There’s a remarkable article on kids and race in a recent issue of Newsweek magazine (yes, Newsweek actually still exists). The article’s authors, the novelist Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, have written a book on raising kids they’ve cutely titled NurtureShock. The article is an excerpt.
Bronson and Merryman begin by describing a research study conducted on a group of white children in the super-progressive college town of Austin, Texas. But they wring their metaphorical hands over its unexpected results: the children of good solid White parents (who bend over backwards to convey their multicultural bona fides) never the less think people of their own race are nicer than people from other races.
The authors note that many parents involved in this study dropped out. Why? They were so worried about saying the wrong thing that they couldn’t bring themselves to talk to their children about race at all – after all, their child might make an embarrassing statement in public that could implicate Ma and Pa as potential racists, or at least as insufficiently enthusiastic multiculturalists.
Another study the authors recount sounds even worse: children who attend ‘diverse’ schools are at least as likely to develop negative stereotypes of people from other races as do kids who attend monocultural schools.
So what’s the solution to all this racial angst? Do the authors entertain the possibility that intensive anti-racist, pro-multiculturalist, pro-diversity educational efforts actually heighten racial tensions rather than improve them?
Uh, no. Instead, they suggest that more explicit anti-racist guidance is required, starting as young as possible. Age three is suggested as a good place to get started teaching kids about race, since it’s before the ‘developmental window’ in which they’re easily malleable closes:
Small corrections in our thinking today could alter the character of society long term, one future citizen at a time. The way white families introduce the concept of race to their children is a prime example.
Another study quoted advocates teaching kids about race by packing some ideological punch:
White children who got the full story about historical discrimination had significantly better attitudes toward blacks than those who got the neutered version. Explicitness works. "It also made them feel some guilt," Bigler adds. "It knocked down their glorified view of white people."
But note the catch in both of the previous quotations: the ‘full story about historical discrimination’ has a big ‘Whites Only’ sign on the door. Children of other races are routinely taught ‘ethnic pride’, and that’s fine. So, as the authors admit:
That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If "black pride" is good for African-American children, where does that leave white children? It's horrifying to imagine kids being "proud to be white." Yet many scholars argue that's exactly what children's brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence. So a pride message would not just be abhorrent—it'd be redundant.
What would happen if I tried to apply Bronson and Merryman’s approach to my mixed-race daughter here in Hong Kong? Is it ‘horrifying’ if I try to teach her to be proud of her white (i.e. European-American) heritage? And should Hong Kong schools teach local kids that it’s ‘abhorrent’ if they feel proud to be Chinese, because Chinese people hold the ‘power, wealth and control’ in Hong Kong society?
In fact, if we carry out the authors’ assumptions to their logical conclusions, Daughter Tall should feel doubly guilty: one of her parents is a white American, and the other is a member of a dominant majority culture. I guess Mrs Tall and I have a whole lot of ‘knocking down’ of Daughter Tall’s ‘glorified views’ of her heritage on our agenda!
Is this really what Bronson and Merryman have in mind? I find that hard to believe.
I find the Bronson and Merryman article particularly frustrating because I agree with Bronson on several other controversial issues raised in the book, parts of which are based on a series of articles he wrote for New York Magazine:
Bronson and Merryman are right, I think, in pointing out that kids are not simply going to benefit in some amorphous, mystical way just by being physically present in ‘diverse’ settings. Children inevitably notice racial differences and will at some point start to wonder about them. And I think there’s little doubt kids are drawn to people who look like themselves.
This is bad news for concerned parents who have assumed that dropping Junior off each day at Highly Diverse Multicultural School ensures that he’ll turn out to be a sensitive, tolerant, polished PC product. It means that the burden of teaching Junior about race has to fall on someone, and that as parents they can either trust his school to do a good job of it (and many people do not trust schools to this degree), or they have to take on the task themselves. Bronson and Merryman are right in that this issue can’t simply be sidestepped.
But if they get the form right, I believe they get the content wrong. They are too quick to accede to the prevailing conventional wisdom (at least in the USA) that posits that some races or cultures can be labeled as worthy of pride or celebration, while others must be subject to self-denunciation and apologies. This demeans all parties involved: it implies that members of some races are guilty by dint of their birth, and that members of others can only be held to lower standards. After all, which race (or ethnic group of any sort) is either an unqualified success, or an irredeemable disaster?
The content of what you teach your children about race is crucial. The messages we pass on to our children about race have to be more balanced and truthful than the politically-correct platitudes Bronson and Merryman quote in their article.
Although the issue of race is not an overweening presence in Hong Kong, it’s also never quite absent if you’re an expat, your spouse is local, and your children are mixed.
So what are the best ways to teach such children about their racial and cultural heritage, while avoiding both jingoistic cheerleading and self-indulgent (and ultimately self-congratulatory) guilt-wallowing and breast-beating?
I’m looking forward to responses.