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Blinded by Color Blindness

My mother-in-law has a story about taking my brother-in-law to the doctor’s office when he was a toddler: He pointed to an African-American man who entered and said “What’s that!” Very calmly, she replied “That’s a man.” And left it at that.

Most people I know would aspire to such a reaction. I certainly did when I first heard the story. Beyond the unequivocal and inarguable message that we are all people despite our skin color, her response even managed to carry echoes of the “I am a man” signs from the big civil rights march on Washington, D.C.

It’s interesting, and perhaps in retrospect a little odd, that while I have participated in enough anti-racism work to be deeply suspicious of any adult professing “color-blindness,” on account of it usually stands for “systemic-discrimination-blindness,” I was fully bought in to the idea that mentioning race to young children is bad, or at best unnecessary, especially if they encounter racial diversity as part of their normal lives.

Enter Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of the new book NurtureShock, whose ambitious and highly necessary goal is to look at the important messages about parenting/teaching that the slow accretion of scientific research is showing that are in direct contradiction to current conventional wisdom. In a Newsweek article (“See Baby Discriminate,” Sept. 14, 2009) based on a chapter of the book, they examine what extensive research into children’s development and experiences in school settings of more-or-less racial diversity have to say about this idea.

To summarize, the color-blind parenting approach backfires. The argument goes like this: People, especially children, are predisposed to sort people into groups, and then to identify with and assign better attributes to their own groups. They are not naturally racist, they are naturally identity seeking. Randomly assigned T-shirt colors, with no other mention or use made of the categories, will do the same thing. (This reminds me of the story about the little boy with a lawyer mother, who said he didn’t want to be a lawyer when he grew up because “that’s women’s work.”)

Skin color, for all that it doesn’t mean much genetically, is a very visible marker by which to sort, and it seems that kids do so without prompting. When we refuse to talk about it, we make it a taboo subject, and we can’t counterbalance the inclinations they are forming. According to some studies, we even risk giving them the impression that we don’t like people of other races. Without explicit conversations about race that they can use to understand and balance what they are seeing, kids flounder and settle into in-group preferences and self-segregation, which of course existing stereotypes and cultural assumptions and adult social segregation make easy. From there, developing a sense of real “otherness” gathers steam.

One scary statistic is that kids in more diverse schools are less likely to have a friend of a different race. (Note: This doesn’t mean desegregation is a bad goal—it’s just not enough.)

One of the studies Bronson and Merryman discuss shows that generic, “multicultural,” we’re-all-equal messages don’t make much of difference on kids’ racial attitudes. The good news is that something as simple as acknowledging skin color differences explicitly and talking about how people of different races have a lot in common and can make good friends can have a marked difference. Just as we would casually talk with our children about their observations about different genders, hair colors, or family structures, and how little those differences actually mean, we need to get comfortable doing the same with race.

It’s not easy. I’ve taken a first few dives with my three-year-old, not going much farther than opening up the topic of different skin colors among people we know so it’s not an untouchable subject. Recently, as we read one of her current library books, My Family Makes Music, on the “my father plays cello in a string quartet” page, she asked which musician was our protagonist’s dad. I explained what a cello was and how to tell it from violins and violas. And then I took a deep breath and noted that it was also a clue that he was the only musician in the picture who had brown skin like her, and said that often, though not always (examples given), a kid will have a skin color like their parents’. I have also stopped trying to correct her when she assigns her black doll to represent her black friend and a white one for herself.

It is surprising how uncomfortable, nay even wrong, these things feel to do (and even to admit doing). I’m not alone—in one study of how these things affected racial attitudes (conclusion: a lot, for the better), five white parents dropped out just because they were asked to have similar conversations with their kids.

The conversations I’ve had with my daughter have generated no particular revelations of unknown in-group thinking harbored quietly in the back of her brain, but neither have they seemed to bother her or lead to an increased focus on race. For now, I guess I’ll figure this is as it should be and work on keeping my own topic-of-race-avoidance in check.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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