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Why You Should Be Talking About Race

tamantiracism

There is an attitude among many parent-peers of mine in the DC metro area that frequently astounds me – parents I meet  feel that by being “color blind” themselves, that somehow (magically?) their children will be open-minded, accepting, and capable of navigating complicated racial situations.

FAIL!

There really is no other way to say it…it’s a huge parenting failure.  Maybe in an Utopian society we could all have the privilege of being “color blind,” but we live in the real world and only a fool thinks that color doesn’t matter on this planet.

A recent study by the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas backs up my POV on the subject.  Austin area families participated in a study in which the goal was to determine “if typical children’s videos with multicultural story lines have a beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes” (Newsweek).

There were three groups of families involved in the study.  The first was group was sent home with just videos, the second group with videos and talking points, and the third group of families were given only the talking points.  The last two groups were told to have conversations about race with their children every night for five nights.

At this point, something interesting happened. Five families in the last group abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

Vittrup was taken aback—these families volunteered knowing full well it was a study of children’s racial attitudes. Yet once they were aware that the study required talking openly about race, they started dropping out.

“We don’t want to point out skin color.”  Does that stop anyone from noticing skin color?  Does that stop children from forming opinions on their own?  In the absence of a guiding influence, children will substitute their own poor judgments, or worse, the hate-filled judgments of someone else.

The study went on to say:

It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup’s entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they’d almost never called attention to racial differences.

They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup’s first test of the kids revealed they weren’t colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

Are these parents really surprised?  If you have values to impart to your children about equality, it will take more than vague statements about everyone being “the same.”  Kids are smart.  They know very well that we are not all “the same.”  What they need to hear is that we are all uniquely different, and they need reasons to value that uniqueness. You, parents, need to find ways to value people of color.  Find ways to compliment and seek out positive statements to impart to your children.  Have frequent, open conversations about race.  Talk about slavery, talk about segregation, talk about miscegenation, talk about stereotypes and hurtful language…talk, talk, and then talk more!  Kids need to know what is acceptable and they need to see with eyes that are wide open, not color blind.

At first glance, the study appears to be a dismal failure.  Many of the families did not talk about race at all, or changed the talking points.  However, there was a ray of hope:

Of all those Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, Vittrup said, “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”

In ONE short week, all six of those families improved the racial attitudes of their children.  By TALKING.  Imagine that.

I understand that parents are hesitant to talk about race for fear of saying the wrong thing.  I encourage you (beg, really) to try.  Seek out some material if you need it.  There are books, websites, and blogs with plenty of good advice.  The simplest (and most obvious) thing to do, is to seek out some interracial friendships of your own, and then talk to your friends about how to discuss race.  I guarantee they will be happy to help you have positive discussions about race with your children.  Also, it’s worth saying that if you espouse a desire to have children who embrace multiculturalism, and you have no friends of color, then you should practice being what you desire your children to be.  If your children never see you have a meaningful friendship with someone of another race, what does that really tell them?  Just food for thought.

What I do know, is that doing nothing is the wrong answer.  Clearly, not talking about race leaves children confused and unsure at best, and harboring racist thoughts at worst.  It’s up to parents to guide our children through complicated racial issues.  It’s time to embrace the task, rather than dread it.  What could be more affirming than to teach your children how to walk in this world, not colorblind, but with an appreciation for diversity and a sense of value for all people.

The full article with the study can be found here.  It’s also posted at the Anti-Racist Parent.

originally posted at Golden Acorn Homeschool » Blog Archive » Why You Should Be Talking About Race.

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  1. Jim
    October 26, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    Hi, Becky. Very interesting. I have no children but I still struggle at age 49 with my own racial attitudes. I guess I had the naive notion that since I grew up with Norman Lear sitcoms, served six years in the military and have generally worked in a racially mixed workplace that I had evolved somewhat. And maybe if all the people I worked with were from the same 70’s era it would be pretty good.

    But it’s also generational. Younger African-Americans (and younger whites) are harder for me to “get.” It could be the music, or the culture…or what I think those are.

    And the churches. In my UU congregation in Columbia, SC I’m aware of about 6 African-Americans in a church of about 200-250. Is it because a child is required to go to public school and an adult needs to work that those settings are more racially mixed? But a ‘voluntary” association like a religious community not so much?

    In a place like South Carolina parents (and churches) had better talk about it…we’re still dealing with Confederate flags on the State House grounds and a lot of anti-Washington rhetoric.

    Peace and smiles…Jim

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