Thursday, September 17, 2009

how to teach anti-bias to my kids?

Here is a tricky subject to discuss - how do I address the racial bias in our society with my white children? How do I react to their racial statements (especially when they say them in public)? How do I teach tolerance and anti-bias?

Example 1:
We are in Kansas on our family visit to my grandparents. We've gone to a steakhouse that is decorated with long horns and cowboy memorabilia, and Carbon has been asking lots of questions about cowboys and so on, checking out all those props tacked up on the wall above us. Then, a black family comes in and sits in the booth next to us, and he says "what are they doing in here?". My husband reacted pretty strongly to the comment, and shushed him and then looked very embarrassed. I tried to interact with the family "naturally", and made a bit of polite chit chat, but it was strained. After we left the restaurant, we asked Carbon what he was thinking when he asked the question, and he answered that he thought black people weren't cowboys.

Example 2:
We are with my husband's family in Kentucky, and they repeatedly make crass joked about President Obama, in "polite" conversation talk about "the coloreds", and one individual uses the N word in front of me and the kids.

Example 3:
I am driving, and Hypatia announces that she wishes she was black. I was curious, so I asked her why. Carbon interupted her answer to say that he didn't wish he was black, because black people are "rare" and he likes to "be like everyone else".

Example 4:
We are in the library, and Hypatia sees a black man. She points and says "look, it's a black man!"

Have things like this happened to you? I feel a bit vulnerable even putting a couple of these out here, and it's not something mothers seem to talk about much. In each of these situations, we responded as best we could. We talked about how, in fact, there had been black cowboys, and we wondered why the restaurant hadn't put any pictures of them up. We also talked about how it doesn't matter if there were black cowboys or not, that now all types of restaurants are for everyone. In Kentucky, we spoke up when family was being racist, and told them "that's a horrible thing to say" (they just laughed at us though, so I still worry about that exposure for the kids). I talked to Carbon about how black people aren't really that rare, and tried to explain why our town is so majority white. I stopped in the library and said "yes, people come in a beautiful rainbow of colors" when Hypatia pointed out the black man there.

I want my children to be anti-bias, to live in tolerance and acceptance, (in college, we were taught we should be "white allies", but that term seems to have some problems associated with it now). I buy the "multicultural" art supplies and explain that there is a whole spectrum of skin colors, and encourage them to draw people of all colors. I read them multicultural books and books about justice and equity. They have dolls of different races. Our next door neighbors are a mixed race family with a black father.

Yet we live in a mostly white town - in the Northwest which is already pretty white. And our church is mostly white, mostly upper middle class. Our homeschooling group is mostly white, with a small smattering of multi-racial. So the kids really only know multi-racial kids, or transracially adopted kids, and one black adult.

This is a problem, because it would be so much easier, and maybe better, if they were growing up in a multicultural community. When I was browsing TeachingTolerance (preschoolers and prejudice article here), I saw a review for a book called What if All the Kids Are White?, and I've ordered it. Maybe it will give me some good tips, not just for my own children but for the other kids at church.



  1. We think about this a lot. When JediBoy was young, he would often make suprised factual statements, not unlike Hypatia in #3 and 4 above. We also live in a majority-white area, though two of our best friends of families happen to be biracial.

    Adopting BabyGirl has given us a lot more natural inroads to talk about skin color and ethnic roots, and we haven't had any of those "What did you say?!" moments in a long time.

    But he has made similar comments about what women "can" and "can't" do, in the same vein as Carbon thinking black families can't come to the cowboy-themed restaurant. So I'm curious to see what advice other folks have, and what you learn in your reading, so that I can apply it to race and gender concerns.

  2. What you are talking about is how to teach kids to see the world outside the lens of white privilege. That's a real struggle because for most folks, the lens we get is the one that colors our world (no pun intended).

    I too struggle with this, and some of my resulting decisions have been:

    *To live in a racially diverse city, with a high immigrant population. (However, it is also a defacto racially segregated city to some extent, which I worry about). When we moved out east, I had been offered two positions. I chose to accept the position in a city with more diversity.

    *To prioritize in activity and education setting selections for my children, diversity in groups...and not just in the way that our family is diverse from the majority (although that didn't work out exactly with school for my son this year).

    *To talk about race regularly and frequently, even when it feels awkward and I am worried that I might be "drawing too much attention" to this cultural construct. When we think we are teaching our kids to be "color-blind," chances are we're not teaching blindness as much as reinforcing white privilege. If they didn't have white privilege in our culture, you can bet I'd talk about that is what I do, even though they still have white privilege.

    *To question racially charged comments others make, even and especially when they are made in front of my children, and even and especially when I don't think the kids are paying attention, and even (when I can muster the courage) when it shakes my relationships with others. This one is particularly difficult, but necessary now more than ever.

    I like, and I hear racialicious is really good too but haven't been able to find it online (probably am spelling it wrong).

  3. We talk about it all the time. Pretty much every day. I think the thing to keep in mind is that this is very much in process for us as individual adults and as a society, so there will probably be this discomfort for the rest of our and our chidren's lives.

    I talk a lot about beautiful brown skin, about the fact that most people in the world are brown-skinned, about who has brown skin and peach skin and why that is, I talk about her ethnic heritage and the ethnicities of other people, how we came to be here in Washington, how other people came to be here. She asks about it often. It sounds like you do all that, too.

    Something to consider in this predominantly white milieu is the other avenues of exposure, like TV and books. Be aware of the white/hetero/Christain/abled/middle class-normative nature of most programming. Sylvia doesn't watch TV, but if she did, I'd be putting on Sesame Street. There are lots of great books out there with non-white leads. At Carbon's age he might be ready for literature that deals explicitly with prejudice and injustice. Hypatia could be, too.

    My plan for Sylvia and Linnaea is to first and foremost keep the conversation totally ongoing. As a white mother of white children, it's my job to challenge their bias when I see it emerging, explicitly discuss bias from an early age, and also to model anti-bias behaviors (which you did in Kentucky...bravo).

    Anyway, I'm very interested in keeping up this discussion with you. The difficult moments we have shouldn't feel like shameful secrets. Thank you for bringing it up.

  4. Thank you all - it's always good to hear that other folks are struggling with the same issues.

    Kate, yep - diversity in programming is much to be desired. That's a whole other post there, just about that.

  5. My older kids and I lived in the city in a racially diverse area and my husband's best friend was black. I was surprised to find my children developing racial biases after schoolyard and neighborhood conflicts. Living in a diverse area does not make one immune from those problems, and can exacerbate them. We worked hard to get past those kinds of biases and I believe we were successful.

    My younger children and I live in a mainly white rural area and they might or might not notice color differences, but it just isn't a big deal. Of course they are young yet, so who knows?

    I have never heard a friend or family make racist remarks, at least not for many years. I know it happens, but wow. That is just unacceptable.

    From my experience the attitude of the parent is what makes the difference, not so much the environmental "diversity". We try to model and teach our children to look at the heart.

    Do we model love for people who are poor, or who are obese, or who don't wear the right clothes, or who stink, or who are involved in crime? Those who are disabled, or are not bright or beautiful, or who are mentally ill? The crack-head down the road? (We have those out in the country too.) In that context race differences are pretty minor I think. In all areas, cultural, economic, physical, educational, - it's all diversity, and as a Christian I am called to love my neighbor and to teach my children to do so.

  6. Carol, I appreciate that sentiment. For me, more than teaching my children to love their neighbors, I want to teach them to proactively and actively be anti-racist. Not just accepting. But anti-racist. It definitely takes the challenge to a new level.

  7. Interesting article (and listen to the PodCast too):

  8. Masasa, I respectfully disagree with your stated goals.

    We as a culture focus obsessively on race. I do not think this is a good thing. I think it's sad and I do not encourage it in my children. On the other hand we should NOT be afraid to discuss race differences, just as we discuss any other difference. Can't we have some balance in this area??

    I believe hateful people need someone different from themselves to hate and whether it's race or any other difference, the core of the problem will continue as long as people are not filled with the love of God. That is our only solution.

    I did read the article you posted, and found it very interesting. I did not agree with all of her points, but some of what she wrote was very good. Note her observation that many people are so horrified at the idea of racism, (as they should be) that, rather than dealing with race matter-of-factly, they are paralyzed. That's where race-baiting comes in. Leveraging this paralysis to neutralize political opponents.

  9. Now the discussion is getting interesting! I can see the point both ways, and I'm leaning toward a thought that there may be a developmental issue here, of when kids are ready to hear about racism, unless they encounter it naturally. (As, unfortunately, my children have).

    I'm seeing a connection to the idea of environmental education, and that children must first Love nature before they are ready to Defend it - that focusing too quickly on things like deforestation can lead to a sort of Ecophobia.

    But the advice is to help your children feel empowered to Do Something about the environment, and it should be the same - what can they Do, so that it's not just all ugly and sad and hopeless?