Most white parents and some black parents in America believe in bringing up children in a colour-blind way: they never talk about race but just say stuff like “Everybody’s equal”, “God made all of us” and “Under the skin, we’re all the same”. Some go even further and make sure their children have a chance to regularly meet people of other races, like at school.
It sounds great, but in practice it does not work in most cases.
There was an article in Newsweek a few weeks ago called “See Baby Discriminate” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Supported by the latest studies, they say that children will still see colour anyway. All they learn from their parents’ silence is that they are uncomfortable talking about race. As one six-year-old white boy put it:
Parents don’t like us to talk about our skin, so don’t let them hear you.
Some interesting findings:
- In one study five and six-year-olds (100 white, 100 black) were given a pack of cards with drawings of people on them. The children were told to sort them into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16% sorted them by sex, while 68% sorted by them by race – without being asked!
- In a twist on the blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise, four and five-year-olds at a preschool were given T-shirts, half of them red, half of them blue, given out in no particular order. They were told to wear them every day for three weeks. That was it. The teachers said nothing more about it, they did not divide the children according to their T-shirt colour or anything. Yet after three weeks the children who wore blue T-shirts thought the blues were nicer and had more intelligence than the reds, while the reds thought they were the better ones.
- Going to a mixed-race school does not necessarily make one any less racist. It seems to work for six-year-olds, but not for anyone eight or older. If anything it seems to have opposite effect: the more evenly balanced the races in a high school are, the less likely one will have a best friend from another race. And, mixed school or not, only 8% of white high school students have a best friend from another race. For blacks it is 15%.
Bronson and Merryman say it is better to talk to your children about race than not. Most parents of colour do, but 75% of white parents do not. In fact it makes them very uncomfortable.
Yet no one brings up their children in a gender-blind way, as if there were no such thing as boys and girls, men and women. Not only do parents freely talk about gender, they even make sure to talk about how gender stereotypes are bad and unfair. Why should race be any different?
As to black children, colour-blind child rearing will leave them unprepared for the racism they will face. Studies show it is best to feed them with good images of blacks and not with too much doubt and suspicion about whites.
- Newsweek: See Baby Discriminate
- The blue-eyed/brown-eyed exercise
- What to tell your children about racism – wherein I disagree with my mother, who was of the colour-blind school of child rearing
- colour-blind racism – the most common outcome for whites who are brought up in a colour-blind way
- growing up white
- growing up black
- racelessness – there is a difference between being racist and being race conscious
- Why whites are blind to their racism – why just talking about race will not in itself be the cure-all for whites