They Have to Be Carefully Taught
A lot has been written and said in the days since George Zimmerman was acquitted of shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. I have been reading and listening to a lot of it- voices from all sides weighing in on why the jury made the right or wrong decision; network analysis of the trial; interviews with a jury member; blog entries; the presidential address, etc. I have heard people blame “bad” Florida laws and say that the killing of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with race. I have been listening, and reading, and thinking but have remained decidedly quiet on the topic.
Now, I’m ready to share what I’ve been thinking about. I want to say too that what I am sharing is merely my opinion, my thoughts – not specifically about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but about race in general and why so many people are so uncomfortable talking about it, especially in mixed company. I want to raise the issue of how we talk (or don’t talk) to our children about race and how dangerous our silence is. You are welcome to agree or respectfully disagree with me and maybe we can even have a productive, honest conversation about a very important subject matter that is not going away any time soon.
This past week I have been reading, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, the 2009 non-fiction book written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Especially in light of everything that is being written and said about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman I found myself fascinated by Chapter three, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” The authors cite a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family which found, “that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, 45% said they’d never, or almost never, discussed race issues with their children.” However, when broken down by race, the number of white parents who said that they “never, or almost never” talked about race with their kids was 75%- almost three times the number of nonwhite parents who answered the question the same way (pgs.51-52).
The chapter also discusses another study, conducted in 2006 by a doctoral student named Birgitte Vittrup from the University of Texas who specifically recruited Caucasian families with children ages 5-7, to research whether or not watching children’s videos with multicultural story lines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes. One group in the study was not given any videos to watch but was asked to raise the issue of “racial equality” with their children for five consecutive nights. Five of the families in this group left the study altogether. Two of the families told Vittrup that they did not want to point out skin color to their children (pages 48-49). The reasons that the other families dropped out of the study were not provided but there is an underlying assumption that their reasons were similar to the other families who withdrew.
I have been thinking about these studies. I was surprised by the statistics and the anecdotes in this chapter. Could it be that parents are worried that talking to their kids openly and honestly about race, that by bringing up the subject of skin color, it could cause their children to become racist? To me, the idea that by not talking to our children about race they will not notice or think about race (whether positively or negatively) echoes the largely non-proven argument that by talking to kids about sex and birth control they will be more promiscuous. As a Caucasian parent, I thought I was having the right kinds of conversations about race with my children. We talk frequently about everyone being equal despite race, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, etc. I tell them to not judge a book by its cover, and that skin color should not be criteria used to choose friends. We have talked about the Civil Rights movement and slavery and about brave people of all backgrounds who fight for equality. All this is okay- I don’t think they are bad things to talk about. But I am realizing that it is not enough.
I have believed for a long time that children have to be carefully taught to hate. But it is not enough to simply refrain from using derogatory terms or sing the praises of Martin Luther King, Jr. I think that for some Caucasians talking about race forces us to admit that we are not where we thought we were on this issue. That we don’t know as much as we should know and that we are not doing as much as we should be doing to move our nation forward. There is a discomfort in acknowledging that there is a disproportionate percentage of minorities who are socio-economically disadvantaged and that our criminal justice system works largely in favor of light skinned people with financial means. Most people do not like to think of themselves as racist in anyway. But I will be the first to admit that my being a progressive and open minded person does not mean that I do not have work to do. I have been one of those Caucasian moms who sit around a table with other Caucasian moms and talks about how lovely it is that our children are “blind” to the skin color of their classmates. As if “color blindness” is really the ideal or as if we actually have any idea as to what is actually going on inside our children’s heads.
I was reminded of this a few nights ago while reading to my daughter. We were reading the story of a Jewish family many years ago living in a shtetl somewhere in Eastern Europe or Russia. There is a picture in the book of a little boy entering his school house and the question posed to me by my five year old was not, “why aren’t there any girls?” but instead, “why is everybody white?” (So much for color blind.) I was surprised that she asked this question, but I was excited too because it gave me an opportunity to raise the issue of race in a different way than I had in the past. I started out by talking about how some countries, some cities, some towns, are more diverse than others and that there are places in the world where the majority of the people have similar skin tones. Then, I took it a step further. We talked about how sometimes people don’t get to choose where they live. For centuries, Jews were pushed into little geographic areas because the rest of the population didn’t want to live among them because they were different. I told her that this still happens today with lots of groups of people, sometimes based on skin color, for the same reason. We discussed how sometimes people are afraid or uncomfortable around people who look differently from themselves, or have different religious beliefs. I asked her to share with me what she already knew about this kind of thing. My five year old daughter told me that she knew that there was a time in our country that it was against the law for people of different skin colors to be friends or marry each other and that it wasn’t right. Then she said that she knew there will still places around the world where people did not have equal rights and that this wasn’t right either. She also told me that she was glad we lived in a town where everybody did not look the same.
This conversation still may not have been perfect but it was definitely a step in the right direction. I learned that my child is thinking about these issues and that she is observing everything that is going on around her. She is trying to make sense of the world and figure out how she fits in. We have to do more than just not teach our children to hate. We have to take advantage of teachable moments, we have to let our children hear us speaking out in the face of injustice, we need to answer their questions as honestly and thoughtfully as we can and we need to ask them how they feel about these issues.
We also have to ask ourselves why we do not want to talk about this. What is making us uncomfortable? What is holding us back? We have to ask ourselves what our silence tells our children- what permission are we giving them to not care if we give the impression that we don’t care.
There’s more to be said- so I’m going to end this by saying, to be continued. I need to regroup and think some more about all of it first. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts. We need to be talking about this if we hope to make any progress at all.