Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race

When Zach started pre-school and I asked him who he liked to play with, he pointed at two boys and shouted, “I like to play with the black boys the best! But the black boys get in a lot of trouble.”

I rushed him away from the playground and hoped no one had heard him talking about two of the African American boys in his class. The next day, when Zach pointed at one of the same boys and told me that he had a great time playing with the “blue boy,” I realized that he was referring to the color of their t-shirts and not their skin.

I’m not one of those white people who think race doesn’t matter.  I know that race has a profound effect in shaping your experience in this country.  And I want my children to know that too.  But did they have to know about it when they were three?  I never mentioned race or skin tone to Zach that year, and I hoped his color classification system would disappear as he learned the boys’ names.

To be honest, I was afraid that if we started talking about it too early, if I pointed out race to my children who didn’t see it, they would say the wrong thing in front of non-white people and expose our family as bigoted hicks, a title from which we could never recover.  We belong to an overwhelming non-White church, and I wasn’t willing to take that risk.

I knew that my non-white friends from church had already begun to have these conversations with their children because their children were already having to deal with issues related to race.  But I chose to exercise the privilege afforded to all people in power: I would let my children stay innocent awhile longer because white people only have to deal with race if they want to.  And I didn’t want to.

The problem is that children are not innocently ignorant.  They were already, all the time, dividing the world up into us and them.  Take the time Ezra was telling everyone that his parents were, “voting for Barakobama because John McCain is on Satan’s team.”

Which is of course not a category we would use.  We never said anything bad about McCain. But in Ezra’s world, if we were for “Barakobama,” then the other guy must be evil. Which isn’t about race, but is about the boys’ developmental level.  I was afraid that if we started to highlight racial differences at that age, the boys would use those differences when sorting all people into the good guy and bad guy camps they had created.

It turns out we didn’t need to worry; they were going to do that anyway.  The authors of Nurture Shock, in a chapter called, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” present research that shows that kids naturally categorize people based on skin color, even when we don’t talk about it with them.  And if we don’t talk about it, kids will put people who look like them in the good guy camp and all others in the bad guy camp.  It takes explicit conversation to break this pattern down, explicit conversation that we didn’t have with our sons until recently.

Even worse for us, the book says that going to school with kids of different races tends to exacerbate the good guys/bad guys break down.  Without explicit conversation, exposure to diversity, the kind of diversity that attracted us to their former school, can actually be harmful to racial attitudes.

As the boys have gotten older, we’ve talked more about race, and especially about racism.  But I wonder what ugly racial attitudes are lurking below the surface now because we waited so late?  Do they still assume the whole world divides up neatly into black kids and blue kids? Good guys and Satan’s team? There’s only one way to find out, of course…

…So come on my white brothers and sisters.  Let’s take up Rebecca Cusey’s challenge from last week:  Let’s talk about race, baby.

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