Thursday, August 11, 2011

Teaching Young Children About Race

I have a number of  friends who think that it is important to explicitly avoid topics of race. They believe that they treat people the same no matter their race, and they don’t think their children will perceive race as significant if no one “makes a big deal about it.” I’ve even been told that the common children’s song, “Jesus loves the little children,” is bad because it wrongly teaches kids to consider race with its verse about how Jesus loves all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white.
I take a different approach. Based on what I’ve read and seen, color-blindness is never really color-blind (at least in our culture); and attempts to be color-blind in such a situation merely reinforce racial prejudice albeit unintentionally. There are two recent books that have affected my thinking on the subject: Linda Alcoff’s Visible Identities and Nurtue Shock.
Alcoff argues for the ways in which our bodies – particularly how they are visibly marked and determined play an important role in shaping our experience of ourselves, others, and the world. In particular, she argues that race and gender fundamentally shape our identities, and that any position that intends to be neutral or blind to race or gender can never accomplish what it purports to accomplish. Race and gender are not fixed identities but hermeneutical standpoints that change and develop with its culture. One particular story struck me about a mother of a child in a preschool environment whose teacher wanted a color blind classroom. The child was the only person of a different color in the classroom, and the children reacted and treated the child differently than the other children. They would even ask questions that denigrated the child’s race and identity. The color-blindness of the teacher actually helped produce this sort of environment, and it caused the teacher to ignore the specific racial dynamics within the classroom.
This basic problem in teaching about race has been reproduced in study after study. Nurture Shock does a nice job of describing how well-meaning parents who harbor no apparent racial prejudice and would be appalled by their children holding racial prejudices, and yet adopting a color-blind approach in such an environment often produces children who pay explicit attention to race and try to identify with their own races. One set of parents like these were appalled that their child rooted for white basketball players because they were like him. One study (using different colored T-shirts) shows that children identify groups and will often take seemingly innocuous items and portray their group as positive and good and the other group as negative and bad. Another study showed that these tendencies were able to be addressed and corrected for when parents played explicit attention to the perceived differences and explained how people who are different in such and such a respect are not bad, mean, etc. In short, it seems that educational approach that favor color-blindness in our environment contributes to racism, while paying explicit attention to racial differences and explaining why people are different races are just as good, nice, etc. as one’s own race can actually combat prejudice.
I’ve been trying to pay attention to these features of group identification when I am interacting with my own children. I’ll often talk about how differences between people are not bad things. This conversation with my boys has most often come up when I’m reading Thomas the Tank Engine stories (the originals and the new Thomas and Friends versions). Remarks are often made in the stories about how Diesel engines are bad because they aren’t Steam engines, and about how they want to take all the work from the “Steamies.” I realize that Reverend Awdry, given that he’s British, was probably dealing primarily with class rather than race; but I can’t help but see this as an example of unjustified prejudice based on irrelevant characteristics like race. I’ll always point out how this is a bad attitude and we’ll stop and talk about it explicitly. I initially thought it might be wise to choose different stories that didn’t portray these things, but I’ve embraced it now and use it as an opportunity to talk with my children about differences like race and gender. I tend to come across as preachy and my spouse often laughs at how awkward the “lesson” goes. But I do it anyway.
What about you? Am I wrong about color-blindness? How do you handle teaching your children about race and gender differences?