By Marie-Anne Suizzo
In a recent episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” two doctors, one black and one white, have a conversation about racism. The white one is asking the black one for advice. She fears she may have appeared racist because she chose a white intern over a black intern for a surgery.
The part I liked most about this scene is how it portrayed the confusion of the white doctor. She was confident that race had played no part in her choice, and she was horrified that she might have been perceived as a racist by the black intern. It became the black doctor’s job to reassure her that she was not racist. Her anxiety about being judged racist dominated the conversation. And that white anxiety, not guilt or shame, may be the single biggest obstacle to eroding racism and building meaningful cross-racial relationships.
But white anxiety starts during childhood when white children are often taught that all skin colors are equal and should therefore be ignored. This is called “colorblind socialization” and many white parents practice it with their children early on in a well-intentioned but highly damaging attempt to prevent racism. The way colorblind socialization plays out is to avoid any conversations about skin color. If a child brings it up, you must quickly correct and silence them and explain that mentioning someone’s skin color is rude, and even racist.
The problem with this strategy is that instead of nurturing children’s natural curiosity about differences, it teaches them to be wary and to feel ashamed if they even notice their friends’ skin color.
In one of the only studies on white parents’ conversations about race, my colleagues and I at the University of Texas at Austin invited 84 white mothers to read two children’s books with their preschoolers.
One was about zebras and asked readers to ponder what might happen if some zebras lost their black stripes and others lost their white stripes. Would they still be friends? The other book was about an African American boy drawing a picture with the help of his diverse friends. Despite prompting readers to talk about skin color, these books yielded amazingly few conversations about racism.
In fact, 89 percent of the mother-child pairs talked about the zebras’ colors without ever bringing up race, ethnicity, or diversity in humans. And nearly 94 percent read the second book without ever mentioning the fact that the main character was African American.
The problem is that regardless of what happens at home, when children go to school they find themselves in classrooms with other children who may not be their color. And they notice. Research shows that most children can distinguish between skin colors before they can walk, and by the age of 6, they understand that some colors are considered superior to others and may themselves engage in stereotyping.
Despite all our best intentions to avoid and mute any mention of racism, children learn about it from their environments. In fact, in our study of white mothers, we found that the colors of the mothers’ friends made a difference in their children’s perceptions. Moms with a higher percentage of non-white friends had children with more positive attitudes towards African Americans. So even if we openly condemn racism, our children’s attitudes are affected by the color of the company we keep. Not talking about color or teaching children to ignore it because diversity is only skin-deep will not stop the spread of racism.
African American parents have known this for a long time. They teach their children about racism through a process called “racial socialization.” Racial socialization involves talking to children about the color of their skin and preparing them to live in a world where people will treat them differently and sometimes unfairly because of their skin color. Racial socialization also involves positive lessons such as sharing stories about cultural and family heritage and telling children that they are equal to everyone else despite what racists think.
In a study of African American mothers of young children, my colleagues and I found that mothers talked with their children about what it meant to be black, both the positive aspects of cultural pride and the negative aspects of dealing with racist people, as early as age 4. These mothers expressed deep concern with how to balance these two opposite poles, and also with knowing when is the right age and the right moment to present these issues to their babies. They worried that teaching them too young might damage their growing self-esteem or make it harder for them to feel comfortable with their white peers.
But research suggests that talking about racism with young children of color is worth the risk. Many studies show that for African Americans, teaching children about racism and how to defend against it actually buffers them from the most harmful psychological effects of racist experiences. Because for African Americans, as for most members of ethnic minority groups, experiencing racism is an inevitable fact of life that starts as early as elementary school.
But white children do not share this experience – so is it really that necessary to talk about it with them, especially when they are young? Yes.
Research on teaching white children about racism is promising. One study showed that white elementary school children who learned about racism within the context of an African American history lesson had more positive and less negative views of African Americans afterwards than those who had the same lesson but with no mention of racism. If it works in schools, it can work in homes as well.
Colorblind socialization leads to “colormuteness.” If you can’t see it, if you deny its existence, then how can you talk about it? And if you can’t talk about it, then the conversations that do happen are the only ones that get heard.
If well-intentioned white parents are afraid to talk about color and the realities of racism, their kids won’t learn how to have those conversations with their peers. And when they witness racism at school or on the Internet, if they don’t have someone or some experience to help them counter those hateful words and understand where they come from, they may actually believe them. Or at the very least, they will remain silent.