I’ve avoided talking about race with my kids mainly because I’ve thought that racial bias is learned by direct instruction and imitation—and that if I don’t talk about race or act in explicitly racist ways, my kids won’t pick up prejudices. My sources told me that this notion is pretty common; research suggests that nonwhite parents talk about racial identity much more frequently with their kids than white parents do, but that even minority parents often avoid talking about racial differences. “There’s this idea that if you do call attention to race at a young age, you’re poisoning kids’ minds,” says Erin Winkler, chair of the department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.
This theory makes sense. In fact, it’s what social learning theorists believed for a long time, and why so many parents strive to make their children “color-blind.” But over the past 15 years, research has supported a different idea: that children start assigning meaning to race at a very young age. When researchers presented 30-month-olds with pictures of children of various races and asked them to pick who they would want to play with, the toddlers were more likely to pick kids of their race. Likewise, when sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin observed kids in an urban day care center for 11 months, they found that children as young as three excluded other kids from play based on their race and used race to negotiate power in their social networks, as they described in their 2001 book The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism.Alicia and I fear for the next generation and the prospects for further advances toward racial justice. In our work we see how confused White kids are. Some have even called me out for being racist when I make a comment that acknowledges the existence of race. Kids who can't make distinctions between race-consciousness and racial prejudice are not equipped to navigate our world as it is. They are not prepared to be forces for justice and reconciliation. If they have been taught that race is a big taboo that must be wished away, they are likely to become another generation of stunted, defensive, destructive White people who will reinforce a society of "racism without racists." Last summer I wrote:
As a White Christian parent, what do you teach your kids about race? By the way, you are teaching them about race one way or another. If it's something that is not discussed in your house, that in itself is a powerful message. But let's assume that most of us do have some sort of explicit conversations. We might tell them about God's design, that we're all the same and race is a fiction we've created. We might tell them that everyone should be treated the same and racism is wrong.I think that holds up pretty well. So...before we talk to our kids about race, we must educate ourselves. And since the vast majority of us harbor racial prejudice, we must do the hard work of self-examination and confession and learning. That's something that can be modeled in front of our kids. It will be much harder, but much more fulfilling and useful, than simplistic admonitions about being colorblind.
This is all well and good, and it might make your kids into decent people. But if that's as far as it goes, they will be unlikely to have a Christian perspective or be prepared to fight for racial justice. We set our kids up for failure by sending them out into the world with a brittle admonition -- racism is wrong! -- backed up by little sense of how it operates, how it influences the lives of our brothers and sisters, and how it can be resisted. What happens to our kids, for example, when they find out that Blacks are in fact disproportionally poor, do in fact commit disproportionate amounts of violent crime, do in fact occupy disproportionally lower status jobs?
They will tend to develop cognitive dissonance. On the one hand they hold resolutely to a superficial knowledge that racism is wrong, while on the other they begin to look down on those who are not like them. In this dissonance we begin to see the defensiveness and inability for self-examination that plagues so many White adults. "I'm not racist but...what about crime rates...have you seen their neighborhood?" Don't tell me you don't recognize that state of mind. It reflects the views of tens of millions of White Americans.