Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to Talk About Race: Expert #3

If you believe - and want to keep believing - that children "don't see race," don't read this book.

The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin, is a fearless, sometimes searing look at how young children not only see race, but are processing in many complex layers the experience of growing up in a society defined by race.

Van Ausdale spent nearly a year in a "racially and ethnically diverse day care center" where she "gathered experiential data of how preschool children use racial-ethnic awareness and knowledge in their social relationships." Her constant, unobtrusive presence (she responded to children but never initiated contact, intervened or engaged in any teaching) meant that she was privy to interactions of children navigating their relationships that she might never have witnessed in the role of a "sanctioning adult."

This book is the field report of that experience. "In our data," the authors report, "we see white children experimenting with and learning how to be white and how to handle the privileges, propensities, and behaviors associated with the white position in society. We also see children of color learning how to deal with the reality of being Black, Asian or Latino in a white-dominated society."

In one typical incident, Van Ausdale observed three young girls, two white and one Asian, playing with a wagon. When the white child who had been pulling the other girls in the wagon dropped the handle, the Asian child jumped out to begin pulling. The white girl responded, "No, No. You can't pull this wagon. Only white Americans can pull this wagon." There are dozens of examples of such behavior, including the use of racial slurs and demeaning language, sometimes with the clear intent to cause hurt.

Again and again Van Ausdale witnessed children playing out the racial roles assigned them by the larger society. "Modern racism is fundamentally about a severe imbalance of power - the power of whites to control society's social resources. Being white means having power over Blacks and other people of color. Significantly, in our observations no child of color used racist epithets to control white children. They did fight back when challenged and sometimes used constructed racial distinctions to create their own exclusive play groups... [T]he exclusionary actions carried out by the white children replicate and reproduce similar exclusionary actions that children of color and their parents face in the larger society."

The other source of data was the interactions of the daycare staff with the children around incidents of which they were aware, and their response to the reports of what was observed. These teachers were trained, experienced child care workers who taught an anti-bias curriculum. To a person, they expressed shock at the incidents Van Ausdale reported, as did parents of the children. A significant portion of the book describes and analyzes the gap between what the adults thought about children's awareness of race and what the researcher actually observed.

"Adult explanations often maintain that young children either have no consciousness of racial distinctions or hold naive and shallow conceptions easily amenable to change," the authors write. "... [T]he parents, teachers, and volunteers routinely dismissed or denied the extent of children's racial-ethnic knowledge... For their part, most of the children seemed aware that adults did not expect them to understand racial and ethnic matters. The children would regularly disguise or conceal their activities from adults when there was a racial or ethnic component, especially if they were acting in negative ways."

Whew. What an eye-opening, disturbing, yet ultimately necessary and liberating message. I've barely touched on its breadth and depth (if this issue concerns you, read this book!), but let me conclude with my take-aways, what its findings suggest for having conversations about race with children:

1. By preschool age, children growing up in our racialized society have absorbed, are experimenting with and are acting out many layers of complex information about race and racial roles (way more than their caregivers suspect), including the denial and silence of many adults on the subject.

2. If the adults caring for them do not offer concrete, direct, and bold language, guidance and models for counteracting the dominant culture's messages about race, children's attitudes and behaviors will be formed by these influences, and they will act out the racial roles that society has assigned them.

3. Conversations about race are not complete if they do not address the reality of power, especially for white children. We need to get past the definition of racism as individual acts of meanness by bad people, and get more real about how advantage and disadvantage, privilege and exclusion are color-coded in our society, how all of us are socialized into roles based on our racial groups, and how these roles keep racism functioning. "The more children know about the seriousness of racial-ethnic oppression and its consequences, the more they will be equipped to contest it in their present and future lives."

5. Children need empowering strategies and tools in order to build healthy racial identities and relationships across race.

"Watching children at work with racism is like watching ourselves in a mirror," the authors conclude. "They will not unlearn and undo racism until we do."


Michelle Cusolito said...

Thank you for continuing to dig deeper and share your learning with us. The researchers' findings don't suprise me, but I still need to learn the best ways to talk to my kids about these complex issues. We talk about them all the time, but I want our talk to be as productive and helpful as it can be. Most specifically, I want to learn the best way to talk to a 6 year old vs. the best way to talk to a 9 1/2 year old. I have much to learn. I'll start with these resources you've shared.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for commenting, Michelle.

I'd love to hear about what you learn, how you apply it, and the conversations that result.

Shay said...


This is the first time I have really had a chance to spend time on your blog...but wow! Amazing stuff. This post really resonates with me as I deal with the very real issue of raising a child of color in a place where there are few people of color and being told no one sees race!

I am a Black woman in Maine, I see race and I know having been a child that children do see race.

Anyway my schedule is starting to settle down and I would love to meet for that overdue talk.

Shay Stewart-Bouley/

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Great to hear from you, Shay.

I look forward to meeting soon and figuring out how we can get some of these essential group conversations going.

Josie said...

Hi Anne
I just read your comment to Julie over on LIE and I think you have such a clear and kind way of saying things, which is such a pleasure to find on the web. I am enjoying your blog and have shared it with the parent group I lead at my children's school. Take a look if you are interested,