Raising A Racist?

Unintended consequences of ignoring race.

When I was growing up, race was more than talked about. It was the butt of many a joke. Black baby dolls were given as gag gifts, grown-up's didn't catch "a tiger by his toe" and accusing you of having a "black" boyfriend was meant as an insult.

I was taught very young black people look different. They talk differently, walk differently, act differently, dress differently.

And different was not good.

Somehow, with all of the negative attitudes about race, I emerged unscathed. All of the negative talk about everyone with a tint, somehow made me more accepting. At least they were talking about it.

Now I have kids. I don't talk about race or skin color. I don't point out hair texture or eye shape nor do I discuss past atrocities with my four-year old.

I am beginning to think I should.

Bronson and Merryman, authors of "NurtureShock," discovered, through various studies, that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race.

They found that most parents, the ones who think racism is wrong, don't want to point out skin color to their kids because they want them to be color-blind. They said we use vague phrases like  “everybody’s equal” but don't explain why it's necessary to make such a statement.

Parents would like to believe kids don't see racial differences. Obviously they do. According to "NutureShock," the differences should be acknowledged as young as four. Kids whose parents openly discuss race are more accepting than those who don't.

Living in a diverse neighborhood and sending your kid to a melting pot school in lieu of talking honestly with them when they are young, is not teaching your child acceptance.

In their studies Bronson and Merryman learned:

  • Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.)
  • The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships.
  • 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
  • A child’s attitudes toward race are much harder to alter after third grade, but a lot of parents wait until then (or later) before they feel it’s “safe” to talk frankly about race.

I acknowledge comfortably and discuss openly differences in gender. I often let my daughter know girls can be astronauts, superheroes and doctors, and her brother can push a stroller. These stereotypes I fight everyday. I forget she needs to be told people of any color can be all of those things too.

And she can be a Hip Hop Mogul, if she chooses.

paul February 22, 2012 at 01:16 PM
Raises a good point but seems to be incomplete, e.g., suggestions.
LARRY February 22, 2012 at 04:48 PM
ms. hollman; i read your column multiple times, the issue(s) are all too true. as adults we expose children to truths, beliefs, opinions, and what some might call" old wives" tales in the developemental years. there are reasons or justificaions that we use these truths, opinions ,beliefs, untruths and in some cases gruesome tales as part of how we guide children. a phrase that emcompasses some the issues in your column is "children are a product of the enviroment". everyone may not be aware of the day to day for parents, let alone planning for their future . some parents or associated adults rely to the educational system to motivate and expose our children, while some parents take proactive measues and extra effort to guide developement. exposure to various races, cultures, social and financial levels among neighborhoods should be positive experences. as adults we too often regress by not offering children some options available. the "middle class" education that we may have doomed out children to is all too often affected by predisposed lack of free thinking or an adults background. family and other associations carry tremendous influence. children need to feel safe and confident , what better place than with a group of people that are similar to. how do we expose children from varied backgrounds to realize that their future can be as bright as anyones. larry
paul February 22, 2012 at 07:28 PM
One other thought: This opinion is clearly written from a white person's perspective (without having determined that from looking at your photo). Not that there is anything wrong with that in of itself; however, as we know racism doesn't lie only with whites. I would be interested to hear non-white parents talk to their children about the various people of color. Perhaps if you add these perspectives, then we can all learn on the different ways to talk to our children without feeling inhibited.
Jessica Hollomon February 22, 2012 at 10:11 PM
Yes, racism does not only lie with white folk. I'm white- Thats is the only story I can tell honestly. I can't tell ya what a man thinks because of what he has been through as a result of being a man or why he teaches his kids what he teaches them and cant I tell you why rich people, black people Asian people do what they do in regards to their cultural experience. I'm a white woman- I can tell that story. And... I was writing about a study that was trying to look at the effects different ways of talking about racial differences would have on little kids. But that study didn't go over because so many of the white parents in the study dropped out or refused to talk about race with their little kids. So the researcher started looking at why the white parents were so uncomfortable talking about race with their kids. I guess they could have done the study on how races other than whits dealt with race, but I guess they found it more interesting that white parents dropped out. A lot of people think racism is learned behavior. We (non-racist white parents) don't want our kids to be racist, we want them to know that people are people, so we do not talk about it, talking about it makes it an issue. BUT---little kids (and adults) naturally categorize things and people. Physical difference, like skin tone, is one of the easiest way to categorize people. Kids (and adults) naturally prefer people they see as "like them."
Jessica Hollomon February 22, 2012 at 10:22 PM
One of the researchers said that: "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 spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics--such as niceness, or smarts--is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random." By not talking about race (be you red or yellow black or white) we are letting kids interpret physical differences, like race, with their little minds. With an unguided mind, they're drawing the conclusions we are trying to erase.
Jessica Hollomon February 22, 2012 at 10:45 PM
I think Paul is so right. We need to all talk together about race so we know what the people of that race would like us to be telling our kids. I don't want my husband tell our kids about womens issues without talking to me to get the real scoop. I can't knowledgeably discuss differences in races with my kid. I can tell my kids people have darker skin because they have more pigment- but i can't give her an honest account of the differences between the races. ya pickin up what im laying down... and- I don't think we would need to get into deep seeded racism stuff(from any side). just positive things about the different races.
Jessica Hollomon February 22, 2012 at 10:45 PM
AND...I find it so interesting that I hear on a child show "jill cant do that because she is a girl and girls cant be doctors" and the parent says "oh, girls can can do anything boys can do" well--- the same lesson applies and it should be just as acceptable to say "jill can't do that because she is black, black people can't be doctors" Well, yes they can little johnny, black people can do anything Asian people can do any thing white people can do and V/V. But this statement, I believe, would be unacceptable. Because we (grown-up's) can't seem to put our crap aside and deal with race on the level of a child. it always seems to go to our issues with it- they don't have those issues- If your child most of the time see a black doctor, in life and on tv, they are bound to draw the innocent conclusion thet doctors are black people. they should be informed that all color people can be all sorts of thing... too much rambling.... thanks for the comments!
Tonto February 23, 2012 at 03:12 AM
Sounds like "white guilt" propaganda that was used to get Obama elected starting again.
Jessica Hollomon February 23, 2012 at 06:10 AM
my point proved , almost funny-very familiar "Tonto"="Grow-up's can't seem to put their crap aside and deal race on the level of a child." A child is not looking at a person and thinking about how "Al Sharpton and Jessie Jackson (blah, blah)" are trying to influence them. They simply think- that person looks different than I do- wonder why. And the conversation is about how "grown-ups" can can help children of all races grow up and not make a statement like "Sounds like "white guilt" propaganda that was used to get Obama elected starting again." To raise a generation that has a better understanding of their fellow humans. Perhaps their generation won't have reasons to make such a statement. There will always be black or white baby dolls given to children as a joke and and some children will be mocked for or banned from hanging out with friends of a different race- "ignorance will prevail", right? I will do all i can to be sure it does not prevail with my kids.
Tonto February 23, 2012 at 03:10 PM
FYI: racism is just human nature. Like love, greed, hate, etc. The only way to eliminate it is to eliminate people. So stop trying to brainwash the children please.
Shandy Dixon February 23, 2012 at 05:43 PM
Tonto, the whole issue is not how you feel about people who are different than you are. It's how you treat people who are different than you are. We can never stop feeling closer to people who are most like we are but we can most certainly teach our children that everyone is to be treated with respect and kindness. The choice to treat another poorly should be based on the persons decisions.. ie.. Though you are an Indian I assume, it is not your skin that I dislike about you... I dislike that you are so very pessimistic .
paul February 23, 2012 at 07:20 PM
"I think Paul is so right. We need to all talk together about race so we know what the people of that race would like us to be telling our kids." - Jessica Hollomon. Sorry, I should've been more clear. I didn't someone else to tell me what to tell my children. I was just curious if your sources made suggestions, and if there were perspectives from non-whites, so that I could I decide for myself what I should and shouldn't tell my children. Perhaps you didn't mean to say that non-whites should tell whites what to tell their children. I agree with Jessica that left alone children will naturally notice physical differences between children of other races and will pick up on sub-cultral differences, which will in time lead to questions, and left alone, possibly negative stereotypes. By saying that racism is just human nature, If Tonto means that people of one race notices differences in people of another race as I described above, then I agree with him. However, if he is implying that his definition of racism centers on negative stereotyping, and it is natural for folks to make negative stereotyping, then I have to disagree with him. Stereotyping is a form of categorizing that our brains are wired to perform naturally. I know of no science that suggest that negative stereotypes are just natural. I believe that natural stereotyping is neutral, and depending on one's rearing, education, exposure, etc. it may become positive, remain neutral or negative.
Tonto February 24, 2012 at 02:54 AM
Shandy and Paul, Do you think people will still be discussing racism 400 years from now? I'll bet you 50 cents they will. Its just being used as means to manipulate people. Like the "white Guilt" over slavery that was exploited to elect Obama. Like if someone honestly says something another party screams racist! or biggot! It is used nowadays to divert attention or blame shift. If you put two kids in a room away from the parents they won't worry about who is black or white because their human common sense and intuition won't care.
kaco February 24, 2012 at 03:36 AM
Contrary to popular belief, children have a keen inborn sense of justice. They are built to protest loudly when they or someone else is being treated badly. This sense of justice runs deep. You probably can remember times in your childhood when you or someone you cared about was attacked, verbally or physically. You didn't have to be told that this treatment was wrong and should be stopped immediately. You just knew. We don't have to teach children respect for people of other races and abilities. We simply need to preserve their trust in themselves and others, and their inborn sense of justice. If a child feel safe and strong, he will respond with indignation to racism, whether it's directed at him or at someone else. He will know that the racist attitude he has witnessed is wrong, and won't adopt it as his own.
Jessica Hollomon February 24, 2012 at 03:57 PM
Oh, Paul- I don't mean, let other people tell us what to tell our kids- I just think that it could be helpful to know( Red, yellow, black,white,handicapped ,blind,tall short,bald,long hair,short hair) what people who are different than our kid,different than us, feel a kid should know about them(the way they look, hair color,eye color,number of legs. not all of our ADULT ISSUES/ simple differences. Because again, I AM TALKING ABOUT KIDS. You are out with a kid and they stare at people who are different, ask questions, whisper, or straight up say "look at them", this is innocent and fine- but for the parent it is often uncomfortable- you may not know what to tell the kid- would this person (assuming they are a rational caring adult) prefer you shush the kid, prefer you make up something, prefer you let the child ask them about it, prefer you have a bit of an idea about what (blanket,broad,child friendley) in GENERAL red,yellow, black white, handicapped, etc, people think & feel when A KID perceives them as different. I know everyone is different. But just talking other levelheaded (possibly like minded, because if you are a total jerk you are gonna go down a slippery slope of racism) parents/kid who have different physical appearances than you or than the majority- it could help you to address issues you may have with your KID. HELP_ not telling you "what to tell your children". Just an aid.
Jessica Hollomon February 24, 2012 at 05:29 PM
As a parent, I can't get too caught up in what is going to be going on 200 years from now- I can teach my child well, hope they teach their child well and so on and so forth- but i will land myself in an insane asylum if I think too much about that. "racism is just human nature. Like love, greed, hate, etc. The only way to eliminate it is to eliminate people" or "If you put two kids in a room away from the parents they won't worry about who is black or white because their human common sense and intuition won't care." I'm gonna agree with the second statement of Tonto. They won't care- but if you know kids you know they will ask questions. Why is their hair different, why is their skin different? Parents (non-racist) feel like they should just say, people are just different but it doesn't matter. This info is saying it may do your child good if you give them a little more info to go on. Their ancestors came form a different country- they are native to America- pigment in skin/ dominant gens. They eat this kind of food because- wear these kind of clothes because---THAT'S ALL- EDUCATE your kids- there are always teachable moments you can use to help our kid be a better person-
Jessica Hollomon February 24, 2012 at 06:21 PM
Tonto- It's hard to be a parent. It is an everyday beat down by people who are accusing you of doing things wrong. To think it could be your fault your child has negative feelings about others in sometimes too much to take. You know you would never want them to be mean to another person for any reason including difference in appearance. Soon they will grow-up and make decisions about people based on what they experience. Make decisions with a rational adult mind that understands people should not be judged by appearances alone. My kids doctor is a black man, so she thought Doctors are black men, that is natural for the mind of a child. I do not think informing her that the way a person looks does not determine if they can be a doctor, is "brain-washing". If you want your kid to be accepting and kind-Obviously, you don't use insulting terms or make negative comments regarding the person. Obviously, you allow your child to have friends of all kinds and not make fun of them for it. But there are things that are not obvious- and for that I turn to science, studies and professionals for advice. I have never thought of this as "brain-washing" but hey- why not through that on my pile of things feel like like I'm doing wrong as a parent- Brainwashing. But, ya know what- if I can wash my kids brain of cruelty- I guess thats not a bad thing. I think we should acknowledge the differences, celebrate differences but don't make the differences obstacles.
Jessica Hollomon February 24, 2012 at 06:40 PM
children see differences in people- and children should be informed as to why people are different-Told it's okay and maybe told things about that different person they can admire or respect them for- this is not just about racism, I am talking about children and I do not believe children are racist- they don't know what that is, they may be mean to a person because they are different but their minds are not developed enough to call them a racist. I titled it "raising a racist" because I am referring to the adult your child could possibly develop into. - it is about giving our children information they need. Satisfy their curiosity so they don't have to draw their own conclusions. It's about how children have positive attitudes towards traits they have and therefore naturally could have negative attitudes towards different traits. My child has said "I don't like people with brown hair, I have blond hair". Okay- do I just say all people are the same no matter their hair color. It may help her better understand if I show her a bunch of people with brow hair, tell her why they have brown and she has blond and how her hair could turn brown and ask how she would feel in a room with all brown hair if they were mean to her... just more info.
Tonto February 25, 2012 at 02:21 AM
I just tell my kids I don't know why god made differant color people but there must be a good reason we are all in the same boat.
kaco February 25, 2012 at 03:18 AM
I think that the real underlying issue here is that our society is becoming less tolerant and more critical of people who are different in some way than oneself. This does not just mean race. It could be religion, lifestyle, political view, economic status, or even which sports team is your favorite. We are all guilty of this thinking, just in different degrees and in different areas. Children are naturally accepting of others, even others who might look or act differently from them. Prejudices are a learned behavior. Parents may choose or not to choose to talk to their kids about race, but even more important than this discussion is what they teach them with their actions and reactions in life's diverse situations. If you teach your child to accept and respect people of other races, yet refer to people of a different political party or lifestyle critical negative names, what is the message that you are sending to your child? Tolerance goes way beyond race. This is a great discussion and a challenge for each of us. I am still working on the man in the mirror to change my behavior. We need more Jeremy Linn's in the world to help break down the stereotypes that we all battle.
Space Ship April 25, 2012 at 04:18 PM
Tonto, just throw some Old Testament at them. That will resolve the issue.


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