Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference (2)

Last Friday, I had the privilege of giving a keynote lecture at the city school district’s teachers conference on diversity. This week, I am posting excerpts from my talk, “Talking and Listening to Kids about Difference: Perspectives from Parenthropology.” Here is part 2:

I find it striking that race seem to be “taboo” topics while, for example, sex and gender have become less so. “The talk” about reproduction has become a rite of passage in American life that is accepted and expected as part of the raising of children. There also are a number of resources offering thoughtful advice to grown-ups on what to say and what not to say. For example, the advice today is that parents ought to use the correct anatomical terms, not euphemisms, to refer to body parts, starting even at an early age – which lays the foundation for unashamed, open and honest, communication. At home, parents exercise critical thinking about gender, dressing their infant daughters in blue and encouraging their toddler sons to play with dolls. At school, teachers remind their students that there is no difference in what girls and boys can accomplish. As a culture and society, we recognize the significance of talking and listening to kids about sex and gender.

Yet when it comes to race, there is no “talk.” For example, when young children talk too loudly about Bubbie’s mother being “a Chinese lady,” their parents hush them and rush them off. I suspect that what children are explicitly told is that is race and ethnicity are not “nice” to talk about – and they become implicitly taught that race ought not be talked about at all. Indeed, in their 2009 book NurtureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite a 2007 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, which found that among 17,000 families with kindergarteners, 45% said they never or almost never discussed race issues with their children. The rates varied, however, between white and nonwhite families: 75% of white parents said they never or almost never talk about race.

Recently, I discussed this statistic in a class that I currently am teaching on the Anthropology of North America. Most of my students identify themselves as white, with a few students who describe themselves as “mixed heritage.” Many of my students, both white and “mixed heritage,” described coming from communities that they did not consider “diverse,” at least in terms of race and ethnicity. Yet, some students voiced their belief that not being “diverse” did not mean that diversity was not a concern for their communities or for them. After all, they encounter difference in college and in “the rest of their lives.” They perceive difference as portrayed in the movies and TV shows that they watch or the music that they hear – and as one student commented, they can either accept the media portrayals as truth or question them. We as parents and teachers must be concerned about the meanings that become attached to difference. We must question whether or not we are guiding kids to understand what difference does and does not mean.

Students in my class speculated that not talking about race is about attempting to achieve an ideal of color blindness, because so many Americans want so much for race not to matter. Yet, my students also recognized that while color blindness might be an ideal, it is not our reality. In Nurture Shock, Bronson and Merryman review recent research in psychology that finds children as young as six months old perceiving the differences in physical appearance that we in the United States call race – that is, skin color. This overturns the assumption that we teach our children to perceive difference. In fact, what we do is to teach our children how to make sense of difference that they already perceive. So, what do we teach our children when we hush them and tell them that race ought not to be discussed – and if they are not learning from us, then from whom are they learning, and what are they learning?

While the norm for white parents has been not to talk about race, the norm for non-white parents has been to discuss difference actively. Sociologist Erin Winkler, in a recent account of African-American families, describes the importance and meaning, for African-American mothers, of teaching their children both to take pride in their identity and learn how to negotiate prejudice directed against them. In her account, titled “ ‘It’s Like Arming Them’: African American Mothers’ Views on Racial Socialization,” Winkler quotes a woman who tells her: “I guess with my kids, I’m trying to teach them that, you know, you’re going to have to grow up and be a little alert, but, you know, don’t lose your humanity about it. Don’t just assume that all of them are like that.” When parents and other trusted adults actively talk and listen to children about difference, they offer guidance on what it does and does not mean.

A student in my class suggested that Americans today increasingly look to institutions other than family to teach their children the facts about reproduction, and the facts about difference. In particular, they look to the schools. So, what you – what we – say as teachers and parents, and how we listen to children, and how we guide them with our actions matters more than ever. We can teach them to talk and listen openly, honestly, and respectfully about difference, which, as a parenthropologist, I think is the most significant lesson for us all. We can answer our children’s questions with what we know about difference – what it does and does not mean.

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