Ask ARP: Is there a measureable benefit to raising my child in a diverse environment?

Sorry for the late post today, guys. I’ve been at a conference and am just getting access to a computer. Thanks for your patience.

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I’m a parent of a young transracially adopted (Asian) child, and we have to decide where to send him to school: whether to stay in our urban area, which is great in all ways except perhaps for the schools, or to move. Ironically, there are places we could move that while being more white overall–and having schools with better reputations– would also have a higher Asian population than where we are now.

Regardless of the specifics about how good our local schools are/aren’t, one opinion that I hear some parents expressing is that they want their kids to stay in our local school system because of the “diversity” of the community. (I have also heard the same argument used by parents opting out of our local school and sending their children to a French-language private school.) Be that as it may, nobody ever can articulate exactly the way that diversity will provide a benefit to the child. Now, I appreciate the potential for society-level benefits, benefits to democracy, and all that, but in this particular decision, I will act in a way that I think is in my child’s best interest, whether or not that happens to match society’s.

So my question is: where can I find data on the nature and extent specific benefits that accrue to children when schooled in a racially/socioeconomically diverse environment, versus a more homogenous one? What I want is acutal, hard information, if that exists– specific sites to studies, reports, that kind of thing. (I’m a scientist by training, if that wasn’t obvious…!) in any event, I would be most appreciative if you know of any such information, and wouldn’t mind passing it on.

Alix V.

From the Editor:

Alix, I sympathize with your dilemma, because it is one that my family has faced. Every parent wants to give her child the very best things to help him grow up into a successful adult. But what happens when the best things are at odds with one another (ex. the best school system is the least diverse)?

You asked what is the benefit of growing up in a diverse community. In my view, the benefits are two-fold. First, access to people of all races is one of the most valuable tools for anti-racist parenting. Exposure to different races, different social groups, etc., will assist your child in rejecting society’s biases. Check out last week’s post “The Elephant in the Living Room,” which discusses recent studies that tout integration’s affect on how people view others that are different:

These findings are part of a long line of research supporting what’s known as the Contact Hypothesis, which states that under the right conditions, contact between members of different groups can reduce conflicts and prejudices. Decades of school desegregation research support this idea, as documented by University of California, Santa Cruz, professor emeritus Thomas Pettigrew and University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychologist Linda Tropp.

Pettigrew and Tropp have found that school integration can in fact reduce prejudice among students from different groups, but simply placing these students together isn’t enough to get them to see each other as individuals and shed their prejudices. We must also try to help them share common goals, on which they must cooperate to succeed; ensure that they’re treated as equals and have positive, noncompetitive interactions with one another; and feel like their cross-group relationship has the support of authority figures. The more of these factors in place, the more likely people are to overcome their biases.

Raising a child into an anti-racist adult is not only good for society, it is good for the child. Now, many people will say that you can raise a child that disdains race bias in a homogenous environment. That is true; but I have to think it is also one hell of an uphill battle. If, say, your child only sees only white people in positions of authority, is exposed to only white American culture, experiences only Eurocentric standards of beauty, hears only white voices, and has limited meaningful interaction with people of color or anyone of any other culture, he or she will receive a lot of data reinforcing the supremacy of Eurocentric beliefs and values. And I’m not picking on all-white communities. Growing up in an all-black, all-Hispanic, etc., communities can cause discomfort with people who are not of those cultures, too.

I think the second benefit of living in a diverse community relates specifically to children of color. I think diverse communities allow children of color to feel more comfortable, as they are exposed to some faces, cultures and beliefs that mirror their own. All children of color, no matter where they live, are impacted by society’s “othering” of non-white people, but It is even more stressful to be “the only” all the time. It is rough on a child’s self esteem and self image. And, in my experience, having been “the only” many, many times as a child and adult, being a person of color in an otherwise all-white environment/community increases the likelihood that one will confront race bias and it increases the frequency of race bias. I’m not even talking about overt, ugly racism, but the little things that sting: assumptions about academic achievement,  failure to live up to Eurocentric beauty standards, etc. Those are things that wear you down, little by little. Sorry, I don’t have hard data on this one, but I hope you will also consider first-hand experiences from people of color who have lived in communities where they are one of few minorities.

So, I think children benefit from being raised in diverse communities. That said, children also benefit from good school systems. Is it worth passing up a better school system to live in an area with more diversity? I guess it depends on the situation. The challenges that arise from living in a homogenous community and the challenges that arise from living in a mediocre school district can both be overcome. Which challenges can your family overcome more effectively? Is there a middle ground that provides a few of the benefits of both situations?

My husband, my stepson and I live in a predominately white community. We are black. When we first moved here, my stepson was one of a handful (I meanreally–about 5) of black kids in a school of more than 1,400. There were not many more Hispanic or Asian children there. That was a concern to us.  Yet our community has a wonderful school system, a low crime rate, it is affordable and recently appeared on one of those “best communities to raise a family lists.” We ultimately decided that we could make up for the homogenity of our current community through our family dynamic, because we are very close to a larger city with a more diverse population, because my stepson spent his first 13 years in a major city with a racially diverse population, and because he spends part of the summer and holidays with his mom in that major city. Our decision was personal and unique to us. Your decision regarding the community in which you decide to raise your daughter will be unique to you, too.

I don’t think diversity is a be-all, end-all criteria when choosing a place to raise children, but I definitely think it should be a consideration.

Readers, what do you think? Do you have hard data to offer Alix?

Tami

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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