The color-blind myth

A new book says that parents who refuse to talk to kids about racism might be unwittingly reinforcing it

Published September 11, 2009 12:01PM (EDT)

Few things send me into a tizzy quite as quickly as hearing someone say they are so colorblind, they wouldn’t care if someone were brown or green or purple. Besides the obvious issues – equating brown skin with those not found in nature; hoping for damn sure that someone might notice if a green person walks into a bar – it seems to reduce the complexity of racism to its most bare-bones, least controversial aspects and gives the speaker a free pass to ignore its thorniest aspects by pretending real historical and cultural issues are no more complex than a box of Crayola crayons (which, as those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s might remember contained a “flesh”-colored apricot-y pink crayon and a “burnt sienna” brown crayon.) And thus I was fascinated by a piece in this week’s Newsweek that shows, in part, the problems created when well-meaning parents of very young children rely on vague platitudes – “Everyone is equal,” “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same” – instead of explicitly talking about race.

The piece, excerpted from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s bestseller-with-a-bullet, “Nurture Shock,” is called “See Baby Discriminate” and has an alarming subhead that points out that “Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color.” But the problem isn’t quite that stark: The point, the authors write, is that many studies have shown that children notice differences in skin color “as much as they see the difference between ‘pink’ or ‘blue’ – or differences in height, weight and gender – “but we tell children that ‘pink’ means for girls and ‘blue’ is for boys. ‘White’ and ‘black’ are mysteries we leave to them to figure out on their own.”

Refusing to discuss race outside of these vague generalities seems to be mostly a white thing. Non-white parents are three times more likely to discuss race, say the authors, citing a 2007 study of 17,000 families with children in kindergarten, while 75 percent of white parents never, or almost never, talk about race. And in fact, many white parents feel uncomfortable discussing race when they explicitly volunteer to do so: In 2006, researchers at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas asked 100 white Austin parents of children between the ages of five and seven to take part in a study to measure the impact of multi-cultural videos on young children. The participants were divided into three groups: The first were asked to watch the videos alone, but not talk to their children about their content; the second were given the videos, along with a checklist of talking points; the third group was given only the checklist, and asked to talk with their kids each night for five nights. Five of the families in the last group quit immediately, telling the researchers, “We don’t want to point out skin color.” When the remaining families completed the experiment, the researchers saw no measurable difference in their children’s attitudes towards other races. But when they looked at the parents’ study diaries, they realized why: Despite explicit instruction, none of the parents had felt comfortable following the checklist.

Why is this? The white – and in Austin, mostly liberal -- parents seemed to regard any mention of race as a form of racism. This kind of thinking can be especially problematic for kids growing up in an environment where they only see children who “look like them,” but plenty of parents may feel like it’s less of a problem when their kids grow up around other kids of different colors and ethnicities, and the adults simply refuse to point out these differences. Bronson admits that he and his co-writer, both of whom grew up in integrated schools in the ‘70s and send their children to integrated schools today, subscribed to a similar theory, which they call the Diverse Environment Theory and goes something like this: “If your raise your child with a fair amount of exposure to other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message…diversity breeds tolerance and talking about race was, in and of itself, a diffuse kind of racism.”

This seems like the kind of thing that people of the color-blind school would like to get behind: Just raise a kid in an environment where race is no big deal, and your kids will see race as no big deal. But unfortunately, they say, things don’t often work out that way. Several long-term studies quoted by the authors have shown that the more diverse the school, the more likely it is that kids will self-segregate. As a result, says University of Austin’s Rebecca Bigler, who considers herself a huge supporter of integrated schools, “Going to an integrated school gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them.”

This doesn’t, by any means, suggest that we should segregate children even more. But what does come out of this article is that a parent who believes a polite silence or vague affirmation of “equality” is the only possible response to his or her child’s questions about race can do major damage (Bronson writes that he overheard a white five-year-old telling another boy that, “Parents don’t like us to talk about our skin, so don’t let them hear you"). And social segregation happens much earlier than parents tend to think: One experiment put first and third graders in diverse study groups to see if the kids would be more likely to make friendships that would carry over to recess. It worked “wonders” with the first graders; not so with the third graders. So by the time parents consider their kids “old enough” to have complex conversations, they may already created divisions of their own.

What did seem to help was very explicit discussion: One group of white children who were read a biography of Jackie Robinson that included facts about the explicit discrimination he was subjected to seemed to have better attitudes towards blacks than those who were just told that the guy played great baseball. “It knocked down their glorified view of white people,” says Bigler. Another mixed classroom of first-graders spent a whole year discussing race after their teacher read them a story about a black Santa, then had a real, live black Santa visit the classroom.

This particular article doesn’t give some sort of be-all, end-all solution to raising a new generation of racially enlightened children (though I highly suggest you read the entire book; Broadsheet's Lynn Harris' will be interviewing the authors for an upcoming story in Salon). But it does seem to suggest that parents – more often white parents – who shy away from any discussion whatsoever may be doing more harm than good.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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