Update: I wrote this five years ago. I think many of us hoped racism would die simply die out along with elderly racists. What happened in Charleston makes it clear that racism persists even in the young. So those of us who are parents have a responsibility to try to raise non-racist children. I find myself doing this differently now and actually talking more about race with my younger kids than I did with my older ones.
When I was a freshman at Georgetown and missing my eight-year-old sister, I decided to join the campus tutoring program for children living in Sursum Corda, a D.C. housing project. For four years I made weekly trips to the home of my “tutees,” Shamica and Ikisha. Some time I will write a whole post about that experience, but today I just want to say that they taught me far more than I taught them. Ikisha and I are Facebook friends–our relationship has lasted 22 years now! Almost every day she posts something that inspires or teaches me.
Yesterday she shared the following CNN story:
(CNN) — A white child looks at a picture of a black child and says she’s bad because she’s black. A black child says a white child is ugly because he’s white. A white child says a black child is dumb because she has dark skin.
This isn’t a schoolyard fight that takes a racial turn, not a vestige of the “Jim Crow” South; these are American schoolchildren in 2010.
Nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and more than a year after the election of the country’s first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white, according to a new study commissioned by CNN.
Raising “color blind” children has been a goal of ours. From the time our kids were little, we were careful never to describe people in terms of race. We wanted our kids to think of skin color as just another attribute, like hair or eye color, not a defining characteristic. We did not discuss race with our kids when they were little because we didn’t want to draw their attention to it. Even now William and Lorelei don’t necessarily call themselves white–they might say they have pinkish skin, and refer to an African-American as a brown person. We were happy about living (until recently) in a diverse community, where people of all colors shopped at the same grocery store, and where William’s classmates at Belle Morris, where he attended first grade, included many Latino and African-American children and even a little boy just arrived from Burundi.
In contrast, the CNN study reported that black parents start talking about race with their children early, because they believe the kids need to be prepared for prejudice and to give them a positive racial identity to counteract societal messages. But even this early intervention does not prevent their children from picking up “white bias” from the society in which they live.
I will never forget how shocked I was when Jake, then about three years old, saw a tall black man going into a gas station one day and announced, “He must be a basketball player.” Granted, stereotyping someone as a basketball player is better than stereotyping him as a criminal, but I still was amazed that Jake had already formed his own prejudices from what he saw in society at such an early age. I don’t remember our ensuing conversation, although I’m sure I asked him why he thought that, and offered some different ways of thinking. And as my kids have grown older, we have had many conversations about race, with the kids being mostly baffled at the way some people think about and treat those who are different from them.
Without disagreeing about the need for education, conversation, and discussion, I still feel that simply being friends with a variety of people is the best way for all of us to appreciate that we are more alike than we are different. As I said to Ikisha on Facebook yesterday, I’ve always loved the way Sesame Street does diversity, or at least the way I remember the show handling it when I was a child: by showing a variety of people living, working, and playing together in the same neighborhood, where it doesn’t matter if you are black, white, or fuzzy and blue, like this.
I just conducted my own experiment by drawing little cartoon girls in various colors and showing them to Lorelei. What can I say–my kids always behave in unpredictable ways. The girl I drew with the black crayon got the most favorable marks because black is her favorite color. The fair skinned one drew her ire because she has a wild imagination and decided it was a depiction of a particular person she doesn’t like. Then she drew a little girl who was supposed to be herself–for the record, she chose a pink crayon.