September 11, 2009

Children aren't color-blind

See Baby Discriminate

Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What's a parent to do?

By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup's entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like "Everybody's equal" or "God made all of us" or "Under the skin, we're all the same"—but they'd almost never called attention to racial differences.

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.
The key question:The election of President Barack Obama marked the beginning of a new era in race relations in the United States—but it didn't resolve the question as to what we should tell children about race. Many parents have explicitly pointed out Obama's brown skin to their young children, to reinforce the message that anyone can rise to become a leader, and anyone—regardless of skin color—can be a friend, be loved, and be admired.

Others think it's better to say nothing at all about the president's race or ethnicity—because saying something about it unavoidably teaches a child a racial construct. They worry that even a positive statement ("It's wonderful that a black person can be president") still encourages a child to see divisions within society. For the early formative years, at least, they believe we should let children know a time when skin color does not matter.
And the answer:For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that "pink" means for girls and "blue" is for boys. "White" and "black" are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.Comment:  The studies mentioned in this article bear out that kids are naturally color- and race-conscious. White babies stare longer at "strange" black faces. Kids who wear red or blue t-shirts start favoring their own color. When a teacher reads a Christmas story with a black Santa Claus, the class erupts in confusion. If youngsters were truly color-blind, why would they care if the fictional Santa was white, black, or green?)

As the article states, parents, teachers, and society as a whole should be talking about race. And not with such namby-pamby clichés as "We're all the same." The article demonstrates how a child reacts to such vague generalities:To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, "Remember, everybody's equal." She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?"This article explains why we look for the racial messages beneath the surface. It's because people can perceive a message even if it's not overt. For instance, if Indiana Jones is the gun-wielding hero and Indians are the spear-wielding villains, it's not hard to conclude that white = noble and civilized and brown = primitive and savage. A child can see the difference even if adults try to deny it.

And let's not waste time with worthless comments such as "It's just a movie." Reread the anecdote about the black Santa if you think children can distinguish between fiction and reality. Again, they understand what ignorant adults don't: that stories encode and transmit our cultural values.

For more on the subject, see Obama Proves Racism Exists and Highlights of the US Report to the UN on Racism.

Below:  A typical media product sends a typical message about whites and Indians.


Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't think its just lily little white kids who "stare" at "strange black faces". Speaking for myself, while a student at a grade school in Central Phoenix, AZ. The school was as diverse as it can get. I didn't have much fond memories of black kids at that time, maybe with just one but the others were "mean" also. So ironically, I had more white friends, than even indian friends(and yes, indians were plentiful at that school), strange, probably because white kids were easier to get along with. I think blacks are the least to get along with in grade school era. Just my opinion.


Anonymous said...

Also, I wanted to add that in "reality" indians are not like those you see in the movies. What would probably be best for the white kid to judge others who aren't white is soley through socializing and inclusion of both races. They learn quicker this way, otherwise, if the parents were to send that white kid off to an all whites school, the negative stereotypes of non-whites persist as they grow up. Usually they will accept what they would only see on tv. When this happens, they start to live with fear for the rest of their life. Perhaps bred to become a dangerous white supremacist.


Rob said...

I didn't mean to suggest that only white babies react to "strange" faces. I suspect this finding holds for all babies.

But when they reach the doll-playing age, white and black kids both prefer white dolls, I think. That implies that nonwhite kids quickly learn they're in the "different" or "wrong" group.

Rob said...

A comment received via e-mail:

Thank you for that important and illuminating article.