Tag Archives: Dorothy Parker

Colorblindness, Race, and Children: The Elephant in the Living Room

Laurie and Debbie say:

We’d like to be surprised that in 2009 America, race is still a taboo topic in lots of (white) homes. But we’re not.

Earlier this month, Newsweek ran a long article about racial awareness and discrimination in young children. They start by describing a small study:

… parents were to discuss racial equality on their own, every night for five nights.

Five families abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But … hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they’d almost never called attention to racial differences.

The article goes on to discuss more aspects of the topic.

What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.

In spite of having lived all of our lives in a society which is so heavily grounded in the racism paradigm, we still find this kind of obliviousness somewhat surreal.

“If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, then you can’t be my ally.” — Samuel R. Delany, African-American writer

“Color-blindness” does not combat racism, as this article and many other sources demonstrate again and again.

Of all those [parents who were] told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so. And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week. Talking about race was clearly key. Reflecting later about the study, [Birgitte] Vittrup said, “A lot of parents came to me afterwards and admitted they just didn’t know what to say to their kids, and they didn’t want the wrong thing coming out of the mouth of their kids.”

What the article doesn’t discuss is why white parents don’t talk about race.

In Ampersand’s superb “How Not to Be Insane When Accused of Racism,” he quotes Prometheus6:

… not to put too fine a point on it, but “racist” is the only word that makes white people as crazy as “nigger” makes Black people. It makes them crazier. White people don’t want to hear you talk about ANY white person being racist. They’ll start telling you how many Black friends they have

This is the root of the problem. Most of these parents are not trying to be anti-racist. They’re not trying to be allies to people of color. They’re certainly not trying to teach their kids the truth about the world.

Most of them are trying to protect themselves and their children from ever, ever being accused of racism. If we pretend it isn’t there, if we make it invisible, if we don’t talk about it, we’ll be safe from the R-word. Wanting to protect your children, and yourself, is an understandable motivation. Unfortunately, it may feel like protection, but it’s actually a set-up.

The problems, of course, are legion.

Racism isn’t just individual, it’s deeply and integrally institutional. So ignoring it not only doesn’t make racism go away, it promotes it.

Refusing to acknowledge and contend with these issues is a racist act, whether or not anyone wants it to be named that way.

And, as the article repeatedly points out, the colorblind strategy doesn’t work. Kids always see the elephant in the living room, the one that no one is talking about.

When the kids turned 3, [Phyllis] Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

In the 1950s, Dorothy Parker poked fun at “colorblindness” by having a character identify the only African-American man at a party as “that man over there, the one in the green socks.” Parker knew then that this was both shameful and funny. It’s more shameful now, 50 years later. And it’s not very funny, either.

Thanks to Stefanie M. for the pointer.