Newsweek has a new article detailing children and racism titled “See Baby Discriminate.”
The goal of Vittrup’s study was to learn if typical children’s videos with multicultural storylines have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes. Her first step was to give the children a Racial Attitude Measure, which asked such questions as:
How many White people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)
How many Black people are nice?
(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)
During the test, the descriptive adjective “nice” was replaced with more than 20 other adjectives, like “dishonest,” “pretty,” “curious,” and “snobby.”
The main problem with this article is that it does not separate racism from prejudice or bigotry.
Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. That has to be taught, or developed as a cultural ideology (for example, the Spanish Reconquista, pushing the Moors out of Iberia, used race as a rallying cry). The survey questions listed don’t cover the idea that one race is superior to another. Rather, they ask about children’s perceptions based upon simplistic criteria.
Prejudice is different. Prejudice is the pre-judging of a situation or person based upon less than all the facts. Prejudice is a survival mechanism. It developed to keep us safe: If you see a lion charging at you, you will automatically assume it is going to eat you. It may actually be coming up to lick your face, but our assumption is that a charging lion wants to eat us. This is prejudice, and it kept our distant ancestors on the African Savannah alive. This is what the survey was really asking about.
And yes, left in a vacuum, children will tend to form prejudices based upon easily identifiable characteristics. Without guidance to reinforce positive prejudice and discourage negative prejudice, such superficial prejudice will continue.
I am prejudiced: If I see a man walking down the street with his hat on sideways, his pants halfway to his ankles, an over-sized athletic jersey and walking so “leaned back” he’s very nearly kicking the back of his head, I’m going to assume he’s a rough customer and check to be certain I’m carrying my pistol. I would do that whether he were black, white, asian or purple with pink polka-dots.
I consider this a valid prejudice. Why? Because it is taking into account what the person chooses to show the world, not what he can’t help but show the world. Wearing those clothes is an expression of, “I am a Thug. I’m looking for trouble.” It is not racist to discriminate against this person, but it is prejudice. Justifiable prejudice.
I would have a very different reaction to someone walking down the street in a dashiki, in blue jeans (properly belted around the waist) and a polo, or a business suit.
Vittrup is probably right that these children are developing negative racial prejudice in the vacuum of their parents’ silence. Skin color is an easily identifiable characteristic. Our brains are wired to categorize things, and skin color is an easy category for small children to recognize. Easier, even, than eye color or height.
For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.
The assumption discussed above had to be wishful thinking, both on the part of researchers and those who propogated it. Again, skin color is easily recognized and categorized.
The kids didn’t segregate in their behavior. They played with each other freely at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to, or which team might win a race, they chose their own color. They believed they were smarter than the other color. “The Reds never showed hatred for Blues,” Bigler observed. “It was more like, ‘Blues are fine, but not as good as us.’ ” When Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” Asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” Some of the Blues were mean, and some were dumb—but not the Reds.
Again, this should not be surprising. The same thing happens with varsity sports in schools and with professional sports. The rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox is perpetuated largely by the fans, not the teams. Similarly with the Universities of Georgia and Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, and Michigan and Ohio State: All are fine schools providing excellent educations with strong athletics programs, however we see as fans deride each other, even get into fist fights or brawls over their respective school colors.
Focusing on race is counter-productive. Whenever we begin talking about, “This race gets special privileges,” or “That race is keeping us down,” it merely perpetuates the stigma of race.
We cannot create a color-blind society. It is unfortunate, but true. Our prejudices follow us; they affect our thinking and our actions. Properly reinforced, those prejudices can become bigotry and racism. So the “color-blind, raceless” society is an impossible dream.
The early sections of the Newsweek article are distubring, for they characterize prejudice and racism as one-and-the-same, when even by the author’s own writing they clearly are not. Later in the article, however, the author gets it right: Frank discussion of the topic when appropriate and relevant is more likely to reduce prejudice, while forced discussion when it is not relevant is more likely to reinforce racial stereotypes and prejudices.
Then the author degenerates to this:
Preparation for bias is not, however, the only way minorities talk to their children about race. The other broad category of conversation, in Harris-Britt’s analysis, is ethnic pride. From a very young age, minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She found that this was exceedingly good for children’s self-confidence; in one study, black children who’d heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability.
That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If “black pride” is good for African-American children, where does that leave white children? It’s horrifying to imagine kids being “proud to be white.” Yet many scholars argue that’s exactly what children’s brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent—it’d be redundant.
And precisely why is “black pride” a positive thing, but “white pride” redundant and abhorrent? Rather than suggest that “black pride” is a positive and “white pride” is a negative, why not accept the fact that pride in something one cannot help or change is redundant and abhorent? Rather than perpetuate the idea that minorities are oppressed and need special treatment, let us embrace the idea that people are created equal, but their actions and behaviors lead them to greater or lesser lives. Proposing the “black pride” is good an “white pride” is bad only perpetuates the idea of white superiority and reinforces the prejudice and resentment that can become racism.
No, “white pride” is not productive. Neither is “black pride.” Both perpetuate a negative categorization and reinforce prejudice.
When we “celebrate diversity” by talking about it in adult terms–that is, by discussion minorities and ignoring white diversity–it perpetuates the idea among white children that whites are somehow different, somehow superior. Children aren’t as empty a slate as we often credit them for being. They perceive and infer far better than we like to think. When we celebrate diversity but only talk about minorities, both white and minority children see this, and form new prejudices based upon it
Until and unless we celebrate all diversity, we will continue to perpetuate prejudice in America. Until celebrations of Swedish, Polish and Italian culture is put on an equal plateau with celebrating the cultures of Mexicans, Nigerians and Indians, that seemingly imperceptible omission will be noticed, recorded and internalized. It will reinforce new prejudices and, uncorrected, can become resentment and even hate.