Mama made me racist!

A new study concludes that children's racist attitudes come from their mothers. We're not so sure.

Published December 6, 2007 12:18AM (EST)

The New York Times' Freakonomics blog brings us word of a fascinating new study that says children's racist attitudes come more from mothers than fathers.

The study, published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology in September, focused on white children between the ages of 4 and 7. The children were first interviewed about their attitudes toward white and black playmates and then about their mothers' and fathers' attitudes about these playmates. Unlike past research on racism, which has also focused on parents' racial attitudes, this study was designed to avoid the adults' tendency to mask their own racism in a fog of political correctness. (For a summary of the research, click here.)

Sounds clever, doesn't it? Get those children to speak the ugly truth that their parents deny! But does this really mean racism is passed down from our mothers? I'm not so convinced.

As Freakonomics editor Melissa Lafsky notes, it's not surprising that kids are more influenced by their mothers' attitudes than their fathers'. As she writes, "mothers still perform the bulk of childcare duties, and are thus the predominant supervisors during playtime and other social situations."

But I question another assumption behind the study. No doubt parents influence their children's ideas about other people -- and other people who look different from their family. But having watched certain racial issues unfold in my daughter's preschool, I would say there is more to discovering the source of children's racism than merely asking them what their parents think.

At my daughter's preschool -- one of those anxiously progressive places in San Francisco where the parents of white kids would love nothing more than for their child to have a playdate with a non-white schoolmate -- the ugly face of color-consciousness has reared its head, much to the parents' and staff's consternation. Where is this coming from? Why would little Chelsea declare she will be friends only with other little blond girls? Why would three little white boys get it in their brain to exclude the darkest-skinned boy? None of it made much sense. On two occasions, the kids who were expressing the racist attitudes were the light-skinned children of mixed marriages; in both cases their mothers were more likely to be the victim of racism than its carrier.

I would suggest taking the interviews of 4- and 5-year-olds with a giant grain of salt. (Perhaps 6- and 7-year-olds would be more reliable -- but not enough to found a psychological theory of racist contagion.) I think it's just as believable that young children so identify with their mothers that they imagine their mothers agree with their own crude ideas about skin color. Where else might this garbage be coming from? I hate to say it, but I would finger the media and a toy culture that designs too many princesses with alabaster skin, too many handsome princes and superheroes as tall white guys. (Sure there's Pocahontas and African-American Barbie, but everyone knows they exist in the margins of a marketing vortex.) I'm not saying parents can't pass down some deeply messed-up ideas to their children, but at these young ages, I question whether children have the awareness to identify where their prejudices are coming from.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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