Over the course of our research, we about race when they’re very young? What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. The same way we remind our daughters, “Mommies can be doctors just like daddies,” we ought to be telling all children that doctors can be any skin color. It’s not complicated what to say. It’s only a matter of how often we reinforce it.
Shushing children when they make an improper remark is an instinctive reflex, but often the wrong move. Prone to categorization, children’s brains can’t help but attempt to generalize rules from the examples they see. It’s the worst kind of embarrassment when a child blurts out, “Only brown people can have breakfast at school,” or “You can’t play basketball, you’re white, so you have to play baseball.” But shushing them only sends the message that this topic is unspeakable, which makes race more loaded, and more intimidating.
Young children draw conclusions that may make parents cringe, even if they’ve seen a few counterexamples. Children are not passive absorbers of knowledge; rather, they are active constructors of concepts. Bigler has seen many examples where children distort their recollections of facts to fit the categories they’ve already formed in their minds. The brain’s need for categories to fit perfectly is even stronger at age seven than at age five, so a second grader might make more distortions than a kindergartner to defend his categories. To a parent, it can seem as if the child is getting worse at understanding a diverse world, not better.
To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakeable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her five-year-old son, “Remember, everybody’s equal.” She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, “Mommy, what’s ‘equal’ mean?”
Bigler ran a study where children read brief historical biographies of famous African Americans. For instance, in a biography of Jackie Robinson, they read that he was the first African American in the major leagues. But only half heard about how he’d previously been relegated to the Negro leagues, and how he suffered taunts from white fans. Those facts—in five brief sentences—were omitted in the version given to the other half of the children.
After the two-week history class, the children were surveyed on their racial attitudes. White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks than those who got the neutered version. Explicitness works.
“It also made them feel some guilt,” Bigler added. “It knocked down their glorified view of white people.” They couldn’t justify in-group superiority.
Bigler is very cautious about taking the conclusion of her Jackie Robinson study too far. She notes the bios were explicit, but about historical discrimination. “If we’d had them read stories of contemporary discrimination from today’s newspapers, it’s quite possible it would have made the whites defensive, and only made the blacks angry at whites.”
Another scholar has something close to an answer on that. Dr. April Harris-Britt, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studies how minority parents help their children develop a racial identity from a young age. All minority parents at some point tell their children that discrimination is out there, but they shouldn’t let it stop them. However, these conversations are not triggered by their children bringing it up. Rather, the parent often suffers a discriminatory incident, and it pushes him to decide, “It’s time I prepared my child for this.”
Is it good for them? Harris-Britt found that some preparation for bias was beneficial to children, and that it was necessary—94% of African American eighth graders reported to Harris-Britt that they’d felt discriminated against in the prior three months. But if children heard these preparation-for-bias warnings often (rather than just occasionally), they were significantly less likely to connect their successes to effort, and much more likely to blame their failures on their teachers—whom they saw as biased against them.
Harris-Britt warns that frequent predictions of future discrimination ironically become as destructive as experiences of actual discrimination: “If you overfocus on those types of events, you give the children the message that the world is going to be hostile—you’re just not valued and that’s just the way the world is.”
Preparation-for-bias is not, however, the only way minorities talk to their children about race. The other broad category of conversation, in Harris-Britt’s analysis, is ethnic pride. From a very young age, minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She found that this was exceedingly good for children’s self-confidence; in one study, black children who’d heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability.
That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If “black pride” is good for African American children, where does that leave white children? It’s horrifying to imagine kids being “proud to be white.” Yet many scholars argue that’s exactly what children’s brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent—it’d be redundant.
When talking to teens, it’s helpful to understand how their tendency to form groups and cliques is partly a consequence of American culture. In America, we encourage individuality. Children freely and openly develop strong preferences—defining their self-identity by the things they like and dislike. They learn to see differences. Though singular identity is the long-term goal, in high school this identity-quest is satisfied by forming and joining distinctive subgroups. So, in an ironic twist, the more a culture emphasizes individualism, the more the high school years will be marked by subgroupism. Japan, for instance, values social harmony over individualism, and children are discouraged from asserting personal preferences. Thus, less groupism is observed in their high schools.
The security that comes from belonging to a group, especially for teens, is palpable. Traits that mark this membership are—whether we like it or not—central to this developmental period. University of Michigan researchers did a study that shows just how powerful this need to belong is, and how much it can affect a teen.
The researchers brought 100 Detroit black high school students in for one-on-one interviews. They asked each teen to rate himself on how light or dark he considered his skin tone to be. Then the scholars asked about the teens’ confidence levels in social circles and school. From the high schools, the researchers obtained the teens’ grade point averages.
Particularly for the boys, those who rated themselves as dark-skinned blacks had the highest GPAs. They also had the highest ratings for social acceptance and academic confidence. The boys with lighter skin tones were less secure socially and academically.
The researchers subsequently replicated these results with students who “looked Latino.”
The researchers concluded that doing well in school could get a minority teen labeled as “acting white.” Teens who were visibly sure of membership within the minority community were protected from this insult and thus more willing to act outside the group norm. But the light-skinned blacks and the Anglo-appearing Hispanics—their status within the minority felt more precarious. So they acted more in keeping with their image of the minority identity—even if it was a negative stereotype—in order to solidify their status within the group.