’t realize it.

Here’s a quick, two-step method for raising racist kids:

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 your race is better than everyone else’s.

Surprised? So were authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman when they started researching the issue of kids and race for their book NurtureShock, published in 2009. 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.

Let me expand on this—NurtureShock explores various aspects of parenting and children through scientific studies, citing hard data but also using anecdotes to humanize the numbers. One chapter is titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that many white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. And we’re talking about white parents who want to encourage multiculturalism, the ones who hope their kids will grow up “color-blind.”

The assumption (at least of those who want to raise non-racist kids) is 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’s different skin color, 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 and even Star Wars fans. What Bronson and Merryman point out is that we should say the same thing about race: a black or brown person can be the President or a professor or, heck, a Stormtrooper. Just as we don’t shush somebody for describing somebody as having long or short hair or being a boy or a girl, we shouldn’t play down the fact that people have different skin colors or hair textures.

One of the researchers asked some of the white kids in the study: “Do your parents like black people?” 14% said “no,” and 38% said they didn’t know. These are kids of parents who thought they were teaching their kids a very different lesson. Depending on how old your kids are, you may not be giving them all the details about Ferguson or Eric Garner. Maybe you don’t even agree that race is a contributing factor—but this research shows, at the very least, that we can’t always assume that our kids are picking up the lessons we think we’re teaching.

One thing you can and should do, not just now but all the time, is talk to them about race. Need some help? Parenting.com has 5 Tips for Talking About Racism With Kids.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/woodleywonderworks/ / Creative Commons License

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10 thoughts on “How to Raise Racist Kids

  1. As a fairly new parent, I think a lot about the ideal way to raise my kids. I’d seen the study before that debunked the “color blind” myth, but it’s always nice to see it reinforced, especially, as you point out, in troubled times. Thanks for the post.

    1. And is that who you want your child to learn from? Think about it the media also glorifies sex and drugs so are you going to stop to educate your kids about it because you “think” the media is going to win? Sounds like you think you have no control over your own kids.

  2. Makes sense. Society bombards you with notions and images of White primacy. Unless you actively fight against that as a parent, your kids will simply absorb the cultural messages around them. “Everybody’s equal” is way too weak a counterbalance when your kid is constantly told that Whites are the most beautiful, that Whites have contributed almost everything to civilization, that Whites make for the most interesting and empathetic protagonists in all stories, etc.

  3. Interesting, it made me think about another prejudice also…
    We talk about race, religion, culture and social norms a lot with our children because I’m “east” indian and brown skinned and my husband is “white” and fair skinned. We seem to have to tackle it daily, with other children asking them questions etc. and because of it my children are very aware of who they are and view every race with an open curiosity that I think is wonderful.
    However… Hmm, we’ve never discussed disabilities before. I realize that we have been choosing to shush them to not point it out or saying everyone is equal. I guess I was thinking to address it when they are a little older, just like the article said. But now, it occurs to me that it’s the same thing, and really should be addressed early and openly also.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right—we think that we should teach our kids not to point out physical differences because it’s rude, but what they’re learning is apparently that having these physical differences is bad, not simply that it’s impolite to point and comment. It’s hard to overcome our own habits to make those teaching moments for our kids and still show respect to other people, but it seems like in the long run it would pay off.

  4. Thanks for your article. I agree with your premise. But I’m curious about the “fact” that students are less likely to form cross racial relationships in more diverse schools. And how is “more diverse” defined? Even distribution of multiple races? Ethnicities? Countries of origin?

    I ask because my daughter attends an extremely diverse school in terms of ethnicity and country of origin, and I’m awed and delighted by the strong cross cultural relationships. About 35-40 percent of the kids are Latino – Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Colombian, Ecuadorian. In other words, a diverse Latino population About an equal percentage of very diverse Asian students, with many from Bangladesh and Pakistan and Tibet and China and a bunch of other really different Asian cultures. White kids and black kids, including immigrant children of both races represent a significantly smaller percentages of the student body.

    I find it hard to imagine that there are many schools that have this level of hyperdiversity. And yet I have observed that the cross racial/cross cultural relationships are strong. There is no “White table” or “Latino table” in the cafeteria. My Latina daughter’s third grade “girl gang ” consists of two Bangladeshi girls, a white Jewish girl, and an Arab girl. In second grade her inner circle included the same white girl and the same Bangladeshi girls, a biracial (black/white) girl and a half Ecuadorian half Dominican girl.

    I’m guessing that if a school is half white and half Asian, or two thirds black and one third Latino, the kids might self segregate. But if there is no majority, in other words MORE diversity, I’m guessing the kids mix like they do in my daughter’s school.

    But I’d love to see the data.

    1. I’m looking back over the chapter and it’s talking about several studies. One was done by the Civil Rights Project. The cited source is: “The Impact of Racial and Ethnic Diversity on Educational Outcomes” by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard in 2002. This study looked at attitudes about race in recently desegregated districts, so these are schools where the racial make-up of the schools went from primarily a single race to much more mixed. They polled high schoolers about things like: would you like to live in a diverse neighborhood when you grow up? 70% of nonwhite juniors said yes, 35% of white juniors said yes.

      Another study by Dr. Walter Stephan, “Improving Intergroup Relations in the Schools,” found that in only 16% of recently desegregated schools did white students feel more favorably toward blacks after the first year of desegregation. 36% had no change, and in 48% of schools attitudes actually got worse.

      The specific one about more diversity=more self-segregation is by Dr. James Moody of Duke University: he asked students to name their five best male friends and five best female friends. He compared the ethnicity of the student to their friends, and compared that to the school’s overall diversity. But there’s not much more detail here in how that overall diversity is defined, just that “the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school.” Looks like the study is available here as a PDF: http://www.soc.duke.edu/~jmoody77/ajs_reprint.pdf I’ll try to have a look at the study later but it’ll have to wait.

      Now, in the case you’re describing, with hyperdiversity, it may be that cross-racial relationships form out of sheer necessity. If there are only a handful of kids of any particular ethnicity, then either they only have a handful of friends or they have to reach outside their groups.

  5. I raised children in a racially mixed family. My daughter, Afrika, is a mixed race child, her step brother is white,as is her half sister. I worked at the YWCA where the elimination of Racism by any means necessary was a motto. We had many discussions about race and culture in our household. We met many people at the YW of different cultures and abilities. Our neighborhood used to be more diversified , but gentrification has set in. If a parent wants to raise a non racist child, they must talk about it and find social connections with a diverse group of friends. Above all,we need to recognize the humanity and common values that we all share.

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