Have you had “that” conversation with your child? No, it is not about the “birds and the bees,” sex, drugs, or bullying, but it is just as important. It is the needed conversation about race, about people who do not look like us, but who are just as special, just as valued, just as equal in terms of humanity.
The results of a new study on children and race, commissioned by CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360◦, confirm that race is a subject that parents need to address with their children sooner than later. CNN is airing the results all week. The findings are a wake-up call, which tells us that the racial divide will not close on its own.
The study examines perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes of six-year-olds and thirteen-year olds. Shown the exact same pictures with both black and white kids in a playground setting, black children had a very different impression than white children of who was interacting with whom and what the interactions meant.
Overall, black first-graders had a positive impression of the interactions on the play ground perceiving that the black child and white child were friends and that their parents would like it if they had a white friend. On the other hand, 70 percent of the white children were negative about what was happening on the playground and were more likely to choose another white child as a friend.
Dr. Melanie Killen, a renowned child psychologist and professor at the University of Maryland designed and implemented the study. When asked about the different perceptions and attitudes found among first-grade black and white children, she attributed the origin to the different ways parents talk to their children about race, or the lack of conversation at all.
What Dr. Killen found is that African-American parents tend to address race directly, and “are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination. They are certainly talking about issues of race and what it means to be a different race and when it matters and when it doesn’t matter.” (Source: AC 360◦ study: African-American Children More Optimistic On Race Than Whites--CNN.com)
By contrast, what Dr. Killen found among white parents is that they often are not discussing race at all with their children because they believe their children are socially colorblind and race is not an issue to be addressed. According to Dr. Killen, “They [white parents] …have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating a problem….”
But it is clear that children are becoming aware of race very early just as they are becoming aware of sex. The void created by the lack of conversations about race, like sex, is filled with daily dosages of overt and subtle messages from what children encounter on an ongoing basis — from friends, teachers, television, books, etc.
Also, a parent’s silence about what the family is seeing on the evening news or an incident on the play ground which clearly has racial or racist overtones and implications often speaks volumes to those innocent ears and eyes, leaving lasting impressions beyond what we may realize.
What the study results also reveal is that this racial divide among our children increases, gets worse, as they become adolescents. The attitudes, beliefs, and socialization are not subtle at all. Teens are blatant about interracial friendships, rejection, and other harsh realities when it comes to race, racism, and race relations.
Perhaps, the most hopeful finding of the study is that in those school settings where you have a good mixture of diverse kids, with enough time and interaction to get to know each other, show that there are improvements in attitudes and acceptance. Friendships formed in these settings are powerful.
Dr. Killen sums it up well: “There’s almost nothing as powerful as having a friend of a different racial ethnic background to reduce prejudice, to…have that experience that enables you to challenge stereotypes.”
Friendship is great. But what about a willingness to have an honest and open conversation whenever the opportunity presents itself?
Could we get much further, more quickly? Could we avoid inflicting so much unnecessary pain and rejection on innocent human beings because of the color of their skin — no matter what that color is?