Passing on Racism to Children

Melissa Lafsky, writing at the New York Times Freakanomics blog, has an
interesting post about some new research about parents passing on racism and
how seamlessly kids pick up on parents’ racial preferences. The study, “White
children’s alignment to the perceived racial attitudes of the parents: Closer
to the mother than father,”
appears in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology (Volume 25, Number 3, September 2007 , pp. 353-357). The authors Luigi Castelli, Luciana Carraro, Silvia Tomelleri, and Antonella Amari study includes a sample of fifty-eight (N=58) 4-7 year olds, and gets around the perennial problem of social desirability in adults’ answers about race by asking children directly about how parents’ attitudes about race:

Overall, the children showed a strong in-group preference in their choice of playmates and in the attribution of positive and negative traits to White and Black peers. In addition, children reported the belief that parents would be happier if they played with a White rather than a Black child.

The headline-grabbing bit and the part that I’m sure got this onto the Freakonomics blog is this bit:

Most importantly, we found that children’s attitudes were strongly correlated with the perceived expectations and attitudes of the mothers but not the fathers. This result further supports the idea that mothers’ attitudes might be more relevant than fathers’ attitudes in the formation of racial attitudes among children.

It’s not clear why the authors deemed this finding “most important.” It could be that they are trying to counter the prevailing cultural idea that white women are less racist than white men, though this seems a bit of a stretch. It’s easy to (mis?)read this research as another contribution to the culture of mother-blame. I tend to agree with Lafsky, who points toward the fact that women still carry the overwhelming responsibility for childcare rather than any deeply-rooted “matriarchal racism” (odd turn of phrase). Still, it’s interesting to note from one of the comments (#4) at the Freakonomics blog precisely how maternal racial preferences in playmate choices get realized:

I found this article interesting, but I have to wonder if the researchers have children. I live in San Francisco, where as a white woman I AM in the minority. ( I believe SF is currently 18% white.) When my son was young he had a black friend (they met in an after-school program)who lived in the projects. I certainly wasn’t going to allow my son to play at an apartment in the projects without spending many hours to assess if the home was safe, a luxury of time that I didn’t have. Added to the local the boy’s mother worked and had several other small children. I would have to pick up and drop off the friend each time. I began discouraging the friendship not out of racism, but out of inconvenience.

If my son was asked, would he have said I didn’t want him to have black friends?

Uhm, short answer: yes.

The longer answer is that using this kind of “inconvenience” as an excuse ends up reinforcing racial segregation and racial preferences that her son no doubt picks up on loudly and clearly. This is not to say that the kinds of barriers the woman notes about what it takes to facilitate an interracial friendship in the context of racially segregated (urban) housing are not real. The fact is that her choice to discourage the friendship in the face of such “inconvenience” makes those barriers even more real. The point is that there was a time, apparently now past, that interracial friendships between children of different races were regarded as one measure of a fully realized civil rights movement. The fact that this woman doesn’t want to make that effort is a choice that privileges personal convenience over a conscious effort at dismantling white privilege. It’s a constrained choice among limited options, to be sure, but it’s a choice nonetheless.


  1. In my country there is a proverb that says “human at birth is perfect but, the society corrupts him/her” I use this proverb in order to say that all the barriers that we impose among us to one another are due to our education. Parents teach there children mostly the same way they were taught. About forty years after the civil rights movement the same kind of racial education are still in many people’s mind. Now that it is consider to be offended if some whites said that “I cannot let you play with my child because you are black” these white parents come up with all the kind of excuses in order to discourage there children. I hope that about forty years from now the number of people with this kind of negative and racial thought would be extinct or would be considerably insignificant, from that moment the world would be really a better place.

  2. Ganesh

    If you’re white your all right, if your brown you can stick around, if your black stay back! As a child I learnt this quote from a rich white female. However as time progressed it did connect on how I saw races categorized and viewed within my society. Children of different races especially had hard times interacting with each other when parents were around. The belief of negativity when interacting with certain races is appalling. Having a mentality for instance, that blacks should stay away is what makes them at the bottom within many societies and influences parents to keep their children away from them. Therefore we cannot say racism is embedded in our society, because we are promoting racism. This then leads to more issues such as stereotyping blacks as poor and bad while, whites are rich and powerful. Our society also promotes this if we look at today’s politics. For example we have races separated for power such as, Al Sharpton who defends the blacks at any costs. Bush who we only see around white representatives and is hated by many backs, especially those affected by hurricane Katrina. Lastly Obama who is getting support from the richest black women in history, Oprah. With that said, racism will always be exploited in some fashion and will never be extinct however, may get worst.

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