Discussion of NurtureShock, Chapter 3 "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race"

We're talking about NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman allsummer. One chapter every Friday. Jump in whenever you'd like. The first week we talked about Chapter 1 about praise. Last week we talked about Chapter 2 about sleep. This week we're talking about talking about race with your kids.

This chapter is called "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race" and I found it really, really interesting. One of the things I think is so much fun about this book is the way Bronson and Merryman start with the assumption and then tell the story of the research process instead of just reeling off figures. They tell you what the researchers thought they were going to show, and whether that turned out to be what they showed or not.

This chapter opens with a description of a study that was trying to look at the effects different ways of talking about racial differences would have on little kids. But that study didn't pan out, because so many of the white parents in the study dropped out or refused to talk about race with their little kids. So the researcher started looking at why the white parents were so uncomfortable talking about race with their kids.

We've been taught that racism is learned behavior. So we assume that if we don't want our kids to be racist, and instead want them to know that people are people, we should just not talk about it, because talking about it makes a big deal out of it.

The problem with that, though, is that little kids naturally categorize things and people. They can't help it; it's a normal and necessary part of learning to be human and to interact with others. And physical difference, like skin tone, is one of the easiest distinctions to make. And that kids naturally prefer people they see as "like them." One of the researchers said that:

"kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible...The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics--such as niceness, or smarts--is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random."

So, basically, we're letting kids interpret physical differences, like race, all on their own, without any guidance, thinking they're blank slates. But instead they're drawing the exact conclusions we don't want them to.

Another mistake white parents make is assuming that the Diverse Environment Theory is true. The DET (Bronson and Merryman's term) is that if you surround your kids with people who all look different, the kids will just learn that everyone's the same and it won't be an issue.

I have to admit that I assumed that was true. I've been assuming my kids are cool with everyone because we live in NYC and they each have had friends and classmates of all different races and ethnicities. But the research (and Bronson's anecdotal experience) shows that, once again, when we don't give our kids guidance by talking explicitly about race and ethnicity, our kids aren't drawing the conclusions we want them to.

As I was reading, I was thinking about how easy it is for me to talk about gender with my kids. How many "Of course girls can be doctors" conversations we've had. But we don't have many conversations about race like that. (The last one was probably during the 2008 election, honestly.) So I wasn't surprised when the authors pointed that out, too.

There's also a whole discussion about the fact that schools that are more racially diverse seem to have more stratification, so the reality of desegregation isn't what we thought/think it would be. I'm not even sure how to start unpacking that.

But what I'm taking away from all of this is that I need to start being explicit about talking to my kids about why their friends look different than they do, and what that means.

I feel like I have NOT done a good job of summarizing this chapter. Can someone else help me out? Thoughts? And if you're not a white parent, please go ahead and comment on what you see white parents doing/not doing and how that dovetails with how you talk to your kids.