How White Families Can Start Reversing Racism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we can’t ignore that even kids see race.
OZY’s exclusive town hall television show in partnership with History, The Time Is Now: Race and Resolution, is available to stream online here.
- Research shows that even young children show racial biases.
- White parents need to be forthright about race, rather than trying to raise “colorblind” children.
Is it possible to be colorblind when it comes to race? Several years ago, researchers at Harvard and the University of Chicago put this question to the test with children. They ran an experiment in which kids were shown videos of a white person and a Black person, each of whom offered identical toys to the children. The researchers then used an illusion to make it appear as if the toys emerged from the screen and were placed on the table in front of the children. Infants showed no preference to which person gave them the toy, but 5-year-olds almost unanimously preferred toys presented by people of their own race.
The 2011 study “Do Infants Show Social Preferences for People Differing in Race?” showed racial preferences are internalized at a young age. Katherine D. Kinzler, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study, says that while we are born able to and interested in dividing the world into different categories and groups, that isn’t prejudice but basic cognitive skills applied to a social world. The problem, she says, is when you grow up in a place where there is structural and systemic racism, you can absorb those cultural attitudes. “If [parents] adopt a colorblind attitude, the problem is, the kids aren’t living in a colorblind world,” Kinzler explains. “So if parents don’t talk about it, kids learn about it themselves and fill in the blanks in a way that sort of perpetuates the structural racism that exists in the world.”
So what does all this mean for white people in the age of mass anti-racism protests? It means colorblindness doesn’t cut it anymore.
What you can do is try and get [children] to understand the damage that racism does and the pain and suffering that prejudice produces.
Lawrence Hirschfeld, the New School for Social Research
So when Heather Riggins, 45, of Colorado, a participant in OZY’s town hall television show The Time Is Now: Race and Resolution, said her kids didn’t see race, her claim was met with some opposition. Riggins told the audience of celebrities, activists and everyday people that her children are “confused about this,” because they “have Black friends.”
Jemele Hill, former ESPN personality and a staff writer for The Atlantic, said that’s part of the problem. “You want them to see color, you just don’t want them to be racist. That’s a totally different thing,” Hill told Riggins. “You want them to appreciate the beauty and nuance in other cultures and understanding what makes them different.”
So what should well-meaning white parents do? According to Lawrence Hirschfeld, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the New School for Social Research and co-author of the study “Children’s Developing Conceptions of Race,” it takes consistent and proactive intention. “If you measure most adults’ implicit beliefs, most adults endorse racial prejudice,” Hirschfeld says. Which is why it takes having a commitment to fairness and being honest about race. “What you can do is try and get them to understand the damage that racism does and the pain and suffering that prejudice produces,” he says.
White people are angry too. Many of them are saddened, frustrated and genuinely ashamed at how they have remained silent until now. But being in a position of power, and living within a system that favors them, the last thing they should do is stay silent. And letting your kids go colorblind is a sure way to do just that.