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Modern Parenthood

Discussing Race: The pitfalls of racial 'colorblindness' and the importance of talk

Parents sometimes put race in a vacuum, says researcher Janie Ward, thinking ignoring differences — teaching 'colorblindness,' as its called — will raise a child free of bigotry. But Ward's study, and numerous others, shows that isn't the case.

By Guest Blogger / May 24, 2013

Teaching "colorblindess" to our children does not impart racial understanding, researchers say. Similar research, which studied black children ashamed of their skin color, were instrumental in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education. Here, Linda Brown Smith stands in front of Sumner School in Topeka, Kan., in 1964.

Associated Press

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“Now, I don’t see race. People tell me I’m white and I believe them,” late night satirist Stephen Colbert frequently tells his guests. He isn’t the only one claiming to be racially “colorblind.” Since the days of the civil rights movement, many parents and teachers have adopted this approach with the hope that by simply refusing to point out differences to their children, racism, stereotyping, and bigotry would just fall away.

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Noelle Swan writes for the national news desk at the Monitor. She previously worked on the Business and Family pages as a writer and editor.

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Instead, “in this supposed racial vacuum created by parents, the kids have been left to come up with their own conclusions based on who knows what. Their own observations? Heresay? Who knows?” said Janie Ward, Simmons College Professor and Department Chair of Africana Studies and author of The Skin We’re In: Teaching Our Teens to be Emotionally Strong, Socially Smart, and Spiritually Connected.

According to recent research, many of those conclusions have not been good.

Ward shared the results of a recent University of Texas study on racial attitudes with a group of parents and teachers gathered for a lunch, lecture, and book signing as part of The Boston Children’s Museum’s Lunch and Learn Lecture Series this week.

UT researchers initially set out to assess the impact of multicultural characters in television programs on white children’s attitudes about race. They solicited hundreds of families to participate in the study and gave the children an initial racial attitude test. They asked the children questions like, “Are white people nice,” and “Are black people nice?” They followed up with additional questions and substituted the adjective “nice” with other adjectives, including “pretty,” “mean,” and “smart.” This was intended to be a base line measurement of children’s racial attitudes.

Then the researchers divided the families into three groups. They sent one group home with a video that included an episode of Sesame Street where the cast members visited a black family at home. They gave the second group the same video,  as well as a list of talking points for parents to use in discussing the video with their kids. The third group took home just the talking points.

However, the researchers soon realized that something was wrong.

Many parents balked at the idea of raising the discussion of race with their kids. Five parents refused to participate entirely. Several indicated that the idea of having such a discussion with their kids was scary. Others said they preferred to raise their children to be “colorblind.” So the researchers shifted the direction of the study to examine the effect of “colorblind” child rearing on children’s actual racial attitudes.

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