Is your child racist?

Photo Credit:   Lennart Tange   via   Compfight     cc

Photo Credit: Lennart Tange via Compfight cc

Recently a friend of mine shared an incident involving her son that left her extremely upset. Her young son had innocently expressed a preference in playmates based on the color of another child’s skin. My friend was horrified and wondered where he had gotten the idea that we would judge one another based on the color of our skin.

I absolutely understood her reaction. No parent wants his or her child to express racist attitudes or stereotypes. However, the reality is that racism pervades our society and children – while maybe not tactful – aren’t stupid and are perceptive. They understand that race is important. So important in fact, that the adults in their lives don’t often talk about it and when they do they tiptoe around the subject.

Now, I wish I was smart enough to have come to this realization on my own. In actuality, I read a book several years ago that changed almost everything I thought about parenting and child development and PARTICULARLY affected how I felt about children and race.

In 2009, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman wrote an amazing book called NutureShock: New Thinking About Children. The authors cover a variety of topics including the myth of praise and why kids lie, but one of the most revolutionary topics that got a lot of press at the time is why white parents don’t talk about race.

In a Newsweek cover article entitled “See Baby Discriminate”, the authors specifically addressed a 2006 experiment at the University of Texas by Birgitte Vittrup involving 100 white families with children 5 to 7 years old. The experiment was set up to address the fundamental assumption that children are “colorblind” and, if we don’t point out race as something important, they won’t see it.

So, what happened?

They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup’s first test of the kids revealed they weren’t colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.

More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.
— NutureShock excerpt

The study goes on to explain that many white parents specifically instructed to discuss race with their children failed to do so. When questioned by the researchers, they admitted they simply didn’t know what to say.

Also, the authors found that additional research called into question another basic assumption about children and race, specifically that raising children in a diverse environment – so often held out as the gold standard among parents – created racially tolerant kids. Again, not so much. In fact, the more racially diverse the environment the more likely the children were to self-segregate.

Knowing all this, I have tried to discuss race openly and honestly with Griffin. However, I am the first to admit that is an incredibly difficult task. I wonder when I should bring it up. Should I wait until the occasion arises naturally? Or should I create conversations myself? I worry I will say the wrong thing or confuse him. I worry I will unconsciously pass on my own prejudices to him.

However, I was recently reminded how much I see the “burden” of this discussion through my own experience and how vastly more challenging this is for parents of other races. I realized how my central concern was that my white child not be perceived as racist.

I hadn’t even considered how these attitudes change the perception of children of other races.

I was listening to This American Life (shocking, I know) and the theme of the episode entitled “Is This Working?” was discipline in school. The first act began with the story of Tunette Powell and her son’s disciplinary problems in preschool. Tunette is black and had been a problem student in her youth. She worried that she had passed along her bad attitude to her children, despite all her best efforts to avoid exactly that. That was until Tunette attended a birthday party and heard story after story of white children in her son’s preschool acting much worse and receiving less harsh punishments.

Loathe to play the “race card,” Tunette began doing her research, as had some social scientists that This American Life interviews, and the results were disturbing.

According to the Department of Education, black children make up 18% of preschoolers but they make up 48% of preschool children suspended more than once.


Maybe it’s because I have one child that recently graduated from preschool and one currently in preschool, but that statistic left me in tears. Suddenly, my focus on how my white child perceived his black classmates became a much smaller part of the bigger picture of how black children are perceived and how they perceive themselves.

Griffin and I talk a lot about shame and guilt. We talk about how it is fine to feel guilt for something you did that is bad. However, it is NOT ok to feel shame that because of what you did you ARE bad. It is a discussion that always leaves me emotionally raw because I can’t imagine anything worse than my child feeling shame.

The thought that I would be in a constant battle against an entire system – even with a system with good intentions – that is teaching my child every single day that they ARE bad breaks my heart.

One of my favorite quotes regarding race is from novelist Chimamanda Adichie's Ted Talk "The Danger of A Single Story (which you should stop and listen to right now). She says, 

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The complicated "story" is that many of the black children in Griffin’s kindergarten class will act up more in class.  However, due to a variety of societal problems I am not smart enough to solve – problems like poverty, lack of educational and economic opportunity, and other problems inextricably tied up with the racial history of this country - the story can't begin and end with that child's behavior.

And how the hell am I supposed to explain that to a five-year-old?

Just like so many other seemingly impossible subjects we have to teach our kids about – things like sex and money and mental illness and religion – it’s really, really, really hard.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Do you talk to your children about race?

P.S. Being racist v. Being a racist