Raising Non-Racist Kids

I don’t know if I’ve extolled the virtues of this book enough via the internet, although I’ve certainly done so for my in-person folks. I mentioned, and my husband bought, NurtureShock solely for the chapter on race, because news articles had convinced me that these people thought like I did, and better yet, had great data to back it up. For example, something I’ve believed for a long time, is that you cannot teach anti-racism or even have successful integration if you can’t talk about race. Same for our children. Here’s this writer’s take on what NutureShock says we should not do, if we want to raise anti-racist children:

Step One: Don’t talk about race. Don’t point out skin color. Be “color blind.”

Step Two: Actually, that’s it. There is no Step Two.

Congratulations! Your children are well on their way to believing that <insert your ethnicity here> is better than everybody else.

Despite the evidence, it continues to amaze me that parents think that not talking about race and racism will somehow protect their children or make them colorblind. For white parents, NurtureShock’s authors do a great job of striking down that idea. Not talking to white children about race makes them especially susceptible to belief that being white is better than being any other color. Without active push-back from parents (and I would argue educators), white children do not learn to be colorblind, but rather learn what is reflected all around them – that white people are superior.

While the chapter does not go into much about what racial and ethnic minority parents should do to ensure that their children are not racist, I think much of the same advice goes for <put your race and ethnicity> parents too. In fact, I think not talking to your kids about race and racism is even more dangerous for kids of color than for whites.

Why? Well, if white children are coming to understand their superiority, and perhaps other latent messages about other folks, why would we not assume that kids of color are not as well? In other words, as white children learn to internalize the racial and ethnic hierarchy, so do kids of color. Whether you like it or not. Given this, as parents of color I think its even more important for us to talk to our children about race and racism, if just simply to counteract the negative messages about themselves that they receive on a daily basis. Children as young as 3 understand race.

Many parents of color that I talk to just feel that talking about race before their kids bring it up encourages them to “see race,” and this belief is something parents are heavily invested in, no matter how much research I tout. True, people of color come to learn the racial hierarchy at some point in their lives. Unlike whites, they most likely do not have the privilege to ignore it or act like its not there. But I would suggest that instilling positive, anti-racist messages from a young age help tremendously in being able to put the social hierarchy in perspective as they get older, and to better understand the world around them. Consider this:

But Harris-Britt explained that if you’re reading a picture book to a child, if you are pointing out the red of a balloon, or the yellow of a lion’s fur, you can also point out the brown of a person’s skin.

Ignoring the color of skin, yet dutifully pointing out the color of every inanimate object and animal, only sends a message to children that talking skin color is taboo.

I grew up in a house filled with books about race and racism; my mother read black literature; my father worked someplace where he was the only black person. I was never taught to hate anyone, but I also wasn’t necessarily taught to love my black self. I don’t remember explicitly talking about race, but do remember hearing adult conversations about racism, and watching Eyes on the Prize. I remember being in elementary school, a school that was in my neighborhood and therefore 99% black. There was one white boy, maybe when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. And the most I can remember about him is thinking, “Wow, his family must be really bad off if he has to go to school with us.” Some way, some how, I understood that whites were up here, and we were somehow down here. I don’t think its simply because of segregation in schools; I remember feeling the same way when I saw white families in the neighborhood, or the one old white lady on the block who couldn’t afford to move when all the black families came into that part of town. Consider this, about school desegregation:

Stephan found that in only 16 percent of the desegregated schools examined, the attitudes of whites toward African-Americans became more favorable. In 48 percent of the schools, white students’ attitudes toward blacks became worse. African-American attitudes were also mixed, but overall were significantly less dismal. African-Americans attitudes toward whites improved38 percent of the time, and turned in the negative direction 24 percent of the time.

I realized how race was tied to class because my parents didn’t have a car, and we had to get a hack back from the supermarket, like many of the black people I knew. Intuitively, I knew this:

When its students were polled if they’d like to live in a diverse neighborhood when they grow up, about 70 percent of the nonwhite high-school juniors said they wanted to. But only 37 percent of whites wanted to. Asked if they’d like to work in a racially diverse setting when they were an adult, only 40 percent of the whites said yes.

But maybe if I’d been specifically taught about slavery, its evils, Jim Crow and redlining, along with messages that of positive associations, I could have made better sense of what race really meant. Perhaps in being told the reality, maybe I would have been more indignant, more outraged rather than passive and acquiescent. Maybe with some active anti-racist parenting, for both white children and children of color, we can avoid this type of thinking for our children.

12 thoughts on “Raising Non-Racist Kids

  1. My initial reaction is “who the heck are these black people who don’t think they have to discuss race?” I understand why white parents aren’t doing it, but black parents must know better, right? And then I think back to my own upbringing, and we very rarely discussed race, and I’ve never felt inferior compared to white people; not for a second. I never even made the sort of connections that the book is suggesting we make about hierarchy. Eventually it was clear to me that blacks were getting the short end of the stick, but it never occurred to me that we deserved to be on the bottom.

    As far as the desegregation findings, we have this debate about every other day. 🙂 To the extent that the findings are based on desegregation efforts done “incorrectly,” they don’t really undermine the value of integration done right. And, honestly, even if it didn’t make white people feel better about having me around, that’s not the entire point. It’s not only about whites loving blacks; it’s about blacks getting the same educational opportunities as blacks, which eventually helps address a whole host of other issues. You don’t have to like me, but you do have to give me an equal seat at the table.


    1. “It’s not only about whites loving blacks; it’s about blacks getting the same educational opportunities as blacks, which eventually helps address a whole host of other issues. You don’t have to like me, but you do have to give me an equal seat at the table.”

      Here’s where I get on my soap box lol

      What’s so special about having a seat at the White table and why do we care if we have an “equal” seat or not? What makes White people so special that we have to try and be “equal” to them? Why can’t we establish our own standards, rules, and measures of beauty, success, and treatment without constantly measuring ourselves by standards established by the majority. I don’t care if they like me, respect me, or offer me a seat. I’ve built my own table and my seat is comfortable there. If they want to come over and sit with me, great! I’ll extend a chair. But I’m not clamoring for a spot amongst them. Make sense? *stepping off soapbox*

      Integration is not about sprinkling people of color amongst white people. That almost always leads to assimilation, which is by far the most detrimental thing that can happen to any colored culture. It is about the equal crossover, and that cannot happen given that 70% of Americans identified as White on the last census. We will never have “true” integration so long as the statstics remain like this. All we’ve ever seen in THIS country are attempts at legal desegregation. This country is still one of the most segregated of the “first world” countries. We’ve been here for 4-5 centuries and we’re still hearing or reading “The First Black so and so…” Integration my butt!

      I do think desegregation hurt us, at least in our path to regaining our sense of personhood, pride, etc. Had we invested as many resources into building up our own neighborhoods and institutions as we did trying to break down doors in theirs, we might have been better off. But, we had points to prove. We had rights to assert. We had to prove we were just as good and deserved just as much as Whites did. As if what they had was so great. We bought into the lie, hook line and sinker. But such is the nature of the Master/slave relationship. I digress.

      Again, we have to take into consideration our backgrounds, not just as individuals, but our families of origin, countries of origin, etc. Race simply is not as big an issue for foreign-born Blacks as a whole. Period. Having these discussions become circular after a while because this fact does not change. We, descendants of Americanized slaves, have not had the fortune of being raised in or developing a sense of self in countries where WE are the majority or where racial differences were not the primary struggle. Our perspective is different. I agree that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.

      I’ll be back to respond to the original post.


      1. There is a tendency to idealize racial isolation, suggesting that we could do better on our own, that our separate seat is just as comfortable; that back in the “good ole days,” before integration, our communities were stronger. But it’s just not true. Racial, social, and economic isolation is damaging for any group of people; it is exponentially more damaging for a group of people who don’t have access to the resources of the society. Indeed (dang, I’ve used that word several times in the last few days), it is those resources you would need to “build our community.” The seat wasn’t better for us “way back when;” yes, our doctors and lawyers were in the community, but we still had extreme problems with limited networks and access to society’s goods; we still were on the short end of the stick for every measure of social well-being. And we weren’t allowed to leave the table, remember? Staying limited to your corner of society, and relegated to second-class status whenever you left your corner, is not comfortable. And today, the seat is decidedly not more comfortable for students stuck in poor, majority-minority urban centers, with poor or failing schools. I’m sorry, but your table is not comfortable; it’s not even comparable. And what’s worse, the legs can be kicked out from under your table on a whim, with no negative consequence for the kicker; I prefer to sit at a table where a collapse of the table affects both the kicker and the kicked.

        We can debate how equality should be achieved, and integration alone is not the answer. But particularly in the education context, our students, racially and economically isolated as they are in segregated schools, are given an educational and social experience that denies them the agency to pursue the “good life,” however they choose to define it. And that denial is not ameliorated by an increase in expenditures alone. So, unless the answer is that we all get on a boat and sail away to an island to start anew, we have to deal with what it is we have here.

        I agree that our perspectives are informed by our backgrounds. But what you seem to want for Black Americans cannot happen. This is not a country where Blacks have had the benefit of being the majority. And, unfortunately, history may have hamstrung us to the point that a mere increase in population will not result in meaningful advancement for the group. So, we gotta work with what we got. To the extent that you think I am an “outsider” based on my ethnic background, I respectfully submit that an outsider perspective might be what we need.


      2. “Racial, social, and economic isolation is damaging for any group of people; it is exponentially more damaging for a group of people who don’t have access to the resources of the society.”

        That’s not true. Asian and Latino immigrant communities have established enclaves that are socially, racially, and economically isolated – and THRIVING! Chinatowns, Japanese towns – they serve as great stepping stone communities, self-sustaining communities for their people. Black people had these communities – Greenwood in Tulsa, OK as a prime example. Other ethnic groups continue to have these communities to the benefit of their group.

        You say we have to work with what we have, yet the fight for forced integration seems to work against what we have. What we have are people living in substandard housing, not getting the support they need in their neighborhoods to raise their kids right where they are. They don’t want to bus their kids across the city, or send them on the subway to places they are not wanted. They want their neighborhood to be cleaned up. They want their schools to be made better. They want to be able to walk their kids to school. Why is that not seen as something worth doing? They want their kids to be safe in school, but not over policed. What is so hard about that?

        The resources were and have always been the issue. The schools that are teaching black kids where they are and doing it with adequate resources to meet those children’s needs are showing that we don’t need integration to teach black kids. We don’t need whiteness for black kids to learn, any more than white kids need blackness for them to learn. Black kids do not need to go to school with white kids – that is no more an essential part of education if resources can be equitably allocated. Going to school with white kids is nothing but a proxy for resources. I say get rid of the middle man. Just give us the money.


    2. As an initial matter, blacks cannot be compared to other ethnic minority groups, for a number of reasons, including the huge race issue, model-minority myths that work to the benefit of other groups, and big differences in population. Ethnic enclaves work when your numbers are small, and you’re concentrated geographically. Not the case for blacks.

      Moreover, your use of the word “stepping-stone” says it all. These communities serve as stepping stones; ultimately, these communities branch out; the 1st and 2nd generation children of these communities branch out, and establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with outside of the communities.

      I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong about the money. Throwing money at the problem has NOT been shown to work. Yes, money can have an impact, especially when districts are smart about how it’s used–usually to purchase better teachers. But millions of dollars have been thrown at low-performing majority-minority districts; in fact, these districts often end up spending WAY MORE in per-pupil expenditure then richer white suburbs, all to no avail, even when the unique costs of low-SES districts are accounted for. Unfortunately, reading and math scores do not change much. PG County is a great example of a district that has the money, but still way under-performs when compared to its surrounding white suburbs. The failure of compensatory financing in Hartford, CT is another great example of the failures of resource increases without accompanying decreases in racial and economic isolation. The story of the Kansas City Missouri School District, the district implicated in Missouri v. Jenkins, is another perfect example. It’s not just my opinion; it’s been documented over and over again.

      The KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Harlem Children’s Zones of the world are doing great things. But they’re complete wrap-around programs, illustrating why it’s never just about money. It’s about controlling as much of the student’s social status as possible, by addressing everything from parenting classes to medical care for the students. And of course, there’s always the issue of self-selection. It’s never just about the money.

      Finally, I don’t know if you’re responding directly to my statements, but I do not want my statements to be mischaracterized. I’ve never said there was something about “whiteness.” I’ve said–repeatedly–that it’s about the SES status of the schools. The truth is that majority-minority schools are more likely to be poor schools. And the few middle-class blacks schools that exist (in PG County, for example), are not really middle-class schools, because middle-class black folks are often not solidly middle class (often just one paycheck away from being out on the street). You want middle-class schools, you integrate. You don’t want middle-class schools, then you don’t. But we should be clear about what can, and cannot, create the type of change we seek.


      1. “The KIPP, Maya Angelou, and Harlem Children’s Zones of the world are doing great things. But they’re complete wrap-around programs, illustrating why it’s never just about money. It’s about controlling as much of the student’s social status as possible, by addressing everything from parenting classes to medical care for the students. And of course, there’s always the issue of self-selection. It’s never just about the money.”

        I never said money just for the schools – everything I said above was about not just schools, but about families and neighborhoods. I agree that you can’t just give money to the school, unless you are also dealing with the other stuff too… I’m actually agreeing with you about the total wrap around. But that also boils down to money – money to have parenting classes, money for job training, money for after-school programs, money for medical care. It is all about resources, resources that money can buy. That’s why I think that integration is not the answer, because of the examples you give – we don’t need to be around white people to fully educate our children and make the communities in which they live better. But we do need money, and the know-how of how to spend that money correctly. And we have lots of black people who know how to do that. We don’t need white folks.


    3. Toya! So, all this time you’ve been telling me my solutions are unrealistic, and you’re sitting over there nursing unrealistic solutions of your own??? You’re banned from telling me my solutions won’t work for 3, no make that 4, posts, at least! LOL!

      More seriously, though, I don’t get why you don’t think integration won’t work based on the examples I give. What do you mean by that?

      I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one…until the next post that implicates race, of course. 😉


  2. Are you saying that because you’ve had a different experience the data the book cites is invalid? Really just asking…I’m sure many black people have your experience, while many have had mine. And the argument you just gave me is the same many black parents I know give – they talk about their own childhoods, and then point out that they’ve turned out okay, and never felt inferior, so it must not be that important. I don’t think that anecdotal evidence is nearly as convincing as comprehensive survey data replicated many times over. And it seems even when I am doing my own research, and I point out patterns in my data, people are so invested in their own experience that they simply refuse to see that maybe their kids might be like the average kid described in these studies.

    We do debate desegregation, just like many prominent scholars, so we are in good company. I absolutely agree that implementation is most important – we shouldn’t just call any old thing integration. We mean so many different things by that. But we DO just call any old thing integration, and I continue to sit in classes and workshops where integration is solely measured on a school or district level on % of minority students. Which undercuts the idea that implementation is most important – making sure that kids are integrated in classrooms, extra-curriculars and that the school is a welcoming environment. So I don’t think we disagree. I just don’t think there is the political will, or general societal will (see the neighborhood and employment diversity data above) to truly integrate schools the right way. So let’s move on, look at other options. Separate and


    1. I actually came back to the site because I realized that I had not finished my thoughts in my original reply! I totally agree with you that anecdotal evidence does not undermine comprehensive survey data, and also agree that you can’t get so invested in your own experience that you ignore what the data is telling you. If I hadn’t gotten distracted (probably by the baby), I would have concluded that even though I had a different experience, I have no intention of not discussing race with my child; indeed, I have “my first book about racism” on my Amazon wish list! LOL! I don’t think my experience necessarily means that race was not addressed; I think it means that race was addressed in different ways than we typically acknowledge, but that it was addressed nonetheless. I’ve mentioned before, for instance, that I saw many black professionals growing up; that very well may have countered any conclusions I might have otherwise drawn regarding racial and ethnic hierarchy.

      About the political will to do integration “correctly,” I think you’re on to something there. Do we have it, or do we not? Do things like unconscious bias prevent the proper coalitions from forming? It’s something I discuss constantly with my students. I’ve always thought that eventually, inequity in education was going to catch up with us all, and that at that point, we’d have no choice but to finally get it right, or all suffer. But I’m not sure where that point it. Interestingly enough, historically, the US has changed its education system in response to indications that we were falling behind other countries, or in response to a damaging of our reputation in the world. A new slew of studies have come out showing how far behind American students lag on international benchmarks; it’s starting to look bad. As bold, however, as this new administration has been about education, the response from ED (and recent administrations) is not to pursue race-conscious remedies, but to try and improve the schools, as separate as they are. I think that’s a big mistake, but I could go on and on…


  3. Thank you so much for this post! I came across your blog while searching for tips on how to fight against the prevailing messages/stereotypes of racism in our country. I want my daughter to grow up knowing that race is just a social construct. I know this must start with the parents, but I wasn’t sure where to start or what appropriate action would be


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