Is a diverse environment enough to innoculate children against racism?

written by Love Isn’t Enough editor Tami Winfrey Harris; originally published at What Tami Said

A Love Isn’t Enough reader, Miriam S., sent me a link to a post on Motherlode, The New York Times’ parenting blog. In it, guest blogger Larissa Kosmos recalls the first time she, a sheltered child from an all-white community, touched a black person:

When I was 10, I touched a black person for the first time. It was Easter Sunday and I was with my parents and older brother in Nassau, the Bahamas, during our school’s spring break. At the conclusion of the mass we attended, the priest, who looked like any of the white Catholic priests I had seen in Parma, the suburb of Cleveland where I grew up, began walking down the aisle to shake hands with everyone in the congregation.

Alongside him, doing the same thing, was an altar boy wearing red and white vestments, a plump boy around my age with skin the color of dark chocolate. Before I could fully absorb what was happening — this ritual wasn’t practiced at our church — the priest and altar boy had reached our pew. My father shook hands with both of them; I clasped hands with the priest; and the altar boy, his bright eyes meeting mine, leaned toward me, his hand outstretched. I hesitated. It was half a second that held my anxiety: Would black skin feel warm? Or have a different texture? Could the boy’s color rub off on me? The pressure to be polite flattened my fear. It turns out his hand felt unremarkable; it could’ve been anybody’s hand. Read more…

Kosmos says her children have a different experience, growing up in New York City with neighbors, classmates, teachers and doctors of color:

It’s apparent that my kids are not mystified by people with dark pigment and certainly not apprehensive of them. In fact, my daughter once wondered aloud if we had a black relative: Before we headed to Toronto last summer to visit family, including an uncle whom we hadn’t seen in a long time, she asked—in struggling to picture him—whether he had white skin or brown. Both races are natural components of her world. She wouldn’t guess that there’s anything unusual about having elected a biracial president.

But the blogger wonders about children who are still being raised in homogenous neighborhoods.

On the anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I wonder about the perceptions of other kids, especially those growing up in America’s homogenous neighborhoods. Are there children today who would hesitate to touch a girl or boy of a different race? Would you know if you were the parent of one of those children?

There is a thread here that is dangerous, I think. It is good that Kosmos’ children are used to seeing people of color. Familiarity is a first step toward racial equality. But does familiarity mean that her children will grow up free of racial bias? It does not.

But I hear similar sentiments from other white parents raising children in what they feel are diverse environments: My kid sees people of color all around them. The boy who lives down the street is Mexican and they play together all the time. My daughter voted for Obama in her middle school mock election. Our pediatrician is Asian.

But there are several flaws in this point of view. First, it positions racism as all about the comfort of the majority culture: If my (white) child and I are comfortable seeing and interacting with people of different races–no matter how superficially–then there is no race problem here. In this thinking, the very presence of people of color in a community is enough to prove the absence of racism. It is centered on the reality of white people; there is no consideration for the experiences of people of color in so-called diverse environments, whether they indeed face racism.

Secondly, “diversity” is sort of a nebulous concept. How many different races of people does it take to make an environment racially “diverse” in a meaningful way? And what of the self-segregation that often happens in diverse environments? Do young people gain from diverse environments even if the black kids are sitting at one table in the cafeteria, the Native American kids at another, the white kids over here, the Asian kids over there…you get the picture.

I’ve been reading a fabulous book by Jennifer Baszile, “The Black Girl Next Door.” Baszile recounts her experience coming of age in predominately white Palos Verdes, California, in the 70s and 80s. Baszile’s story is so similar to my own that sometimes I forget that I am reading someone else’s memoir. I share her experiences of being “the only” or at least one of a handful of black kids in a neighborhood, in school, in summer academic camps.

If her school was so great, why, when she won a footrace in first grade, did her teacher agree with a classmate that blacks “have something in their feet to make them run faster than white people”? And why, when Jennifer’s father accompanied her to school next day, was he careful to “assert himself as an informed and concerned parent and not simply a big, black, dangerous man”?

This may not be true of Kosmos, but I have noticed that for many white parents, a handful of people of color in an area constitutes diversity and the most superficial relationships with people of other races count as exposure. I wonder how many parents of the white children that Baszile and I encountered growing up comforted themselves with the idea that their kids were experiencing “diversity.” The presence of children of color in a neighborhood or school may make white parents feel that the race thing is taken care of, but it does not necessarily lessen the “othering” that non-white children experience. It does not stop all heads from swiveling to the black kids in class on the rare occasion African Americans are mentioned as part of history…y’know the slavery and Civil Rights discussions. It does not change the experience of the black girls that “nobody dates” at my son’s increasingly “diverse” but still majority white high school. It does not erase all those uncomfortable and alienating discussions about skin and hair care. It does not stop my stepson’s friends from making “annoying” assumptions about how he should speak or what he should like or how he, who lives in the same middle class environs they do, should have some knowledge of the “gangsta” lifestyle.

As I look back on a childhood and adulthood spent in majority-white environments, I know that the more “diverse” spaces did not shelter me from racism. Indeed, diversity often provides cover for inequality. My presence and that of other people of color stood as some sort of proof of egalitarianism: “Our dorm floor doesn’t have a problem with race; we have three blacks and an Asian!” Meanwhile, oh, the stony looks I received the time I dared dance with a white guy from another dorm at a floor party. We have let you in. We are diverse. But you still must acquiesce to the racial hierarchy. You still must know the rules.

As an astute commenter on Motherlode said:

Simply exposing kids to a diverse environment (school, neighborhood, friendship circle) is not enough to address the racial constructs that young children have already created…

Being an anti-racist parent means having substantive discussions about race and racism, not merely relying on the presence of people of color to do the work for you. As I wrote on Love Isn’t Enough a few months back:

Most parents agree that child rearing involves proactive efforts to educate, instill strong values and prepare children for life’s challenges. We talk to our children about the things they should and should not do. We talk about sex–maybe not always well, but we generally talk about it. We talk about the importance of education, how it paves the way for future success. We talk about alcohol and drug use. We talk about faith or lack of faith. We talk about safety–teaching little ones to stop, drop and roll, and to avoid strangers. We don’t leave these important things to chance, because the stakes are too high.
If love alone won’t keep a toddler from touching a hot stove or stop a teen from engaging in unprotected sex, why, then, do so many of us think love is all you need to keep a child from absorbing prevalent biases against people of color or being damaged by them? Read more…

 

I agreed earlier in this post that familiarity is an important first step in achieving racial equality. The problem is that for too many it is the only step. You don’t get to the mountain top just by living next door to a black family, It takes more work than that.
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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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