A landmark social experiment conducted by an elementary school teacher is important for children.
Dubbed “brown eyes, blue eyes,” Jane Elliot told the kids in her class that kids with blue eye were special: smarter, faster, better learners. For the next two weeks, she carefully monitored the kids’ behavior on the playground and performance in the classroom.
There were fights, friends stopped speaking and kids with brown eyes started to lag compared to the blue-eyed kids. Then she switched it, and told the kids that new evidence came out that brown-eyed kids were actually special. The results in the class were identical.
In an even more fascinating twist, when Ms. Elliott revealed to the kids what she was trying to demonstrate and that no one is superior because of the way they look, the entire class’s scores went up.
When the children who unwittingly participated in “Brown Eyes, Blue Eyes,” became adults, many of them were interviewed and said that Ms. Elliot’s experiment in the class changed their perspective on race permanently.
However, even today, many parents, usually white parents, feel we shouldn’t burden our kids with heavy lessons about inequality until they are older.
For example, a teacher in Chapel Hill, FL was fired from her job when she asked her sixth-graders a series of question testing their social bias in order to foster discussion. Parents objected, saying these kids were too young to deal with tough issues like race.
Racial bias is a learned behavior that starts young – much younger than you might think. Within a few months, babies not only discriminate by skin color, but also preferred (made eye contact, responded, and smiled) same-race faces as their own.
Even more telling, the same researchers revealed that by the age of 5, African American and Latino children exhibit no preference toward their own ethnic group, where white children do.
White kindergartners may never have an implicit discussion with their parents about race, in fact, according to the best-seller NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, a study says nonwhite parents are three times more likely to discuss race with their children, while 75 percent of white parents never do.
And yet there are implicit behaviors that white parent cultivate with their children, and those behaviors reinforce higher status, and separation. We live in a social construct that favors white people, and this favoritism affords invisible privilege. For African-American families whose young men are at higher risk for substance abuse, police brutality, incarceration, homicide, mental illness and a host of other threats, skipping that conversation is not a luxury they can afford.
All families, regardless of their ethnicity do their children a deep disservice when they avoid the ugly topics of race and bigotry. Do your part at home by:
1. Talking about race early and often. One mistake white parents make is trying to play down the differences in appearance between them and people of color. Instead, acknowledge the differences and talk about them. Explain the origins of different ethnic groups and demystify skin color, eye color, and hair. This normalizes the differences and puts them in context.
2. Avoid generalizations. You children take their cues from you, and if you make statements about entire groups, you are teaching them to categorize and develop bias.
3. Continue to educate yourself. If we want to break down these walls, we need to understand history and celebrate all cultures’ contributions. This is a big glorious world – share it with your kids.
4. Frame racism as a form of bullying. The recent language around bullying can easily be applied to racism, and just like the children in Ms. Elliott’s class, bullying is a concept they understand. It’s not simply about oppressor and oppressed, it’s also about moving witnesses to action. None of us young or old can afford to stand by while someone is inflicting emotional damage on someone else.
5. Keep the discussion open. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and as your kids get older, the issue becomes more complex and painful. Let your children know that you are available to talk about it. The world we want for our kids will judge people by the “content of their character” as a very wise man once said. We need to build that world now, and judge others not based on where their parents came from or how they dress or the language they speak, but the merit of their personhood.
Sadly, in 2017, we are a long way from Dr. King’s dream of a free and equal society, but that makes it all that much more important that we discuss it with our kids.