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Too Often, We're Mute On Race

By Petula Dvorak
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

We will never know if Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would have screamed "You lie!" at a white president. Or if Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. would have been arrested at his home if he were white. Or if the parents who feared that President Obama was going to deliver a political address to America's schoolchildren would have felt the same way if Hillary Rodham Clinton or John McCain were giving that speech. Or if the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly white protesters on the Mall on Saturday would have assembled against a president who looked more like them.

Many black people, who have endured experiences I can't begin to imagine, would say the answer to those questions is painfully obvious.

"Take a look at the Joe Wilson incident. There are a number of members on the Democratic side who believe George W. Bush should have been in prison, that he is a criminal, yet they didn't disrespect him that way," said Michael Fauntroy, a professor of public policy at George Mason University who specializes in race relations. "The disrespect that's going on with President Obama has race woven into it."

The overtones of race are crackling in the air whether it's a controversy over politics or pop culture.

Would Kanye West have dissed a black singer if she'd received an MTV award the way he stomped all over Taylor Swift's moment?

When our first African American president took office this year, many of us celebrated a huge milestone in this country's tortured racial history: Barriers were broken, stereotypes were shattered and history was made.

It was an especially important moment for the nation's children, who are at the age when the connection of a word to an image gets imprinted on the brain.

For my sons, the president -- the man whose job my older boy summed up as "the daddy of all the cities" -- is the face of Barack Obama.

And, of course, Obama's impact is even more profound on black kids.

Seven-year-old Alana Johnson became obsessed with national politics -- they call her "the Obama girl" at her elementary school -- because she could relate to Obama's daughters.

"My granddaughter wanted to come to the White House to meet those girls. Imagine that, girls who look just like her living in the White House," said Joyce Jeter, who brought Alana to the nation's capital from Marshall, Tex., this summer.

But the conversation about race simply cannot end with pride and platitudes and any thought that we can pat ourselves on the back and declare that we're done with this race thing now, let's move along.

And that's what plenty of white people are tempted to do.

A Tufts University and Harvard Business School study last year had researchers watch students playing a guessing game in which they described other students. The white students overwhelmingly tried to not mention race, an approach the study called "strategic colorblindness: avoidance of talking about race -- or even acknowledging racial difference -- in an effort to avoid the appearance of bias."

For the most part, well-intentioned white people simply clam up.

Study after study shows that children who grow up in racially diverse schools with parents who describe themselves as racially sensitive often end up developing their own, sometimes ugly biases to fill the vacuum.

I'm guilty of silence on the subject, despite living in a majority-black city. My son and I talked a lot about how important it is that President Obama was elected. But I worried that by pointing out Obama's skin color, I'd make my 5-year-old too aware of racial differences. Shouldn't I be aiming to make him colorblind?

Nope.

"It's color-mute, really," said Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"White parents, unlike parents of color, do not talk about race," said Bigler, who has done numerous studies with children on the subject. "Most parents really mean well and want to raise their children with a colorblind philosophy, but they really end up with a color-mute philosophy."

In an excerpt from their book "NurtureShock," published in Newsweek this week, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman wrote about this phenomenon and said that other studies showed that babies begin noticing differences in skin color when they are 6 months old.

In most of the studies cited in the book, parents said they stuck to generic dictums about equality but rarely waded into a frank conversation about race and racism.

That reluctance was on display last week during a back-to-school night at a Montgomery County elementary school. A friend of mine who attended said the white parents among a racially diverse group squirmed when the principal began comparing the school's test scores and performance records by race and sex. Was it wrong to point out these differences? Or right to point out the disparities alongside an action plan to close achievement gaps?

Not mentioning racism doesn't make it go away -- nor does it make our nation's conversations any more honest.

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com

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