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Teaching Children About Race and Cultural Differences: Thoughts and Advice From Two Mothers

We cannot and will not ever have control over what our children are exposed to outside of our homes. But we do have a lot of control over what we communicate with and model for our children.
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Co-authored with Donna Y Ford, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, author of Multicultural Gifted Education, Educator, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice

We are two mothers, also scholars, who have never met in person. Since the Trayvon Martin tragedy we have come together twice to talk honestly about racism because we believe the country is in the midst of a teaching moment. This is our third conversation. While our experiences differ -- Dr. Leavy is a white woman and Dr. Ford is a Black woman -- our commitment to participating in the development of a just society for our children and others connects us. It is in this spirit that we have joined together again, in conversation, to talk about how we can raise children to understand race, prejudice and discrimination, yet value cultural differences and develop respect as opposed to bias.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Dr. Ford, I am honored to talk with you again, learn about your experiences and the wisdom you have to offer, and to share some of my own experiences. When my daughter was born I was aware that, as her parent, I would be a primary agent of socialization in her life. Forgive my use of "jargon," but my training as a sociologist has offered me a way to think about and understand how we, as parents and role models, teach our kids not only our own values, but the values of the society in which we live. So, I always understood that my daughter would learn about the world first through me. I was very fortunate to have read authors like bell hooks, who taught me the importance of teaching children about race and cultural differences, and not just "letting it happen" unmediated.

As a white woman with a white family, I was concerned that my daughter wouldn't be exposed to enough people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds in her early years, especially before beginning daycare and later school. Instead of allowing her world experience to be primarily white, I found ways to bring an awareness of race into her life. When she was born, she came home to a bedroom filled with dolls and books that represented people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In this same spirit, she had books about all kinds of families -- including single parents, families who live in poverty, same-sex parents, biracial families, families with special education needs and families brought together through adoption. Now, let me be clear, it wasn't easy to find all of these items, because unfortunately, children's books and toys are still primarily made to represent white people, higher income families and those in traditional nuclear families. However, I searched and got what was available. So, my first piece of advice to other parents is this: If you don't have a lot of people in your immediate circle of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, find other positive ways to expose your child to the richness of racial and cultural differences.

Dr. Donna Ford: I am, again, moved by your desire to prepare your offspring for a world that is full of diversity and differences. It is all too 'easy,' it seems, for families with privilege (e.g., for families who don't worry about racial profiling, who don't worry about their children facing racial discrimination) to raise their offspring to be oblivious to or in denial of the realities and struggles of those whose lives are so very different from their own. All families want their children to enjoy the 'American Dream.'

As I write this response to you, I am thinking about a group of teachers in a very wealthy school district who are witnessing an increase in Black and Hispanic students. They are literally wringing their hands wondering how to be sensitive to and compassionate toward students who they don't understand, who don't live in their communities, who don't play with their children. How will they, as teachers and/or parents, be culturally responsive rather than culturally assaultive and pass this on to young, impressionable children/students? I admire and appreciate the teachers' request for help, and their admitting to being colorblind and out of touch with Black and Hispanic students. Asking for help is not always easy, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

So, these teachers find themselves trying to understand and fill in their cultural gaps to be effective teachers -- after their classrooms have become more culturally different and diverse. Too many professionals (most of whom are white) and parents, I think, have failed to heed the 'warnings' or predictions that our nation and schools would soon be majority non-white. The future is here. Unlike you, they were reactive rather than proactive in preparing for culturally different children under their charge. Why, I wonder, do teachers and parents not prepare for inevitable demographic changes? We are the nation of immigrants.

The fact that you were visionary and proactive with your daughter, that you wanted (and want) your daughter to be culturally aware is admirable. As I write this response to you, today, literally today, I saw a wonderful picture of Black and white 4- or 5-year-old boys hugging each other. Just look at the genuine, pure, innocent hug from the Black child on the right. And here is another one. The captions read 'no one is born a racist.' Remove the caption, and the message is still clear. I truly believe that adults are the problem. We contribute to our children and students from all racial backgrounds learning to fear each other. And this was a problem with Zimmerman questioning Martin's presence in his community.

We cannot and will not ever have control over what our children are exposed to outside of our homes. But like you, Dr. Leavy, have shown, we do have a lot of control over what we communicate with and model for our children. Parents are the first and forever teachers for their children; they learn from us. Which reminds me of a dated but still timely article by the American psychologist Erin Burnette, "Talking Openly About Race Thwarts Racism in Children," which ran in the APA Monitor in June 1997 (p.33). And guess what? Despite how troubled I am about racism in homes and schools, I remain hopeful. My first piece of advice to parents and other caretakers is: just as racism is learned -- racism can be unlearned. Be proactive.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Dr. Ford, there is so much to learn from what you've shared as a mother of a Black son, a grandmother of a soon-to-be 2-year-old and an educator. In your kind words towards me, you noted something that I want to make sure comes through in our conversation. For parents who need to prepare their children to deal with the effects of racism -- racial profiling, racial discrimination and so forth -- teaching about race, racism and diversity is not an option, it's a requirement. I really hope that white parents hear that and contemplate that reality. But I don't believe it should be a choice for any parent to prepare their children to live in a racially and culturally diverse country. As you said, racism is learned and parents/guardians are responsible for teaching their children to value all people. This is the work of teachers too, and as your example illustrates, honesty about race and cultural differences is a necessary precondition for positive change. I couldn't agree more that racism is learned and can be unlearned. Being proactive is important, especially in a culture in which racial stereotypes still dominate the cultural space, for example, on television and social media.

Something I have always attempted to do with my daughter, and later with my college students, is to teach them media literacy. To recognize, unpack and discuss the images we consume in the popular culture. Your comments mentioned the Trayvon Martin tragedy and it's a perfect example of what I am talking about. A Black male in a "hoodie" is repeatedly portrayed in American popular culture negatively- - as a thug, criminal or trouble maker. Those images seep in and impact the way we each see people and the world we live in, if we allow these images to go unmediated. Rather, we can engage in media literacy efforts. So, when we see a stereotyped image we can use it as an opportunity to say to our child, "You know, I'm seeing something here that looks biased. What are you seeing?" This is one way to begin a conversation about stereotypes and teach our children (and ourselves and parents and educators) to challenge and resist this negative, racial imagery and the narrative that goes along with it. While no one in a racially-biased country is immune from negative images and messages, we don't need to be passive, either. I have been far from a perfect parent, but I can say with certainty that if my daughter, who is 12 years old, saw Trayvon Martin walking in a hoodie, what she would have actually seen is a boy with darker skin than hers walking in a sweatshirt (which is how we would frame it if the boy was White). I'll say it again: She would have seen a boy in a sweatshirt, not a threat, not someone suspicious. So, my next piece of advice to parents is this: Engage in media literacy with your kids, throughout their lives. Help them to notice, question and challenge stereotypical imagery.

Dr. Donna Ford: Dr. Leavy, The last example about how your daughter might have reacted if she had seen Trayvon in a hoodie resonates with me. I want to use that example to go further with examples and 'what ifs' or 'what would your white child do?' Based on our previous conversations and this one, I get the feeling that your daughter was not raised to be either colorblind or prejudicial. On the one hand, she recognizes skin color -- don't we all see different skin tones? To say otherwise is being dishonest or disingenuous. We can never be sure of how the person self-identifies, but people do notice skin tones and make assumptions based on skin color. At the same time, I sense that you have taught her to not prejudge, but instead to reserve judgment and give people the benefit of the doubt. This goes back to one legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about judging people by the content of their character not the color of their skin. Let me be clear -- to do as Dr. King urged and modeled requires not being colorblind, but rather getting to know the 'other.'

One of my favorite books, and I have many, for very young children is by bell hooks called Skin Again. A powerful message from this book for us all is this: The skin I'm in is just a covering. It cannot tell my story. The skin I'm in is just a covering. If you want to know who I am, you have to come inside and open your heart way wide. Don't judge a book by its cover! Given our increasing cultural diversity and, yes, differences, I want parents and caregivers to start early as you did, to get to know more about others from different racial and cultural backgrounds. So I want parents and caregivers, especially white caregivers, to make sure that their children are neither colorblind nor prejudiced. We all lose with colorblindness and prejudice and discrimination. Instead, I hope those raising (and teaching) impressionable minds, most often children, will learn from you, a white, female-mother-scholar who is deliberately and proactively working to raise a new generation that understands, appreciates, and values those from other cultures. And I, a Black female-mother-scholar, am doing the same.

Dr. Patricia Leavy: Yes, I agree with you wholeheartedly that indeed colorblindness, which is artificial, is not the answer, and is itself a form of prejudice, even if unintentional and well-meaning. The words of Dr. King resonate so strongly here. We need to teach our children to value and respect all people, and to judge them by their character and actions as opposed to preconceived notions based on skin and clothing -- and context. For example, it only makes sense that this young man would have his hood on as it was raining. As parents, we know that it's very hard to teach what we ourselves are not modeling.

As a sociologist, I believe that socialization is a lifelong process and journey. We learn the norms and values of our culture over the course of our lives as we are continually exposed to new images, stories and have new experiences. So, in order to really live up to the dream of judging people by "the content of their character," it is vital that we, as adults, continue to reflect on our own assumptions and biases. We must understand that cultural images are powerful and engage in ongoing reflection about our own prejudice. I know this is something that I work on. So, my final piece of advice to parents is to question and challenge your own assumptions about race so that you can better teach your children to be non-prejudicial and to learn about and value cultural differences.

Dr. Donna Ford: I know that we have been talking about white families teaching their children about race and culture. This we must do. I urge mothers, fathers and caregivers from all racial and cultural backgrounds to prepare their children to be non-racist. As an educational psychologist, and one who dabbles in cultural sociology, I believe this is a reasonable request. Hatred, prejudgments and stereotypes are unhealthy -- no one wins. As we have seen, fear, bias, stereotypes and prejudice can be deadly. My final thoughts and advice comes from Dr. King: "We must learn to live together as brothers [sisters and fellow human beings] or perish together as fools."