Young Children Doing Racism: A Newsweek Analysis Misses the Big Picture

The recent issue of Newsweek has an interesting article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, award-winning science journalists, on some psychological research on children and racial matters, apparently an excerpt from a new book NurtureShock.

The psychological studies cited provide revealing data, yet they and this Newsweek article are written substantially from a white frame. Physical science and social science writers and researchers often seem to have trouble in seeing the larger context of systemic racism and its white racial frame as they assess even research findings on racial matters. The model of society implicit in most mainstream research on racial issues assumes we live in a basically healthy society where racial “prejudices” are just a “problem” that is matter of individual frailties and modest remedial actions.

The Newsweek article begins with a description of research at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas, in liberal Austin, Texas. There researcher Birgitte Vittrup recruited 100 white families with children 5-7 years old. She first asked the children questions about “How many White people are nice?” and “How many Black people are nice?” (and similar questions with other adjectives), with options from “almost all” to “none” offered to children. Then she split the group into thirds. One parental group was asked to show multiculturally themed videos to their children. Another group was asked to show these videos and then talk with their children about interracial friendships using a checklist of points. The third group was given the checklist and asked to talk with their children for several days, but with no videos.

One surprise happened immediately:

Five 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 volunteered . . . . every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to Vittrup’s entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. …

Very revealing data. Most parents wanted their children to be color blind, but they were not in her testing.

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.” . . . . Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: “Do your parents like black people?” Fourteen percent said outright, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38 percent of the kids answered, “I don’t know.”

And other negative views of black Americans. Very likely, the kids have learned by observing parental actions, and from their peers, but this is not discussed in the article. The writers note that the three groups of children tested much the same in racial attitudes, and the researcher found no significant effects from the different parental teaching conditions. However, studying the parent diaries revealed that the parents did not use the checklist much and actually only gave vague instructions to the kids about “everyone being equal.” The writers conclude that parents fear that talking about race will highlight it for the children and make them see racial differences. They then ask

The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race?

A rather naïve way of putting it. Denial of racism is never a way to solve it. But these data show that that even liberal white parents do not talk much about racial matters with their children. And then these writers go to make an assertion about our era, and cite some more interesting research:

The election of President Barack Obama marked the beginning of a new era in race relations in the United States—but it didn’t resolve the question as to what we should tell children about race. ….. For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own. . .. Within the past decade or so, developmental psychologists have begun a handful of longitudinal studies to determine exactly when children develop bias. Phyllis Katz, then a professor at the University of Colorado, led one such study—following 100 black children and 100 white children for their first six years. She tested these children and their parents nine times during those six years, with the first test at 6 months old. . . . When the kids turned 3, Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race.

Interesting data from Katz suggesting clearly that there is no “post-racial society.” These writers show here a naïve and white-framed notion about Obama bringing a new era. And here is another sentence toward the end of their piece:

Over the course of our research, we heard many stories of how people—from parents to teachers—were struggling to talk about race with their children.

Clearly they mean white parents here. Indeed, African American parents have to talk substantially with their children about race as a matter of course, and survival.

Moreover, sociologists like Debi Van Ausdale and me, among others, have at least since the 1990s shown very clearly that children as young as 3-4 years old have very substantial understandings of racial matters. Such data clearly reveal that children see “race” without it being pointed out formally to them. For example, we show in our research that young white children know how to use the N-word, and can explain what it means. They also show much knowledge that “white” means power and privilege. White children learn the white racial frame from parents and the media, but they learn perhaps most from each other in children’s groups and networks, the latter not mentioned in this article. We found that children are quite active actors in their own networks in making and using white-racist ideas and terms, that they are not just little mirrors of what they see adults doing. There is no mention in this psychologically oriented article of the structural and group realities in which these children live and learn–and indeed that this research is now at least a decade old. There is nothing new here.

Certainly, a structural and systemic analysis is very necessary to understand how children learn racist views and racist framing in this society. A structural analysis is required that sets young children in the larger family, peer group, community, regional, and national contexts where there is still systemic racism in every major nook and cranny of society. One is hard pressed to find any significant part of this society where white racism, individual and institutional, is not significant or widespread. This is true for children like everyone else.

White-Framing and Whitewashing Children’s Books

The white racial frame seems to be operating everywhere in this society, including in the way children’s books are written, framed, and produced by the mostly white-run publishing industry. This dominant frame is amazingly well-conditioned, inbedded deeply in minds and brains, and often relatively unconscious. For example, Mitali Perkins has an interesting article in a recent School Library Journal examining stereotypes in children’s books.

She raises important questions for teachers (and thus libraries and others) about what to look for in assessing how a children’s book deals with racial matters, questions such as these:

How and why does the author define race? Is the cover art true to the story? Who are the change agents? How is beauty defined?

Consider her reasoning on a few of these issues. One question and answer set is about whether and how authors of children’s books take note of the racial realities of characters:

Ask . . . Why did the author choose to define race? If the only answer you come up with is “maybe he wanted to show how open-minded he is” or “she could have been trying to move the world toward a better day,” that’s not good enough. A better answer might be, “because the particular community where the action is set is diverse.” Or, “because the protagonist knew how to make kimchee from scratch.” The story and characters, not the author’s best political intentions, should determine whether or not he or she defines race.

I see her point about making racial identification part of a real story, but I think it is fine for authors to intentionally work a diversity of characters into a book with an eye to moving our racist “world toward a better day” — and indeed making it realistic for children living in our multiracial world. She next makes this very point in discussing how most children’s books leave out characters of color. Books

must express diversity lest we fall into the trap of the television show Friends, in which an all-white cast lived and worked in an apparently all-white New York City. Sadly, in the children’s book world we’re not too far from portraying that kind of nonexistent America. Statistics show that 17 percent of students enrolled in American schools are African American. During 2008, however, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center . . . found that among the 3,000 or so titles they received, only six percent had significant African or African-American content. While 20 percent of the country’s students are Latino, only about two percent of all books reviewed by CCBC had significant Latino content.

Once again, we see how the deep white framing of mostly white publishers keeps the children’s book world pretty white. The impact on all children of such white framing is quite significant, as numerous studies show. Another issue she raises is in regard to book covers for children’s books. Numerous books are published with covers that downplay the main characters’ racial group if that group is not white:

Consider the advance readers’ copy of Ursula Le Guin’s Powers . . . released with a white model on the cover despite the protagonist’s Himalayan ancestry.

The final cover was belatedly changed to be more realistic. In these cases, and there are a great many, the envisioned sales audience is white, and in the publishers’ view the latter should not have to encounter faces of people of color on covers. On this point, Felicia Pride at writes about a recent incident where the initial cover put on books had a white girl on it:

(Cover Photo Source: The Root) liar

Looks like book publishing isn’t all that post-racial, but we already knew that. A controversy has been brewing regarding the book cover for “Liar,” a young adult novel by Justine Larbalestier that’s set to publish at the end of September by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. The cover (see right) features a young white girl whose faced is partially covered by her long straight hair. The problem? The book’s main character is black.

The publisher eventually pulled the many first covers and put an African American, but still light-skinned skinned, girl on the new covers. In this case protests against the whitewashed cover had a significant impact. One sign of anti-racist action, and a first step in antiracist action, is the problematizing of what was once seen as just normal and natural framing.