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.

To see more discussions on this site about race, check out these recent posts:

About Tara Edelschick

Right now, Tara is on sabbatical in Costa Rica. She is sleeping more, and exercising and flossing every day for the first time in her life. She is enjoying her husband, her boys, and Nafisa (the daughter she never had) more than she ever has. And she is learning to rest in the arms of the one who doesn't rank you based on how many things you can cross off your list at the end of the day. Follow her on Twitter@TaraWonders.

  • Rebecca Cusey

    Great Post! And true. My little guy used to call his African-American teacher and playmates “brown skins.” Which isn’t, as far as I’ve heard, a socially approved thing to call African-Americans. Still, it was so logical, he had a hard time giving it up. And he did call white kids “white skins” so I guess he was equal opportunity awkward.

    • http://olderthanjesus.blogspot.com Alison Hodgson

      “equal opportunity awkward” That made me laugh.

      What was it you said in your previous post, “Just because I’m stupid doesn’t mean I’m a racist.” That too.

  • http://facebook Craig Waterman

    You know Tara, I completely understand what you are saying. Something I have personally dealt with growing up in Houston, Texas was the opposite. The elementary/Jr. High/High School were predominately black, and hispanic. I fought all the time, not because I was causing problems but because I was white. I was the bad guy. I was really oblivious to why I wasn’t liked. I became a really good fighter because of it, but I always wondered, doesn’t racism work both ways in the U.S. now? People assume that because you are white, you had lineage during the days of slavery. However, the post modern World War 1 and 2 wars brought many immigrants to the U.S. that didn’t champion slavery, and also stood against racism. I believe it’s true, racism isn’t a genetic inheritance, it’s actually a learned one. I was taught racism from another angle, and that part was never explained to me. Maybe it’s more from being from the deep South, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I went to school as a kid a conversation my parents did not have with me did not contain the contents above. Of course I’m not speaking from what someone told me, I’m speaking about what I lived through. Please don’t forget racism is a cancer and it works both ways, especially in the U.S.

  • Califmom

    My grandmother taught me that everyone was to be given respect until they showed you that they did not deserve it, no matter what color they were or what they wore. We were “lace curtain Irish” but I grew up in California, which means that we were mixed with every race. I had really never experienced racism–I heard other kids called things, but never thought about it. I saw it in movies and on TV, but in the suburbs of L.A., we just didn’t have it. Our homecoming queens, two years running, were black and Asian. Most of us are pretty fluent in Spanish. Both of my sons have friends of all kinds of races at their schools. My oldest son, who is blonde and blue-eyed, has 3 black or bi-racial close friends who are at my house all the time. We joke about racial stuff because it doesn’t matter to us–we know who we are inside.

    I think that if the rest of the country grew up and got over itself racially it would be a whole different conversation. Traveling to Caribbean and Central American countries is so refreshing because the black citizens there are so different from American blacks–they are in charge of their countries and are so different culturally. If you haven’t travelled and experience a different primarily black culture, I strongly encourage you to do so. It will change your perspective.

  • regular joe

    The background to your personal story is that there is a false premise in the PC lessons all white people have been taught from toddlerhood. It is that stereotypes are falsehoods, only held by haters. The corollary was that by not teaching children these unfounded generalizations, we could therefore make them disappear and eliminate hate, it having no basis in fact. But, this is not true on average. Men do commit more crime than women, blacks do commit more crime than whites (interestingly, by about the same ratio as men/ women), asians do get higher grades, jews do make more money, men are more athletic, etc etc etc, on average, statistically. This is why exposure to diverstity doesn’t expose the falsehood of stereotypes, it cements them, because they are true. Children aren’t dumb, and if something is true and obvious, they’ll observe it and name it, untill taught that naming true things is very very naughty later in life.

    One may understand that these true generalizations are not true for every member of a group, and that individuals often vary more than the averages of groups. But to pretend that stereotypes are false, as we’ve all been taught, will never work with kids, becasue it has no basis in fact.

  • Holly

    Acceptance, tolerance, respect, non-judgmental, love thy neighbor, golden rule, variety is the spice of life. These words and phrases need to be infused back into our American values. We seem to have become very divisive, confrontational, abrupt in our values of late. Personally, I blame talk radio but that’s a whole other topic. Racism breeds when these important values are forgotten and unpracticed.

  • LS

    Interesting, I guess, but honestly, sometimes I just don’t know. I grew up in a lily-white suburb. My high school was maybe 2% “persons of color.” I went to a predominately white college, though it had lots of international students, including black Africans from Africa. I lived abroad with Latinos (who were on the whole incredibly racist against darker-skinned Latinos and Latinos of African descent). You know when I really started to lose any warm and fuzzes about diversity? When I moved to a major city, and lived on the side of town where all the black Americans live. It’s not the color — it’s the behavior, and it’s the crime rates. I don’t care how un-PC that might be. Now that we have kids, we don’t live on that side of town.

    My husband and son are brown. I and two other children are white. My son’s elementary class is quite diverse. Frankly, I don’t feel like talking about race with him, until he brings it up, or it comes up naturally (which it sometimes does, with books). I will always, always tell my children to treat everyone with respect, and I will never let them think that it’s okay to believe that someone is less than us because of how they look, whether it’s color or weight or religion. There is no way, though, that I’d let them someday venture to “that” side of town without a reality check. I’m not going to sacrifice my kids on someone else’s PC altar.

  • Catherine

    When my 16 year old was in first grade she was having a conversation with her grandmother about heaven. She asked if we would have skin and when my mom said she thought we would she said, “Can mine be brown?”. Just a cute story.