In our joint school visits, as author Margy Burns Knight talks, I often sketch the face of an imagined child in each session, leaving the school with a group of portraits of diverse children. Several years ago, presenting our book Africa is Not a Country at a Maine school, I was sketching a series of children who could be from African countries. As the collection of portraits grew throughout the day, we asked students, "What do you notice about the pictures? What's the same about the children? What's different?"
A second grade boy pointed to the image of a brown-skinned girl wearing a scarf around her head. "She's so poor," he remarked in a solemn tone. "And she's sad, so, so sad."
In truth, the portrait was of a smiling girl, at least as happy-looking as any of the other drawings. (To add to the intrigue of the comment, the student making it was brown-skinned himself, an African-American child adopted by a white family.) A conversation ensued, in language appropriate to second graders, about "funny ideas" we sometimes have about Africa, and perhaps brown people - such as that everyone is poor and sad.
Has a child in your care ever burst out with a racial comment that puzzled, embarrassed, or distressed you? The more we explore race with children, the more it's likely to happen. One of the outcomes of getting children to share their observations is that if we're effective, we'll get to hear what children are actually thinking about race - and some of their ideas are not what we might wish. Our first response may be the horrified defense, "S/he couldn't have gotten it from me!" The good news is, you're probably right.
In our presentation, "Books As Bridges" (see previous post), Krista Aronson, psychologist and Bates college professor of psychology, shared research results that "children rely more on community norms than parental norms." As an example, she noted that parents new to a community may speak with an accent, but their children will soon sound like their classmates.
So where do children's ideas about race come from?
1. Socialized Roles
Children are keen observers. If they see people segregated in distinctly different types of housing, jobs, classrooms, positions of authority, etc., they absorb this information.
2. The Soup
All day long, all of us, including children, are surrounded by and bombarded with images and information. Children notice, without the skills to deconstruct why, who's portrayed and how.
When adults respond to questions and comments about race with discomfort and shushing, or never raise the subject at all, children learn that race is something not to be discussed, like something bad or dangerous.