Why White Parents Don’t Talk About RaceⅠ- Woodmam

Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?

At the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, a database is kept of thousands of families in the Austin area who have volunteered to be available for scholarly research. In 2006, doctoral student Birgitte Vittrup recruited from the database about a hundred of these families, all of whom were Caucasian with a child five to seven years old. This project was her Ph.D. dissertation. The goal of Vittrup’s study was to learn if typical children’s videos with multicultural story lines actually have any beneficial effect on children’s racial attitudes.

Her first step was to test the children, and their parents, with a Racial Attitude Measure designed by one of her mentors at the university, Dr. Rebecca Bigler. Using this measure, Vittrup asked the child a series of questions, such as:

“How many White people are nice?”

(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

“How many Black people are nice?”

(Almost all) (A lot) (Some) (Not many) (None)

Over the test, the descriptive adjective “nice” was replaced with over twenty other adjectives like “Dishonest,” “Pretty,” “Curious,” and “Snobby.” If the kid was too shy to answer, he could point to a picture that corresponded to each of the possible answers.

Of the families, Vittrup sent a third of them home with typical multiculturally-themed videos for a week, such as an episode of Sesame Street where the characters visit an African American family’s home, and an episode of Little Bill, where the entire neighborhood comes together to clean the local park.

In truth, Vittrup didn’t expect that children’s racial attitudes would change very much from just watching these videos. Prior research by Bigler had shown that multicultural curriculum in schools has far less impact than we intend it to—largely because the implicit message “We’re all friends” is too vague for children to understand it refers to skin color.

Yet Vittrup figured that if the educational videos were supplemented with explicit conversations from parents, there would be a significant impact. So a second group of families got the videos, and Vittrup told these parents to use the videos as the jumping-off point for a conversation about interracial friendship. She gave these sets of parents a checklist of points to make, echoing the theme of the shows. “I really believed it was going to work,” Vittrup recalled. Her Ph.D. depended upon it.

The last third were also given the checklist of topics, but no videos. These parents were supposed to bring up racial equality on their own, every night for five nights. This was a bit tricky, especially if the parents had never put names to kids’ races before. The parents were to say things like:

Some people on TV or at school have different skin color than us. White children and Black children and Mexican children often like the same things even though they come from different backgrounds. They are still good people and you can be their friend. If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?

At this point, something interesting happened. Five of the families in the last group abruptly quit the study. Two directly told Vittrup, “We don’t want to have these conversations with our child. We don’t want to point out skin color.”

Vittrup was taken aback—these families had volunteered knowing full-well it was a study of children’s racial attitudes. Yet once told this required talking openly about race, they started dropping out. Three others refused to say why they were quitting, but their silence made Vittrup suspect they were withdrawing for the same reason.

This avoidance of talking about race was something Vittrup also picked up in her initial test of parents’ racial attitudes. It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin, every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But Vittrup had also noticed, in the original surveys, that hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles in the home—like “Everybody’s equal” or “God made all of us” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same”—but they had almost never called attention to racial differences.

They wanted their children to grow up color-blind. But Vittrup could also see from her first test of the kids that they weren’t color-blind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered “Some” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered some of the questions this way.

More disturbingly, Vittrup had also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” If the white parents never talked about race explicitly, did the kids know that their parents liked black people?

Apparently not: 14% said, outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38% of the kids answered, “I don’t know.” In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.

Vittrup hoped the families she’d instructed to talk about race would follow through.
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