Wednesday, September 16, 2009

They Have to be Carefully Taught

I think perhaps the only time we actually talked about race relations at my house (although I am rather flighty sometimes and might have missed deeper discussions) was one night when my dad started singing a lyric from South Pacific:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

His point, and the point of the song, is that parents will pass along their own prejudices to their children, whether they do it consciously or not.

I remember feeling confused at first, because in nearly all ways, my parents were teaching me to make friends with everyone, regardless of the color of their skin or other differences. The thing is, I grew up in a nearly-all-white neighborhood/school/church. I didn't come into contact with much diversity until I was in late middle school and started going to Conference-wide Youth Group meetings and events for my church. That is where my mind started to open and I started to learn more about people who were different from me, and it was delightful (usually) and challenging (once in a while) and surprising (sometimes).

For the last 8 years or so, I've been managing library branches in neighborhoods where I am the minority. I've been in meetings where I've been the only white face in the room, and when I go out to lunch near my branch, I'm often the only melanin-challenged person in the place. If I go to certain places near my last branch, I can go into restaurants where I am probably the only native English-speaker. I have no problem with any of this, of course, and I love my job (and the neighborhoods in which I've worked).

Why do I bring this up? My friend, Erin, sent me a link to this article from Newsweek about recent research to see if multicultural TV shows and videos are helping our kids be more open-minded, and also what kinds of parent-child interactions would help. Although I have a few issues with the study (they used only Caucasian families, for instance) it is still interesting. The study says that many families just don't talk about racial differences, hoping that raising their children in a diverse world and not pointing out differences will allow their children to be "colorblind" . . . but this appears to be a false hope.

The results of the study? If you want to help your child to view everyone as valuable, you should talk about differences in appearances, but then affirm that we're all valuable. You might actually have to struggle through feeling uncomfortable and TALK. From the Newsweek article:
What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.
Aha- so some groups are having the discussions at home, and others are not. Mine was a family that didn't talk about it much, and here I am, a very open-minded, loving person who embraces equality and diversity. I've met some people recently who, judging from some of the comments their teenage boys have made (openly racist), discuss race-relations at home in a way that I would find abhorrent.

The article goes on to describe a study where kids in a preschool were given different shirt colors, red and blue, and for a while weren't treated any differently. They played and interacted as one large group all day, but after a few weeks, when questioned, the kids felt strongly that their own color of shirt was better than the other, and that kids in the other color were "less" in various ways.

This goes right along with other things kids are learning at a young age. Our brains are programed to file information away according to "same" and "different". That is why young babies have to test things out with all their senses (putting everything in their mouth?), sorting through the world by subconsciously saying "same", "different". We are hard-wired to notice differences, then . . . and it's up to us to figure out how to react to the differences. Will we celebrate them or will we mistrust and fear them?

The conclusions that are drawn through this research seem to be that we need to talk specifically to our kids about racial attitudes, especially if we want to help them develop positive thoughts and feelings.

In many (most?) middle-class white families, this topic is probably still taboo. Do you talk to the children in your life about racial attitudes? Do you talk about which behaviors/thoughts are appropriate and which are ugly? And what about beyond race . . . do you talk about being accepting of people of different religions? People who have graduated from a rival school (even that state up North?) People who vote differently from you? Do you talk openly, do you mention the elephant in the room?

Let me know what you're thinking!


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you got the message even though we didn't talk about it much, and the song confusing you! You're great!
Love, Mom

Cheryl said...

Hey Cathy. Nice post. Even though Eleanor is not even three yet, I have talked about race in little ways I can now. We talked about this in the UAE alot too about how people have different color skins, wear different clothing, etc. So important!

Cheryl said...

p.s. I was raised until 10 in a very urban multicultural neighborhood in Cincy. I had more black friends than anything else. I'm glad for this because once we moved out to the suburbs it was a very different setting and I realize I might not have been so open-minded. Unfortunately my parents have race issues and moved us out of where we lived for that reason - "the neighborhood was becoming too black"-- but fortunately for me it was not too soon.

Cat said...

Thanks, Mom - I love you and Dad so much.

Jim Brochowski said...

We are fortunate in that both of our girls are good listeners, (don't tell them I said that ;-) and they know that we preach acceptance without bias, without differences.

K's peer group at school reflects this quite a bit and she is a leader in that group so I think she understands. For example, I was amazed at how her entire school came together when Garrett was shot and killed. Perhaps the trauma of the event was a part of that, but you could tell that those kids were genuinely there, and cared for one another regardless of race, creed, or religion.

D's peer group is still developing, but at 13 there will always be drama to work through. So far, none of it has been about differences. I hope that continues.

Great, No, Awesome post Cat!

prashant said...

have talked about race in little ways I can now.

Work From Home india