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Talking to your children about race

“We don’t play with little black children” seems like the sort of thing that white children said in the 1960s, not in present-day Bermuda. But one black mother was recently horrified when her toddler came home from her first day of nursery school, reporting that her new friends had said exactly that. The mother has asked not to be named, but wanted to share her story.

“It was the first week of my daughter starting nursery school,” said the mother. “She is three years old. She came home and said her two little [white] girlfriends don’t play with black girls. She said, ‘But they said I’m brown not black, so they can play with me’.”

The mother was naturally upset, and in discussing the issue with other relatives discovered that her daughter had been asking other relatives questions like ‘am I black or brown?’. And the toddler’s self-image seemed to deteriorate after the experience. She began telling her mother that she wished she was white.

“I talked about it with my daughter,” the mother said. “I don’t mind this issue coming up because it is a learning experience, even if it is not necessarily a positive one. People need to get over this situation to become united. I think racism is like a virus. You think it is healed and out of your system, but somehow it has leaked right back into our systems. My issue is not towards the two little girls that said it at all. It is not towards the school. It is directly to the adult who gave them that idea. I know I have said certain things around my daughter and then she has repeated it down the line. I hope this was just a conversation around other adults and the parents are not directly teaching the child this.”

Ironically, studies indicate that if the parents involved are white, they probably aren’t directly teaching their children anything at all about race and racial tolerance. A 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with five-year-olds, three-quarters of white parents almost never talked about race. Black families were three times as likely to discuss race with their children as white families.

Brigitte Vittrup, an assistant professor of early childhood development and education at the University of Texas, set up a study in 2006, to look at racial attitudes in children. Most of the parents who agreed to take part could be classified as ‘liberal’ and considered themselves racially tolerant. She was surprised when several white parents pulled out of the study when asked to discuss race with their children. The parents argued that they wanted their children to remain colour-blind. Meanwhile, Dr Vittrup’s study found that most of the children involved were making up their own mind about race. Fourteen percent of the white children answered a survey saying their parents didn’t like black people; 38 percent said they didn’t know how their parents felt.

Ironically, various studies have shown that children are far from colour-blind. A research project by psychologist Phyllis Katz, a professor at the University of Colorado, suggested that children as young as six months might notice racial differences. Babies were given pictures of people of different races. They stared hardest at the pictures of people who were a different race from their parents.

Anyone who has been to primary school or high school, knows that children are obsessive categorisers. Wear the wrong pair of pants to a party and suddenly you are “checkered Charlie” until high school. Wear glasses and you are automatically classified as a “nerd”. Differences in skin type are an easy and obvious thing to fixate on. In another study three-year-olds were given a deck of cards with pictures of people of difference races and genders on them. They were asked to break the cards down into different piles. Without any prompting, almost 70 percent of the children created piles based on race.

Parental mumblings of “we’re all equal” or “we’re all the same under our skin” or “we’re all friends” don’t seem to work either. The researchers have found that the only thing that works is when parents and teachers sit down and actively tackle the questions about race and racism in a way that the child can understand. For example, it is pointless to discuss equality if a child doesn’t know what the word equal means. When a child makes a racially off-colour remark in front of a parent, the parent should use that opportunity to discuss race, rather than shushing the child. The researchers have also found that the earlier these discussions begin to happen, in terms of age, the better the outcome.

In Bermuda, the mother whose child had experienced racism at nursery school dealt with the problem by going to the nursery school and discussing the issue with the teacher. She chose not to address the other children's parents directly.

“The teacher said this has happened before,” said the mother. “She assured me that what they do is play games and do exercises about playing with each other and about people being different. I believe they have [a period] in the morning to talk about different things.

“My issue is with fellow Bermudians. Let’s get this out of our system. The only way we are going to come together is if we come together and unite and separate our differences. If they are talking among [themselves] in the workplace, are they covering up their racism? Are they outright with it? In this day and age they are confusing their children. My daughter is confused but I talk to her. But the other children [the ones who made the racist comments] are confused also.”

Useful websites: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyI77Yh1Gg, www.uprootingracism.com.

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Published September 06, 2011 at 9:56 am (Updated September 06, 2011 at 9:56 am)

Talking to your children about race

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