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The Subtle & Pervasive Reach of Racism

Posted By Julie Stevens, Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, October 22, 2014


4 Parenting Tips to Confront our Collective History 

In response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri - the latest in a series of cases prompting a national discussion of how race factors into lived experience - NPR ran a piece entitled "'The Talk:' How Parents Of All Backgrounds Tell Kids About The Police." Research - as well as common sense - confirms that with regard to talking about racism and its consequences, black parents are more likely than white parents to openly discuss with their children the potential effect of skin color on a variety of everyday interactions, including those with the authorities. The stakes are different for parents of black children and adolescents. But all parents would do well to reflect on how, and if, they talk with their children about race.

The final sound bite in the NPR story came from blogger Elizabeth Broadbent, whose provocative post, "A Mother's White Privilege" examined the differences in the nature and degree of parental anxiety she faced as a white mother based on the fact that her sons were "inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by black America."

How can parents who aspire to raise children who will confront and reject racism best respond to this latest moment in our collective history?


First, if we are parents with the kind of "white privilege" that Broadbent describes, we might begin by examining the complicated feelings engendered by the fact of that privilege:

  • Despair over the pervasiveness and intractability of these fundamental injustices
  • Guilt that we (and our children) are automatically delivered from many of the challenges faced by others, or that we may be complicit in perpetuating unfair advantages afforded by systemic racism
  • Discomfort that acknowledging that the reality of bias and racism debunks the cherished American dream: hard work and determination leads to equal opportunity for all
  • Anger that we are called upon to fashion a response to unfairness that is deeply entrenched in history, not directly of our making, and seemingly beyond our control


Regardless of our race and our experiences, parents have a special responsibility to move beyond emotion to understanding how racial stereotypes are formed and how to help our children resist perpetuating them.


Most of us would agree that popular media bombards parents and children alike with countless messages - both blatant and subtle - about the significance of race. The degree to which this assault affects us is alarming. A 2009 study by Tufts University of several well-known television shows concluded that nonverbal racial bias is typical of scripted TV offerings, with white characters routinely depicted as receiving better treatment than black characters.

Furthermore, viewers were both influenced by this bias and unable to consciously detect its pervasiveness. Beverly Tatum, a race-relations scholar, likens these inescapable cultural messages to "smog in the air." She reminds us that we (and our children) "don't breathe smog because we think it's good for us. We breathe it because it's the only air that's available." 


Addressing Racism Tip #1: Good Filtration

With regard to racist stereotypes floating unseen in the air we all must breathe, we can do our best to provide our kids with the equivalent of good filtration, first by setting limits on what media they consume, and then by helping them to challenge racist stereotypes:

  • “Why do you think most of the gang members/drug addicts/single mothers on TV dramas are portrayed by people of color?"
  • I wonder how the actual statistics about crimes committed by whites and non-whites compare to what we see on TV or in the movies?”


Addressing Racism Tip #2: Direct the Dialog

And we can initiate conversations with our kids about race and respond to their questions/comments regarding race – always attempting to do so in a manner that is developmentally appropriate, respectful, and apt to encourage continued dialogue. This might feel awkward. Many white parents mistakenly believe that not directly addressing race helps in raising “colorblind” kids. But just like us, children as young as 21/2 to 3 years notice and begin to make attributions regarding differences in skin color, hair texture, and facial features. 


What happens if we remain silent?

If in response to these obvious aspects of human diversity parents remain silent, show discomfort or simply don’t respond when kids raise the issue, then their children may sense some taboo around the topic of racial difference. Or kids may be left to reach their own conclusions, some of which might astound parents who willingly embrace and celebrate diversity, but who avoid discussing race. Consider a study conducted in 2006 (prior to the election of President Obama) by Dr. Rebecca Bigler and her colleagues at UT-Austin.  Children between the ages of 5 and 10 were asked why all 43 presidents to that date were white. She offered possible explanations and, incredibly, 26% of the children endorsed the statement that it was illegal for blacks to be president.


Researcher and Yale Assistant Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science Kristina R. Olson notes, “White children whose parents insist (they) do not see race walk into research labs across the world and, when presented with a line-up of possible friends, are quick to select the White ones rather than the Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Indigenous ones.” While preference for what, or who, is familiar does not necessarily equate with bigotry, children gain when unconscious biases are pointed out and explored.


Addressing Racism Tip #3: Build Friendships

Friendship that is relaxed and genuine is fundamental in counteracting every form of “ism”, not to mention overcoming biases. Parents can provide kids with the opportunity for direct contact with people from different groups, which will help them be less influenced by stereotypes.  If your child’s school is not racially diverse, seek out extracurricular activities that will provide experiences with kids of different races and backgrounds. And parents can model interest in understanding those who are racially and culturally different – through the friendships they pursue, the activities they engage in, and the media they consume.


Addressing Racism Tip #4: Persevere Even When Challenged

Understand that discussions about racism might be prompted unexpectedly. Follow the links below to see how two dads grappled with racist language and stereotypes they stumbled into when sharing literary classics as part of their children’s bedtime routine. These conversations may challenge and unsettle us, but at a minimum we will learn what our kids are thinking, and let them know we stand ready to help them sort through all varieties of dilemmas.


Tags:  [Grade: Lower]  [Grade: Middle]  [Grade: Upper]  [subject: Moral Development & Character Education]  [Subject: Parenting]  [Type: Article]  [User Group: Parents]  moral competence 

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