Teaching kids about race

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 shoots down the theory of self-esteem being based on how much kids are praised, i.e. ‘How not to talk to your kids’. This is a superb article, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, in fact.
  • He makes a convincing case for nipping lying in the bud when kids are young in ‘Learning to lie. I was also very favorably impressed with this article, since I knew in my heart that a certain daughter of mine was perfectly capable of telling lies at a very young age – much earlier than any baby books or developmental theories I’d encountered suggested was possible.
  • Bronson also argues very convincingly how important enough sleep is, especially to adolescents in ‘Snooze or lose’.


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.


re: Teaching kids about race

I haven't really thought about this. My first reaction after reading it was 'Not another thing to worry about - P1 homework is already bad enough!'. So, after giving it some thought...

I didn't plan to teach our daughters about their British racial and cultural heritage. If someone tries to make them feel ashamed about it I'll argue against that, but I don't expect to spend a lot of time on it otherwise. Am I missing something important?

Our older daughter is one of two mixed children in a year of around 90 children (the rest are chinese). I guess there will be name-calling at some point in her school life, and whoever is calling names will go for the most obvious difference: that she's mixed. But to me that's a problem of the name caller, not a sign of any problem with being mixed. I hope our daughter will accept that explanation if it's needed.

As for her views about other races, I wouldn't agree with your comment that 'the issue of race is not an overweening presence in Hong Kong'. I think if you've made it to six in Hong Kong, you've worked out that there are several different groups of people including white, Hong Kong-chinese, mainland-chinese, and Filipina/Indonesian maids, and that different groups often get treated differently. So my teaching about race so far is the way that I deal with these different races, hopefully treating them in as equal a way as possible. I'm sure our children pick up these unspoken teachings as strongly as anything I could have said so far.

It's an interesting subject.

It's something I've thought

It's something I've thought about & something (IMO) that cannot be avoided.

The question: " 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?"

When they are young - I'd say by keeping it personal and family oriented. When we celebrate holidays  religious holidays I'm teaching them (to an extent) about their "racial and cultural heriatge" on my side of the family. By attending the local town-run summer camp in my home-state, they got to know kids of different backgrounds & incomes. By taking them to my home-state every summer when they were young, I introduced them to important US customs like the 4th of July Parade & fireworks & as they got older, teaching them a bit about US history - the good and the bad. 

As for their Chinese side - well, the Cantonese language is around them & the main family around them is the HK-Chinese side. We celebrate the usual holidays (although I have to admit that this year we did not do a single thing for Cheung Yeung). As they've gotten older, we're also teaching them more about US and Hong Kong history - the good and the bad.

In (ESF) school they have learned about various freedom struggles (e.g. the Salt  March in 1930;  Selma marches in 1965). That is also a point from which we can take-off and discuss things further. Family discussions at dinner are a good thing. When watching TV or videos, when I would sometimes point things out/ raise things for discussion - or the kids now will see things and talk about them too.

In the playground, my eldest was first teased by some other kids as a "guai-mui" when she was about 5 years old.  After her first day of primary school, she asked me what  a Cantonese word meant - it was "mixed blood". So, yes I addressed what it meant & how people like to divide other people up into groups and races. Later I told them how when I was born, it was still 2 years before "mixed" marriages were legal in all of the USA (Loving vs. Virginia - 1967).

I think giving children intensive lessons on racism (or sexism, or class inequalities, or religious intolerance) is not appropriate, but just as in teaching them any other "facts of life" (where babies come from, money management, etc.) it's an on-going dialogue that arises and continues from real-life questions and examples.




Racial minorities in Hong Kong

It's interesting that the writer classifies "Filipina/Indonesian maids" as a racial group here in Hong Kong, since the idea that all members of those nationalities here are domestic helpers is itself an unjustified racial stereotype - there are also professionals and business people here from both countries.  I am not implying that the writer is prejudiced against this group, just that we all tend to make assumptions based on race that may not be true when examined.

As for children picking on each other because of race, in my secondary school there were only two black kids (one of whom, incidentally, went on to defy stereotypes by becoming Britain's first black Cabinet Minister), but that didn't stop kids from abusing each other based on physical differences - shorty, fatty, spotty, etc.  That's just childishness.

Just teach them every human

Just teach them every human are equal; regardless of one's race.  Of course it'd be more effective if the parents exercise such beliefs themselves.  Really, it's just that simple.

Keep it personal

In my own life I've found the best way to address prejudices is to minimise generalisation about "whites / blacks / women / men / chinese / americans / british etc. etc" and to try and keep it personal based on individual people.  It's hard to diss "Brazilians" when you have a brazilian friend or have lived there and see the diversity within any national group.

Yes children are aware of race.  But as one of the other respondent's pointed out, they're also aware if other children are fat, lazy or clever or tall or short or athletic.  Placing people into categories is a fundamental way in which the human brain tries to cope with information.

We try to emphasize personal qualities - i.e. if people are nice or friendly or helpful rather than what they look like or their nationality.  

I'd say one of the dominant groups at ISF is 'mixed' children.  But my kids get that they're 'mixed' as well, with parents of 2 different nationalities, so the 'colour' thing isn't a dominant consideration.  I think that it's wonderful that children can mix and interact in a neutral context and take each person at their own value.

Heaven knows, every nation has done things in the past, or even present, never mind the future that they can be less than proud about, be it apartheid, opium wars, pollution, fighting other nations wars whatever. 

What really counts is on the personal level.  As my kid's favourite book says:

"the 2 biggest quesitons to ask ourselves in life, at any age, are:  Are most of the people I know glad that I am here? Am I glad that I am here, myself." (How to behave and Why, by Munro Leaf)

Be Yourself

Kids don't care about what we parents say (although they inwardly guffaw at the hypocrisy sometimes), they don't care about what we do (ditto). What they do care about is who we are. Many white, middle-class parents are mixed up. A good example of this is the attitude to sex education. Something which is both grave and gay, both severe and ludicrous, is reduced to a dogmatic construct, where it becomes more important to say "penis" and "vulva" rather than "willy" and "down there" to a 5-year-old than to follow your own path for your own offspring. The whole "race" education business is nauseating. White m/c kids are being taught to be condescending and patronising, when we  none of us - of any age - need teaching in that: it comes quite naturally. Far better to show them videos of, say, a Nigerian who speaks Yoruba rubbishing fellow Nigerians who speak a different language (to take one example from my student days), so that kids will say, "F*ck me! Just like me!" than all this deceptive nonsense. As for the matter of kids and lying, one of the best stories from the linguistics literature is the one about the parent who desparately tries to get their precious one to stop saying "I winned the gold in the spelling bee today". "No, darling, it's "won" - "won the spelling bee". As all research shows, the kid will end up speaking grammatical English -  it's his dishonesty that will go from strength to strength. Especially, with mixed-up parents, or "western hypocrites", as my otherwise Anglophile Chinese wife so delightfully puts it. But then she's a racist, of course ........... 

Comments on teaching kids about race

Thanks to everyone who’s responded for their excellent comments. I’ll just add a few in reply.

MrB, I find it interesting that you don’t expect to teach your girls about their British heritage. I very much want Daughter Tall to learn about the USA, plus at least have a broad introduction to some of the highlights of western culture.

Also, you’re certainly right that there are visibly different racial groups in HK, so it’s not as if the subject doesn’t come up. What I meant by saying that it’s not ‘overweening’ here is that Hong Kong is so overwhelmingly Chinese that in many situations such as job hirings, university admissions, etc., the question of race isn’t at the forefront, whereas it often is in the USA.

SKMama, I like your comparison to teaching kids the ‘facts of life’. I agree that trying too hard to be explicit is going to lead to problems.

Private Beach, Sam and Gweipo all mentioned a focus on common humanity. Yes, I agree it’s crucial that we teach kids that people of all races are human beings who have equal moral standing and value. But the differences between the races are not the same as the differences between fat and skinny kids, or tall and short ones. It’s more complex than that. Kids do want to classify people using whatever criteria they can grasp. And while tall kid/short kid is a trivial distinction, Chinese kid/western kid is not. There is too much cultural and political and ideological baggage that goes along with race.

But Gweipo, I agree focusing on individuality is the first step in this area. I also liked the idea of your kids being ‘mixes’. Daughter Tall says something similar. There are several girls in her grade at school who are racially Chinese, but who have one HK Chinese parent and one overseas Chinese parent; she calls them ‘country mixes’!

Ulaca, I agree that ‘nauseating’ is just about the right word for the race education complex. I think that’s why I reacted so strongly against this article; Po Bronson might be a mensch and a half, and would surely do a fine job teaching Daughter Tall about those different skin tones she sees, but he’s not going to be appearing in her classroom anytime soon. No, the odds are it’ll be (at best) some humorless terminally-earnest do-gooder who actually carries out the ‘training’.

Finally, as the Apostle Paul notes: 'Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11) That is certainly one thing I'll be teaching Daughter Tall the next time we run into a band of ravaging Scythians! Seriously, those of us who are Christians have a powerful message about race we can pass on to our children, and it can be presented in a very positive way, unlike the twisted guilt trips from the racial specialists.


Racist tots

A very predictable report appeared in the UK Telegraph -- rather serendipitously -- later on the day I posted my article above. It's a summary of a civil liberty group's investigation into race education in the UK schools. Here's the lead:

Primary school pupils and toddlers in nurseries are being punished for making racist insults, according to a report, even if they don’t understand the terms they use.

Teachers are being treated like counter staff in police stations as they have to fill in forms detailing name-calling and jokes.

Meanwhile diversity “missionaries” are said to be increasing the divide between white and black children by forcing them to see everything through the prism of race.

Yep, sounds like about what you'd expect. I think the crusade for anti-racist education in the UK exceeds in fervor even the efforts made in my own ancestral homeland.