Monday, January 17, 2011

Talking to kids about race

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is a great time for reflection on how to raise children with healthy racial attitudes. 

I always assume that because our school represents a range of ethnicities and skin colors that children would grow and learn to naturally embrace diversity and love everyone regardless of skin color. However, according to the book Nurthure Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, we have to speak very directly to children about race for them to form healthy racial attitudes.  Mere exposure is not enough.  In fact, says the book, according to Dr. James Moody from Duke University, the more diverse the schoool, the more that children self-segregate by race and ethnicity.  Because as it turns out, kids are looking at the most visible thing about each other--skin color--and categorizing accordingly.  

"The brain's need for categories to fit perfectly," Bronson states, causes children to "make distortions to defend those categories."  To effectively intercept the child's categorizing and drawing negative conclusions, researchers have found that "conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakeable terms that children understand."  This means that if the parent is not intervening with appropriate conversation, the children draw their own conclusions that support the differentiation and hierarchy (ie. "my group is better than the others") rather than the similarities and equalities.

What is an "appropriate" conversation?  The book asserts that it's not enough to say "we're all equal".  Specific attention should be made to details.  "[Children] are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own.  Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age..."

Children who grow up without conversations about race tend to form negative opinions about racial groups outside of their own.  According to some studies, they also assume their parents do the same.

My best friend growing up (also named Stefanie, isn't that something?) was African-American.  I grew up in a household that did not talk about race and did nothing to support healthy attitudes toward other ethnicities.  (Does it say something that my spell check doesn't like the word "ethnicities" or am I reading too much into it?  Or spelling it incorrectly?)  Anyway, about my friend Stefanie.  I remember making a comment once to her and her dad that I try not to see color because everyone is the same.  They told me that instead of ignoring the differences, that they celebrate the differences and love that we are all individuals.  They were proud of their heritage and did not want it to be ignored or taken for granted.  Suddenly I realized that I had been pacifying my discomfort by putting on a show of colorblindness, when in fact it was something to be embraced and even talked about! 

To an alarming degree, it is very uncomfortable for white parents to talk about race, a fact that was discussed in Nurture Shock.  White parents, who often don't really identify with an ethnicity themselves, just don't know what to say.  Pointing out racial differences feels like drawing attention to something and implying something wrong with racial differences.  However, children need exposure to this type of language.  I would venture to say that it is better to address the uncomfortable feelings around it out loud than to ignore it all together.  Parents help children by reasoning certain things out in front of them.  It's good role modeling.

We've had discussions, usually initiated by the children, about race at Beansprouts.  They have come up about skin color, hair color, hair texture, and spoken language.  We capitalize on these moments to and use them as learning opportunities.  "Yes, her skin is darker than yours.  And look, your skin is darker than mine! Isn't it great that we can all be friends and have different skin colors?"

The word "weird" entered the preschool one day.  It was used to describe something about another child that was different than himself.  At first I was a little hooked, thinking "oh, great, his older sibling must be teaching him interolerance and look, it's working."  After acknowledging my own initial adult-oriented reaction, I realized that this child is simply mimicking, which is only a seed of an attitude and not an opinion itself, and what a great moment to actually address the thing that was "weird" and maybe call it what it was.  Different.  I said, "yes, that is different than yours.  Sometimes we look a little different from our friends."  Later, I heard him use the word "different" and my heart brimmed with joy.  I felt compassion for this child, that he would grow up in a culture where often times differences are "weird" rather than just, well, different.  So I guess what I'm saying here is that healthy racial attitudes have a foundation not only in the language we use around it, but how we foster healthy attitudes about all things "weird".

I feel a sense of joy that during the process of writing this article, I have come to acknowledge and love my own ethnic background.  My ethnic identity has always been a bit confused to say the least, but I've done some reflecting on how I got to be where I am today.  A lot of people had to make some hard decisions, travel long distances away from their families, and under go extreme turmoil for me to even be alive today.  There have been times where being a woman and being Japanese could be a great disadvantage.  I have great freedoms and a great life today. 

I applaud Dr. King and other activists that propelled equal rights movements.  I don't want to take for granted the time, energy, and persistence with which he carried out his work.



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