Chapter Three: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race
This post is part of a book review series of NutureShock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.
Nora started school yesterday and I am crossing my fingers that she didn’t repeat some version of what she said the other night.
We were talking about our doctors. Nora sees Dr. Brown, who’s white. Ben sees Dr. Subra, who’s east Indian. Nora said, “I just like Dr. Brown, I don’t like Dr. Subra.”
“Why don’t you like Dr. Subra?” I asked.
“Because he’s brown and I just like light people.”
I got a hot feeling in my solar plexus, but did not let on.
“Oh, well, I like Dr. Subra as much as Dr. Brown. I like seeing both doctors. People can have brown skin but still be your friend or your doctor or your teacher.”
We talked a bit more about the brown people we know. My best friend at work, a boy at her kindergarten, her cousin and uncle.
I don’t know how I would have handled this if I hadn’t read the “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” chapter of NutureShock recently. I would have thought my child had somehow picked up this horrible prejudice from somewhere and not known what to say about it.
Most white parents don’t talk about race because they believe that not talking about it will magically mean their child won’t notice race, and therefore won’t develop racial prejudices. The problem is, racial differences are as plain to children as gender. Everyone has a gender, everyone has a skin color. Ignoring this means you are leaving your child to draw their own conclusions, which may horrify you when verbalized.
I believe Nora formed this opinion in relation to Dr. Subra because she once saw him when ill, was startled by his large physical presence, thick accent and brown skin. She was afraid of the unfamiliar and focused her fear on his most obvious physical attribute. This is what kids do, they learn something specific and apply it broadly. An excerpt:
…kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.
The only way to combat this tendency is by honest discussion about skin color. But that’s easier said than done.
The authors of NutureShock describe a research study where the racial attitudes of white children were measured and parents were then asked to address race with their children. The first group was asked to let their child watch program that presented racially diverse characters, such as Sesame Street. The second group was asked to have their children watch those programs and talk to their child about race. The third group was asked to simply talk to their child about race.
A significant number of parents in the third group dropped out of the study. They were simply unwilling to talk about race with their child, for fear that they would say the wrong thing.
All of the children in the study displayed negative attitudes about different races at the start of the study. At the end, the children who had watched multi-cultural television shows showed no improvement in racial attitudes. The children who had conversations with their parents showed improvement in acceptance of other races in correlation with how meaningful the discussion had been. If the parent simply glossed over the topic (“everybody’s equal” blah, blah) there was little improvement. If parents really took time to explain that people with different skin color could hold the same jobs, be friends, be respected, etc, then kids started to get it.
As a parent, I need to strive to be as comfortable discussing race and combating racial stereotypes as I am discussing gender sterotypes. And I need to start now.
I am not at all worried about Nora’s racial attitudes in the long run. But it was a wake up call that we need to more actively discuss race in our house. Before someone who doesn’t know her (or us) has occasion to worry.