Talking About Race with Kids. ~ Mark Jordahl

Via on Dec 9, 2010
Hands Of Harmony by Vermin Inc, on Flickr
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Raising Your Child in Africa Doesn’t Make it Easier.

“White people over there! Black people over there!”

My wife and I stared at each other in horror as our then-three-year-old son stood on his chair and shouted this during a dinner we were hosting for a group of Ugandan and ex-patriate friends.

The girl next door, a six year old from Zimbabwe, had been learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States at her school. As the older and wiser of the two, she often plays the role of “teacher” when they are together in the afternoons. Apparently on this day she had been teaching him about segregation, and he was sharing with us what he had learned. Can you say “awkward?”

When we moved to Uganda in 2008, our son was just over two years old and seemed to have no awareness of skin color or, really, of the fact that Uganda is a different place from America at all. Even though there were very few mzungu (white) kids in his school, we never heard him talk about being different, or show any awareness of the fact that most people around us on a daily basis are black and that we aren’t.

About six months later, he came home from school talking about “the black kid.” We thought “OK—honeymoon’s over. Now we’re going to have to figure out how to talk about this with him.” But then moments later he started talking about “the blue kid” and “the red kid” and we realized he was referring to the clothes the other kids in his school were wearing. Whew. Dodged the bullet for a little while longer.

Then came the dinner party.

Not surprisingly, our Ugandan friends just laughed. I say “not surprisingly” because here in Uganda, you call it like you see it. Some people are black, some people are white, some are fat, some are skinny, and somebody with one leg is known as “the guy with one leg.” You frequently hear Ugandans say “you white people are like this” or “we blacks are like this.” It’s not like in the United States, where we all try to pretend we don’t notice differences between us, and where we will twist ourselves into all kinds of verbal contortions to avoid mentioning that someone is black/fat/disabled/whatever.

Not that we should become known strictly by one aspect of who we are but, interestingly, we don’t have the same issues with using some physical descriptors, like “the woman with the really long, blond hair.”

We Need to Talk About Race.

A recent article in Newsweek, “See Baby Discriminate,” makes me wonder if our son really hadn’t noticed skin color before, or if his “lesson” with his friend just finally gave him the language and permission to talk about it—an opportunity and framework that we hadn’t given him because we were waiting for it to come up (and on some level probably hoping it wouldn’t).

The take-home lesson of the article, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, is that kids develop racial awareness earlier than we expect, and that there is no substitute for explicit conversations about it (as opposed to vague platitudes like “everyone is equal”) very early in their development.

The first study that the authors looked at was done in Austin, in 2006, by Birgitte Vittrup of the University of Texas. Vittrup wanted to see if there was a change in kids’ racial attitudes after watching multi-cultural themed videos, watching videos with accompanying guided discussions with parents, and participating in race discussions without the videos. She selected 100 Caucasian families from the Austin area (a liberal bastion within Texas) who had kids between the ages of 5 and 7 and divided them into the three study groups.

The first thing she found was that most of these families just plain didn’t want to talk directly about race issues, and many either dropped out of the study or had conversations that were too vague for their kids to really get the point. According to Bronson and Merryman, “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.”

This finding is significant given that, according to the Journal of Marriage and Family, 75% of white families “never, or almost never, talk about race.”

Kids Notice Color

Yesterday, as I was giving my son a bath, he sorted all of his bath toys by color along the edges of the tub. Is there any reason to think they don’t do the same thing with people?

Referring to findings by another researcher, Rebecca Bigler, Bronson and Merryman state that “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.” This was seen even when different shirt colors were randomly assigned. They also cited studies showing that 86% of white 3-year-old children show preference for white friends, and that by third grade, it might already be too late to reshape attitudes.

Diverse Environments Don’t Necessarily Engender Racial Equality

Perhaps the finding that surprised me the most is that integrated school environments might actually increase racial segregation socially. This goes against the prevailing view that kids who are raised in diverse school environments are more likely to have inter-racial friendships and see other races as equal, something the authors call the “Diverse Environment Theory.”

A study done by James Moody from Duke University on 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools 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.” Only 8% of white American teens have a best friend of a different race.

We have just assumed that by raising our son in Africa he will develop a feeling of equality with people of other races because that is who he interacts with the most every day, and that he will somehow not really feel that there is any difference between him and the other kids around him. This article shows that we might be very wrong about that.

If you ask him who his best friend is in Uganda, he names the girl next door, who is black. However, if you ask him who his best friend at school is, where most of the other students and all of the teachers are black, he will usually name the girl who is the only other white kid in his class.

My wife and I originally wanted to believe that it was because the two of them transferred together from their old school so they had more history with each other, but now I think it has to do more with this desire to categorize, and Bigler’s finding that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.” He and she notice that they are similar to each other in a very obvious way, and this draws them to want to form a group in the same way that my son’s bath toys “belong” in groupings of red, blue, green and yellow.

Lessons Learned

I don’t think it is bad that he has formed this bond with his friend at school. He plays with all the other kids, loves his teachers, and the girl next door is like his sister. While it is obvious that he is becoming more aware of the differences between himself and so many of the people he sees around him, I don’t notice any type of value judgment. Different, to him, does not mean better or worse.

But if what this article says is true, we need to get busy and make sure that we don’t leave a vacuum to be filled regarding those differences. We can’t just expect that living here in this environment will lead to him believe that everyone is equal. We can’t even expect our own attitudes about equality to magically transfer to him, not least because we might have unconscious bias that we aren’t even aware of, but that he picks up through subtle behaviors. We need to be clear and explicit with him about our belief that different races are equal and that discrimination is not acceptable. And we need to start having these conversations…ummm…about a year and a half ago.

Originally published on Mark Jordahl’s blog.

Mark Jordahl is a writer, naturalist, educator and trip leader in Uganda, living by the words “May your path go ever forward but never straight.” You may keep up with his thoughts on his blog.

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