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Is Our Ambivalence Giving Kids a Reason to Be Racist?

Is Our Ambivalence Giving Kids a Reason to Be Racist?

Back in the day, I went to about as racially and ethnically diverse an elementary school as you could get. It was urban and populated with children of various nationalities and lineages. From my white boy perspective, things were pretty copasetic and harmonious with cliques of children more apt to discriminate along gender lines than racial or ethnic ones. Somehow all of that began to change once we all moved into the realm of middle school. It was not anything conscious or even contentious, but we all started self segregating. Latino kids starting hanging out together. White kids formed their own social groups and the black kids did as well. These were the same kids that had grown up together and bonded in friendship, and now we were inexplicably separate. This gulf only widened once the transition into high school came about, and the rarity of a mixed race pack of friends became an overwhelming novelty.

I was reminded of this very real phenomenon a few years ago when plowing through the Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman bestseller NurtureShock (an enormously controversial investigation into child development). In a chapter dedicated to the issue of how children, even in the most diverse environments, explore and internalize the issue of race, authors Bronson and Merryman point to our failures in racial harmony, not as evidence that we are not diverse enough, but that we just don’t talk about race nearly enough to make sense of it for ourselves or our children. It is tempting to believe that because the current generation of kids and teens are so seemingly diverse, they will naturally grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies, namely ones sited in this book, suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact.

One of the main factors that serve as a persistent obstacle toward more awareness, tolerance and general harmony is the singular fact that most parents rarely talk with their children about race. It has become a subject that is surprisingly taboo and only spoken of in the most general of terms. For the most part, many parents avoid the particulars of race as well as the more taboo aspects of the subject in favor of depending on the diversity of the school environment to tacitly inform and instruct their child as to how the world works. Sadly, things are rarely ever this easy or (excuse the pun) black and white.

This diffidence and reticence among parents is, according to Bronson and Merryman, doing quite a disservice and subtly helping to build up racial constructs, fueling confusion and, in some cases, nurturing racist attitudes among children. We, as parents, entertain this fantasy that children should be raised as colorblind and that everyone is “equal” in our eyes, and by proxy, our children’s. But is this just an oversimplification that conveniently glosses over meta-levels of identity, as well as issues of belonging and perception. Has our knee-jerk response to racism yielded something just as vexing and insidious as the blatant racism that dominated for years? In essence, are we inadvertently raising racist children?

Here is some food for thought courtesy of NutureShock:

  • Seventy-five percent of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
  • The odds of a white high schooler in America having a best friend of another race are only 8 percent. For African-Americans the odds aren’t much better: 85 percent of black kids’ best friends are also black.
  • A child’s attitudes toward race are much harder to alter after third grade, but a lot of parents wait until then (or later) before they feel it’s “safe” to talk frankly about race.

Read more: Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Community, Family, Healthy Schools, News & Issues, Parenting at the Crossroads, Relationships, Teens, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


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10:18AM PDT on Apr 17, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

3:15AM PST on Feb 28, 2013

We've got to be careful with what we do in front of our young people

1:18PM PST on Feb 23, 2013


12:31PM PST on Dec 9, 2012

thank you

5:11PM PDT on Jul 11, 2012

Children model behavior and words can hurt. I say parents need to have conversations perhaps around the dinner table about this topic and other topics that are important to rearing healthy, loving and caring children. Hate and discrimination are NOT family values.

5:10PM PDT on Jun 1, 2012


8:33AM PDT on Apr 18, 2012

good reminder of how silence hurts

2:53PM PDT on Mar 24, 2012

I forgot to say that while I'm wishing and hoping, I'm also doing anything I can within my family, friends, community, school, to WORK FOR IT as well.

2:50PM PDT on Mar 24, 2012

I devoutly wish and hope for the day when we won't need to practice tolerance, because we have become truly and simply accepting of the many diverse and beautiful ways there are of being a human being.

2:46PM PDT on Mar 24, 2012

Tolerance is such a difficult thing to achieve, isn't it? So many levels that are out of conscious evaluation.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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