Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The First "R"

Yeah, I'm cribbing. But the galpal sent me a link to a fascinating article about how babies and young children "see" race. It is a very good piece, particularly because it explodes a lot of myths. One is that diverse schools are some sort of panacea that will lead to cross-racial friendship and understanding. Apparently not: students in integrated schools still tend to self-segregate dramatically. Of course, they do that in segregated schools too -- the article claims that only 8% of White kids and 15% of Black kids have a "best friend" of the opposite race -- but integrated schools don't seem to help.

Second, the article takes aim at what I have elsewhere called colorphobia: the fear of race as a conceptual category. The article opens by noting the failure of a study which sought to measure the effect of multicultural and egalitarian messaging by parents to young children. The problem was that the parents resisted engaging in specific race-talk as required by the study parameters. Some dropped out entirely, others just didn't say anything beyond extremely vague bromides like "everyone is equal". And, unsurprisingly, this had very little effect on the attitudes of young children.

The idea behind the parents resilience was the notion that race isn't something children notice absent social messaging. But this, the authors say, isn't really accurate. Babies already notice skin color differences at six months, and begin using color as a sorting proxy at very young ages. But children also very rapidly attempt to ascertain a social meaning behind their categories. Lest we exonerate parents entirely, young White children do tend to ascribe to their parents negative attitudes towards people of color. But even if parents do effectively communicate no meaning, that just leaves a blank slate upon which they'll make up their own -- usually demonstrating an in-group preference. The absence of race-talk doesn't shield children from the subject of race so much as it makes it taboo. Given the plain phenotypical appearance of skin color, it is likely impossible to raise truly "color blind" children.

In response the article basically says we need to get over our colorphobia. Even raising children in diverse environments -- absent explicit messaging -- has little impact on racial attitudes. But stepping behind the typical "underneath, we're all the same" rhetoric and engaging in explicit and specific race-conscious discussions with children has a real and measurable impact on their attitudes. Indeed, it seems to be one of the few things that does.

There's more, but this post is long already. Suffice to say, it's a great article. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

chingona said...

Thanks for linking this. It's pretty timely for me because my son, in the last six months, has started asking a lot more questions about skin color, and it's not always self-evident how to handle it or what to say. Particularly because it tends not to come up at home and to come at when he says uncomfortable things in public where it's harder to have a conversation and all my instincts are to shush him. (I was particularly self-conscious the other week when he asked about two other children on a bus we were on when we were sitting right next to the kids. I felt really bad for the other kids that my son was pointing at them and loudly asking why they were brown.)

But this morning when I tried to seize on a teaching moment (he was pointed out that he and I have the same skin color), we got into one of those bizarre, who's on first conversations three-year-olds tend to have. I used the word ancestors and explained that was our grandparents' grandparents' grandparents, and he went off about grandparents and were they dead and when did they die and we never got back to race.

(Kind of like when I tried to explain kosher in response to a question about why grandpa doesn't eat bacon and got into milk of the mother/meat of the calf, and the next day he said kosher was very bad because they killed baby cows. Not quite I was trying to communicate.)