Nurtureshock–Where did Po Bronson find a non-racist world? Can I go, too?

Written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Balancing Jane; Originally published at Balancing Jane.

Nurtureshock, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman,  is another one I haven’t read all of yet, but I am particularly struck by chapter 3, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” There’s a pretty thorough recap of this chapter over at Salon, but the bottom line is that studies suggest white parents are uncomfortable talking about race, so much so that they avoid it all together in many cases. This, contrary to their belief that they are raising “colorblind” children, actually works counter to a productive, equalizing message.

I think there’s a lot of good work going on in this chapter. I am particularly in agreement with the need to open up dialogue about race and perceived differences at an early age. (The cited studies suggest that there is a narrow window of time to do this, one which potentially closes by third-grade). I whole-heartedly agree with sentiments like this one:

“It’s the worst kind of embarrassment when a child blurts out, ‘Only brown people can have breakfast at school,’ or ‘You can’t play basketball, you’re white, so you have to play baseball.’ But shushing them only sends the message that this topic is unspeakable, which makes race more loaded, more intimidating”

However, I feel that this analysis lacks some nuance, particularly when it comes to the recounting of the author’s observations about his own child’s race-based preference of a white basketball player. Up to this point, the author had taken the approach that not mentioning anyone’s skin color would provide his child with the colorblind perspective best suited for viewing all people as equal. When he realized this method wasn’t working, he remarked:

“I’d always thought racism was taught. If a child grows up in a non-racist world, why was he spontaneously showing race-based preferences?”

Excuse me, but what non-racist world did he think this child was in? Certainly not the one I live in. I do think that racism is taught, but that doesn’t mean it has to be beaten over kids’ heads through overtly racist messages. We “teach” racism everyday. Unless this child was a complete recluse (and he wasn’t because the author notes that he “never once mentioned the color of anyone’s skin–not at school or while watching television”), then he was getting race-driven and subtly racist messages, even when parents are doing their best to keep their child from exposure to these messages.

This is why, I think, (as the title of this chapter suggests) that white parents are afraid to talk about race. Many of them don’t know how to handle the subverted racism that plagues our society today. Overt messages of racism are easy to dismantle. Of course the signs that used to hang over “Whites Only” water fountains were wrong. And this is not only from a historical point of view; we (myself included, as you can see from this blog post) are quick to rip apart the school that was segragating its student body elections by race. These are clear violations of the message of equality.

But what about the magazine covers that lighten the skin of black actresses? What about racial disparity in the way schools suspend students? What about caricatures of racial stereotypes masquerading as cartoon characters?

Or, what about this story? I went back to my hometown this past weekend to go to a very rural festival that involves threshing wheat and giant, decades-old tractors. I was there with my mom, a woman who has lived in one of two neighboring rural Midwest counties her entire life. Her exposure to diversity has been narrow, but she is a good person who believes in the message of equality and accepts my interracial marriage completely. At this festival, many people gather to sell random things flea-market style. At one of these tables, I came across these:



 My mom did not understand why I was upset.

“What’s wrong with Aunt Jemima?” she asked me, with all sincerity.

In response I gawked and gestured with frustration at the blackface salt and pepper shakers. Her confusion deepened. “Those are just antiques!”

I explained to her that I saw in these “just antiques” vestiges of a narrative all too common. These pieces were turning an entire race of people into exaggerated physical attributes and sending messages of servitude. She said, “I guess I see what you’re saying.” I hope she did.

So, all that to say that when Bronson and Merryman suggest that their research concludes that raising a child in a “non-racist world” is not enough to combat racial self-segregation and race-based judgments, I’m perplexed. Surely this theory cannot be put to the test anytime soon. When we find (or make!) a non-racist world, then we can reconvene.

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