Thursday, April 26, 2012

When We Don't Talk About Race with Children

Just read a fascinating article in The Nation about how young adults ages 18-30 think about race in this country. A poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that, "a solid majority of white Millennials, 56 percent, say that government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities. An even larger majority, 58 percent, say that 'discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.'"

Columnist Jamelle Bouie, expressing his puzzlement at "how anyone could plausibly say that discrimination against white people is a problem in the same way that it is for minorities," posits some possible causes for what might lead young white people to this conclusion. This one jumped out at me:

"... we live in a culture where honest conversation about race is rare, especially among white people, where it’s surrounded by fear and anxiety. For many white kids, if not most, racial conversations are limited to a few units in elementary and middle school. Otherwise, they’re left to fend for themselves, which either leads to a sense of privileged obliviousness—i.e., you live and act as if this were a 'colorblind' world, despite the fact that color matters for many people—or confusion and resentment."

Much of the discussion of why children's books need to reflect the diversity of our nation focuses rightly on how crucial this is for children of color, who need to see themselves reflected. But white children need these books, too - and the conversations they provoke - for their own good. 

When the majority response to race is silence, dominant social norms and pervasive unconscious bias go unchallenged. White children experience no disturbance to a world view (often implied without being spoken) that casts them as the center of the universe, as the norm, as the definition of human. With no tools to recognize or unpack historical and systematic realities, race is perceived only in individual terms. 

"Left to fend for themselves," white children grow up drawing their own conclusions. This is not good for them, or for any of us.


Michelle Cusolito said...

Did you see this today?

Thought of you the whole time I was reading it.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for the link, Michelle! I read the article and left a comment.

Although we seem to be moving glacially slowly towards remedying the problem, at least the lack of diversity in children's books is a frequent topic of conversation in the field these days!

Have you seen the CBC Diversity blog? Emma, who attended the "Color Your World" workshop Saturday, told me about it.

Michelle Cusolito said...

I haven't seen it. I'll check it out. Thanks Emma, via Annie!