Do “white schools” make white kids racist?

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Tereza Topferova

Last month, ABC News reported on a study of elementary and high school students, aimed at finding out whether children use race to socially exclude other children from their groups.

The study of nearly 700 fourth, seventh, and 10th graders of different ethnic and racial backgrounds living in the mid-Atlantic region found that “children and adolescents who had friends from different ethnic backgrounds were significantly more likely to say it is wrong to exclude someone because of their race, citing unfairness or hurting the feelings of the excluded child as reasons.”

“In contrast,” the article continues, “students who reported few or no cross-race friendships were significantly less likely to view excluding someone on the basis of race as wrong. Their reasons were often based on a lack of familiarity, such as, ‘They won’t have much in common.’”

Specifically, “European-American children attending ‘all-white’ schools were more likely than European-American children attending ‘mixed ethnicity’ schools to use stereotypes when explaining why someone might not be friends with someone, or invite them home to their house, solely because of their race.”

This is interesting. At first glance, it makes sense. However, I wonder about the conclusions that can be drawn from this study. Some of the most enlightened white anti-racist activists whose work I read, respect, and learn from, grew up in very homogenous surroundings, comprising of almost only white people. Vegankid, for example, who is part of the Ally Work collective, grew up in a small town with only two families of color. It was Vegankid’s sexual identity and his experience as a Queer person that acted as a brigde for his developing of empathy for those affected by racism. You can read Vegankid’s Learning Empathy story here.

Like Vegankid, Rachel of Rachel’s Tavern, another brilliant anti-racist activist and blogger, grew up around all whites, and her parents, like Vegankid’s taught her to treat everyone with respect and dignity. In her piece, Racism and Empathy: Some of My Approximating Experiences, she remembers challenging her white classmates on their racism. For that, she was called a “nigger lover” and threatened. As a result of these experiences, she began to develop a sense of empathy towards people of color. She writes: “I am by no means saying I get everything. I just know what I felt like when these things were directed at me. I knew the fear, the powerlessness, the exasperation, and the anger that racism was creating in me. Because of these experiences (and others), I dedicated myself to fighting racism.”

I guess my thoughts on whether integration is really key to lessening racial prejudice in children are mixed. Of course, having friends of color inevitably leads to empathy for those affected by racism, however, maybe the logic in this study is faulty.

I think the failure is in the fact that racism among whites is rarely discussed. White children, in general, receive virtually no anti-racist education. White privilege allows whites to not have to think about race and racism unless directly confronted with it. White children who have friends of color are probably more likely to learn about racism and discuss it in their circles. But this doesn’t have to be the case.

As seen in the two stories above, it is completely possible to develop an anti-racist consciousness in a predominantly white environment.

I am by no means advocating segragation. What I am saying is that many people do not have a choice. They live where they live, they go to school where they go to school. Still, lack of a racially diverse environment doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be an indicator of the degree of race awareness and empathy.

Though I live in the whitest major city in the U.S., though I grew up in a predominantly white society, and though I am married to a white man with whom I have a white child, I feel a moral responsibility to work on helping to eliminate racism. Why couldn’t most white children develop the same kind of desire and turn a future study like this on its head? What’s stopping them? I am apt to think it’s the white adults in their lives who benefit from White Supremacy and white privilege too much to rock the boat. I don’t want to be one of those people and I am working very hard to counter, on the one hand, the reality reflected in this study and, on the other, the very stereotype of the bigoted, racist, and ignorant white person from Whiteville that this study perpetuates.

Tereza Topferova is a teacher, who has worked with both youth and adults, teaching English, Czech, speech, journalism, creative writing, workplace communication, and vocational education. She grew up in the Czech Republic and immigrated to the U.S. at age fourteen. She is a mother of a toddler and blogs at White Anti-Racist Parent.

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