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Author Topic: "HOW OUR CHILDREN LEARN RACISM"  (Read 7829 times)
Posts: 1788


« on: August 22, 2004, 02:20:34 AM »


by Manning Marable.

Why is racism accepted and unchallenged by the majority of white Americans? Perhaps because whites, beginning at a very early age, are thoroughly socialized to uncritically accept racial inequality. The “diversity” we say we want has little to do with the racial exclusivity we have constructed in our own lives. This process starts even before reaching elementary school.

American educators generally believe that children are mostly unaware of racial categories or racism, until they are taught to think and act consciously in ways that reproduce race. Part of the reason for this is the continuing influence of cognitive developmental theory beginning with Piaget. Most researches still think that children who use racist language do so out of naiveté or ignorance. From this perspective, the young child is essentially or primarily egocentric, lacking the intellectual unity or social awareness to construct, much less act on, complex social constructs such as racism.

Consequently, most social psychological studies and research projects studying racial attitudes among young people focus primarily on high school aged students. Relatively few research studies have made observations about children under the age of twelve and in their actual day-to-day relationships with each other as they relate to race relations.

I believe, however, that a child-centered approach, observing the actual behavior of children in environments, which they control, and by viewing children as independent actors, rather than being acted on by adults, can give us a very different insight into how children learn racism. In 1987, psychologist P.G. Ramsey found that children as young as three can have negative biases toward others of different racial groups, even if they have never personally met a person of another group. Several studies have documented that white children as young as three and four have been found to prefer stimuli depicting other whites.

The 1997 article by L. Hirschfeld, “The Conceptual Politics of Race: Lessons From Our Children,” published in the journal Ethos documented that most three-year olds and virtually all four-year olds could match photographs of children of various racial identities with pictures of their birth parents, when presented with photos of parents of divergent racial groups. In other words, children have the ability to “naturalize” race, and to connect a person’s identity with a particular racial categorization.

Other studies have found that by age five, children can attribute an individual’s ability according to the racial grouping in which they are supposed to belong. What is most revealing is that white children on the whole tend to insist that an individual’s lack of ability or ability is race-specific, even in the face of evidence that disproves or contradicts their assertions.

Another way for educators to think about how children help to reproduce race is to recall the findings of Kenneth and Mamie Clark in the 1940s, whose research found that racial segregation reproduced negative self concepts among black children as early as the age of three. The Clarks’ sociological research was pivotal in persuading the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954 to overturn sixty years of what was termed “separate but equal” education in the United States. If the African-American child, as scholars have long documented, has the ability to recognize and understand what discrimination is, to realize that his or her place in society is unequal and inferior, then it is not unreasonable to assume that young whites also have the same ability.

“Whiteness,” that is, the state of being white, is reproduced and lived in daily life, in both conscious and unconscious ways. Certain benefits or privileges exist and are created and enjoyed simply by being white. That recognition or desire to become white, that is, to be “privileged,” can be observed and understood even by children.

The racial system in America is something that people, including children, repeatedly and constantly encounter, and frequently find pressing against them. For the most part, whites and blacks still live in essentially parallel racial universes. The majority of white Americans remain in deep denial about this. The impact of racism on the lives of most people of color, however, is continuous and quite real. Whites and blacks as groups generally have widely different views about political matters. Our children notice all of this.

Children soon learn that being “different” can be a good or bad thing, depending on how it is classified into the hierarchy that society has established. They compile observations linked with skin color, family background, language, noticing whether the phenotype or physical appearance of another child is similar to that child’s adult guardians or parents, and observing the type of clothing people wear. All of these experiences and observations accumulate into categories, which are given validation by parents, teachers, and people in authority.

To change this process of race-making in the minds of young children will require bold, new approaches to early childhood education. We must teach our children that a new world is possible to achieve. Let us imagine that new world through how we teach our children. Let us live that change we want to achieve.

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