Jeremiah Wright, white births: Time to talk race with kids

Jeremiah Wright – and the racial controversy he and his foes tend to kick up –  is back in the news in the same week the Census bureau reports white births in the US are no longer a majority. Studies show we don't like to talk race with our kids, but it's about time we do.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Jeremiah Wright, white births: Time to talk race with kids. In this March 25, 2012 file photo, Rev. Jeremiah Wright speaks in Jackson, Miss.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is in the headlines again, with reports that GOP activists have been considering attack ads that try (again) to tie the reverend’s incendiary comments about race in America to President Barack Obama, a past friend and former member of his church.

Meanwhile, the water cooler (or at least Internet) chatter is still flying about the Census Bureau’s report yesterday that white babies are no longer a majority in the US.

It’s time, we say, to talk with your kids about race.

No, not the “everybody is equal” version of the race talk. We mean explicit discussions about black and white, Hispanic and Asian. (OK, those last two are usually called “ethnicities,” but we’ll lump them all in together, since that’s what the the US Census did when it found that minorities – including Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and those of mixed race – made up 50.4 percent of births in the 12-month period that ended last July.)

Feeling uncomfortable yet?

Because if you are a white parent reading this, there is evidence to suggest you are reluctant to have this discussion with your children. Nearly 75 percent of you, according to the Journal of Marriage and Family, never or almost never talk about race at all. (And when you do, you might say “black” in a sort of whisper because, you know, you don’t want anyone to think you’re racist.)

The problem is, this avoidance doesn’t keep children from developing racial stereotypes. Many studies have found that white children have negative attitudes toward blacks – even when their parents believe they are modeling racist-free behavior.

In their wonderful book “NurtureShock,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write about a 2006 research study at the Children’s Research Lab at the University of Texas in Austin. Doctoral student Birgitte Vittrup recruited white families who had already signed up to be available for scholarly research to participate in a study about race.

To reiterate: The parents knew the study would be about race. But then Ms. Vittrup asked one group of subjects to start having explicit conversations about the topic at home, suggesting parents ask and then discuss questions such as, “If a child of a different skin color lived in our neighborhood, would you like to be his friend?” 

And the parents began dropping out of the study, explaining to Vittrup that they didn’t want to point out skin color to their children. 

But of course, they were too late.  Even toddlers recognize difference; their little brains are all about categorization, even if they make the sort of conclusions that make parents cringe.

For instance, one of the very first questions Vittrup had asked children in her study – before their parents started opting out to maintain “color blindness” – was whether their mom and dad liked black people.

“No,” said 14 percent. And 38 percent answered, “I don’t know.”

So much for “everyone is equal.”

Many minority families are already on the ball with the race conversation. That Journal of Marriage and Family study found that non-white parents were three times more likely to discuss race than white parents.  (It’s a lot harder to buy into that “we want our kids to be colorblind” thing when your child looks like Trayvon Martin.)

But as we evolve into a majority-minority country, and as we face another presidential campaign tinged with racial undertones, it is all the more important that white parents stop feeling squeamish and start some open conversations about race, too.

Happy talking this weekend.

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