Eighth Way for Dads to Change the World: Talk with your kids about race

By Jeremy Adam Smith

One day I was sitting with four-year-old Liko watching teenagers play pick-up basketball in our neighborhood. “Daddy,” he said thoughtfully, “why do only black kids play basketball?”

My heart skipped a beat and my stomach clenched with anxiety. I looked around the court: In fact, there was one red-headed white girl and one middle-aged white guy, which I pointed out to him, but otherwise, yes, all the other players were black kids.

Liko has grown up in a city, riding public transportation and visiting all parts of the Bay Area, and he’s accustomed to seeing people of many different races. The skin tones of his playmates have ranged from black to freckled pale; Liko himself is a mix of Asian and Caucasian ethnicities, and we as a family are completely comfortable with our mutliracialism. But this was the first time he’d ever seemed to notice race and the first time he’d ever asked about it.

My split-second reaction was to panic, as I know many parents do. But in tackling this topic, I had one advantage that many parents do not: I’m the editor of an anthology called Are We Born Racist?, which Beacon Press will publish in August 2010. It’s about new research into how our brains react to racial difference, and I had spent a lot of time with psychologists exploring about how to talk with kids about race.

“Do kids even see or notice race?” asks child psychologist Allison Briscoe-Smith in her contribution to the anthology. “The answer is yes, they see and notice racial differences from a very young age, even in infancy.” By the age of three, she writes, kids will start sorting themselves into racial groups.

That year I had been seeing this dynamic play out in Liko’s preschool. One day when I went to pick him up, I found his class gathered outside the school, waiting for the mommies and daddies. Something struck me: The white girls huddled in one group and the white boys in another. Where was Liko? He and his three other part-white/part-Asian classmates, boys and girls, were off to one side, hanging out with each other.

A month later, at a parent-teacher conference, Liko’s teachers confirmed my impression: Liko and his mixed-race classmates had indeed formed a posse.

The teachers didn’t put it that way; instead they said, “Liko really enjoys playing with O., A., and L. and they engage in lots of fun activities like…etc.” I was the one who privately noted the racial mix of the posse. I thought about bringing this up in the meeting, but I decided against it. I guessed (wrongly?) that the teachers would greet my observation in a defensive way, as though something bad is going on in their classroom.

But Briscoe-Smith argues that this kind of race-sorting is normal and healthy, and she urges parents to not see their children as instinctive racists:

For children under the age of seven, race—or, rather, physical traits like skin color, language, and hair texture—are just signs that someone is in some way different from themselves, similar to gender or weight. It’s not unusual or unhealthy for kids to gravitate toward the familiar so early in life. Kids’ views only become prejudiced when they start linking these physical traits to flaws in character or behavior. We adults are the ones who ascribe malice to simply noticing racial differences.

She continues:

So in and of itself, recognizing racial difference is not a cause for alarm—quite the opposite, in fact. For years, studies have found that children who recognize these kinds of differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size—which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests. Researcher Francis Aboud has found that children between the ages of four and seven who show this advanced ability to identify and categorize differences are actually less prejudiced. So parents, rest assured: When children notice and ask about racial differences, it’s a normal and healthy stage of development.

Whew. Remembering that lessened my anxiety about tackling Liko’s question: “Why do only black kids play basketball?”

But how to answer him? Briscoe-Smith notes that many well-intentioned parents opt for a policy of silence on the subject of race. “They assume that if they raise their children not to recognize racial differences, they’ll prevent them from becoming racist,” she writes.

Unfortunately, while parents are saying things like, “Look at the pretty boat!” in an effort to distract their children from the topic at hand, the kids are still noticing race and forming their own ideas on the subject—or getting their ideas from messages in the world around them.

“Instead of trying to ignore race, research suggests that parents should be more pro-active,” writes Briscoe-Smith. Her own research with 67 racially- and ethnically-diverse families found that “talking and answering kids’ questions about race may help them understand racial issues and become more tolerant.”

She also discovered that “the children of parents who talked more about race were better able to identify racism when they saw it, and were also more likely to have positive views about ethnic minorities.” This was true for both the white families and the families of color in her study.

As Briscoe-Smith’s research flashed through my mind, Liko looked at me and he expected an answer. I took a deep breath and said, “Well, it looks like a lot of black kids like playing basketball! Do you want to play basketball with them when you’re older?”

“Yeah!” he said.

Then he said: “Can I have an ice cream?”

And that was that. (Though I really need to do some research on how to say, “No, you can’t have ice cream right now,” in a way that doesn’t result in wheedling or weeping.) In the moment, I felt somehow inadequate, like I had missed some great opportunity to, I don’t know, plant the seed that will result in him one day becoming a perfectly tolerant human being.

But in retrospect, I see that I was just being a stupid adult. He was asking a simple and reasonable question, one of about two hundred he asked me that same day. Knowing of this research is a comfort to me, and should be to all parents, I think. (When I later shared this incident with Allison Briscoe-Smith, by the way, she told me that I had given the “developmentally appropriate” answer.)

This doesn’t mean that Liko and I, and all of us, aren’t facing a perilous racial landscape. Racism is a system of privilege based on race, one that still shapes our society. As Beverly Daniel Tatum points out in her 1998 book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, when racial segregation combines with cultural misinformation and inequalities of power, the results are toxic for individuals, institutions, and cultures.

Like does indeed usually attract like, but prejudice is not the inevitable result. Other, considerably less innocent and natural, factors are in play. It’s us adults, not the kids, who are responsible for the stereotypes and the power.

There are lots of things children do that we as adults help them to grow out of. We teach them to share, and to say please and thank you, and how to clean up after themselves, and how to cross the street, and much more. All of these lessons are a struggle; our kids resist every step of the way, until they don’t. This is just one more item on that list. No need to hyperventilate, no need to feel guilty.

Of course, I’m not going to tell Liko, or anyone else’s kids, who to play with, but I will do my best to help him expand his world, and try to help him see through stereotypes, and, when he gets old enough, fight against power imbalances. That’s what counts the most, or so I believe.

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