Monday, October 24, 2011

They Didn't Get That From Me!


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.

3. Silence
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.

This is why talking about race is so crucial for children's development. If we don't engage kids in conversations that give them permission and language to say what's on their minds, to voice the associations they're making and the conclusions they're reaching, all of this conditioning goes unchallenged. When we provide a safe place for children to speak, we get the opportunity to engage with them and offer them the skills to break the silence, to interrogate the Soup, and to challenge socialized roles.


Kimberly Simmons said...

Thank you for this post - I've been struggling to put my learning into words and this is such a big piece of it. One conversation that I've had since is that it still seems painful for other kids - particularly kids who are not white - to hear the ideas, associations, etc. that others have. On the one hand, I think we all have these influences and can internalize oppression/ideas about ourselves no matter what our identity group so kids of color might also have misinformation and sterotypes about their own groups worth hearing. On the other hand, the line between honest sharing and hateful language is thin and words can hurt. It feels so sensitive yet part of the point was don't let it be that only expert-experts can have these conversations. I'm still thinking!

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Kim.

The question of how to create a safe atmosphere while discussing race, one that brings bias to light without being toxic for children of color, is a live one.

The big picture answer I've heard from adults of color is that it's often a relief to have white people finally name the stuff that people of color have always known was there. If it's recognized, it can be dealt with; it's the denial that it's even there that's crazy-making. But that's adults.

To me, this places the responsibility on those of us who work with children to really do our own ongoing explorations of race, so that when we talk about it with children we have a lot of slack - relaxed, flexible, sensitive, and prepared to handle whatever comes up.

In the presence of an adult ally, a child who hears a hurtful comment can actually feel affirmed and supported: "My classmate said a bad thing about people like me, but my teacher/parent said it wasn't true." This kind of exchange not only strengthens the child in the moment, but acts as a kind of innoculation against the next time, when similar comments may be made with no adults present.

And in the ideal vision of a classroom grounded in anti-bias work, it's possible that other children who heard the exchange can step up as allies.

Much more work to be done here!!