Jonathan Liu has written a fascinating article for the Geek Dad section of Wired magazine. He highlights research done by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their book NurtureShock. Their research gives the lie to the popular belief that ‘colour blindness’ and an environment of ethnic diversity makes sure that children grow up tolerant and respectful of racial differences. As Jonathan Liu puts it, to raise racist kids
Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”
Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.
Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that <insert your ethnicity here> is better than everybody else.
It is tempting to believe that by pretending that there are no differences in skin colour — being ‘colour blind’ — children will grow up treating people of all ethnicities equally. However, the truth is that this approach simply leads to a void where some parental guidance should be. Just like not talking about sex, the absence of parental advice might be more a reflection on parental embarrassment on the issue of race than an active educational plan. If something is said, it is far too easy to make it non-specific, like ‘all people are equal’. Liu shares a few points taken from NurtureShock, which, although based on US research, are applicable elsewhere
- Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.)
- The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships.
- 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
- A child’s attitudes toward race are much harder to alter after third grade, but a lot of parents wait until then (or later) before they feel it’s “safe” to talk frankly about race.
The second point, that ethnic diversity in a school makes cross-race friendships less likely, is striking. The comments on the Racialicious re-posting of the article examine why this may be, suggesting that a large, ethnically diverse school often has student cliques that develop along ethnic lines. My primary school, in a Devon village, was small and almost entirely White. The one Black student at the school was simply a different individual, and her difference was personalised rather generalised. This doesn’t mean that there was no racist abuse in the school, there was. It simply means that being in a more diverse atmosphere can actually make one more rigid in one’s views on race because race becomes generalised.
The fourth point, that attitudes about race are formed young, also deserves comparison with sex education: good principles are better taught earlier in childhood, but the assumption that these are adult issues means that they are often left until their telling has little or no impact.
Jonathan Liu ends by saying that just as parents are becoming more used to talking about gender stereotypes with kids, they should not be afraid to talk about race in the same way. He links to this article on Parenting.com giving five tips for talking about race with kids (although he now reckons that saying something is the most important, rather than ‘being a role model’, which could easily be a way of not talking about it).