Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book 3: Nurtureshock--Where did Po Bronson find a non-racist world? Can I go, too?

Nurtureshock, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman,  is another one I haven't read all of yet, but I am particularly struck by chapter 3, "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race."

There's a pretty thorough recap of this chapter over at Salon, but the bottom line is that studies suggest white parents are uncomfortable talking about race, so much so that they avoid it all together in many cases. This, contrary to their belief that they are raising "colorblind" children, actually works counter to a productive, equalizing message.

I think there's a lot of good work going on in this chapter. I am particularly in agreement with the need to open up dialogue about race and perceived differences at an early age. (The cited studies suggest that there is a narrow window of time to do this, one which potentially closes by third-grade). I whole-heartedly agree with sentiments like this one:

"It's the worst kind of embarrassment when a child blurts out, 'Only brown people can have breakfast at school,' or 'You can't play basketball, you're white, so you have to play baseball.' But shushing them only sends the message that this topic is unspeakable, which makes race more loaded, more intimidating"
However, I feel that this analysis lacks some nuance, particularly when it comes to the recounting of the author's observations about his own child's race-based preference of a white basketball player. Up to this point, the author had taken the approach that not mentioning anyone's skin color would provide his child with the colorblind perspective best suited for viewing all people as equal. When he realized this method wasn't working, he remarked:
"I'd always thought racism was taught. If a child grows up in a non-racist world, why was he spontaneously showing race-based preferences?"
Excuse me, but what non-racist world did he think this child was in? Certainly not the one I live in. I do think that racism is taught, but that doesn't mean it has to be beaten over kids' heads through overtly racist messages. We "teach" racism everyday. Unless this child was a complete recluse (and he wasn't because the author notes that he "never once mentioned the color of anyone's skin--not at school or while watching television"), then he was getting race-driven and subtly racist messages, even when parents are doing their best to keep their child from exposure to these messages.

This is why, I think, (as the title of this chapter suggests) that white parents are afraid to talk about race. Many of them don't know how to handle the subverted racism that plagues our society today. Overt messages of racism are easy to dismantle. Of course the signs that used to hang over "Whites Only" water fountains were wrong. And this is not only from a historical point of view; we (myself included, as you can see from this blog post) are quick to rip apart the school that was segragating it's student body elections by race. These are clear violations of the message of equality.

But what about the magazine covers that lighten the skin of black actresses? What about racial disparity in the way schools suspend students? What about caricatures of racial stereotypes masquerading as cartoon characters?

Or, what about this story? I went back to my hometown this past weekend to go to a very rural festival that involves threshing wheat and giant, decades-old tractors. I was there with my mom, a woman who has lived in one of two neighboring rural Midwest counties her entire life. Her exposure to diversity has been narrow, but she is a good person who believes in the message of equality and accepts my interracial marriage completely. At this festival, many people gather to sell random things flea-market style. At one of these tables, I came across these:

My mom did not understand why I was upset.

"What's wrong with Aunt Jemima?" she asked me, with all sincerity.

In response I gawked and gestured with frustration at the blackface salt and pepper shakers. Her confusion deepened. "Those are just antiques!"

I explained to her that I saw in these "just antiques" vestiges of a narrative all too common. These pieces were turning an entire race of people into exaggerated physical attributes and sending messages of servitude. She said, "I guess I see what you're saying." I hope she did.

So, all that to say that when Bronson and Merryman suggest that their research concludes that raising a child in a "non-racist world" is not enough to combat racial self-segregation and race-based judgments, I'm perplexed. Surely this theory cannot be put to the test anytime soon. When we find (or make!) a non-racist world, then we can reconvene.


  1. Great post. I'd like to say more, but it's a friggin minefield.

  2. hey Jane,
    This is Julia, from Love Isn't Enough. I love this post, and wondered if we could run it on LIE as a guest post?

    Let me know what you think.


  3. Hey Jane, I've been thinking a lot lately about the topic of old books - namely Little Black Sambo (if you're not familiar with it sorry, I'm in NZ) - and what your thoughts are on exposing children to these sorts of books - ie, blatantly racist and promoting awful stereotypes but with the excuse of being pre-1900. I'm sure I could google for discussion of it but I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. Kat, I've thought a lot about the same thing (especially in regards to older cartoons--like the crows in Dumbo for instance).

    The more I study the way that images and ideas impact us, the more I think that it's impossible to counter the effects just by explaining that they're wrong. I think that we should remain aware of these artifacts from our history and try to figure out how they operate, but I don't think that children (or many adults) look at them in that way.

    Not to infantilize my mother, but her reaction to the racist antiques solidifies that for me. Here's someone who knows that racism is wrong, yet she found these images acceptable. I think it requires a sophistication in critical thinking and a focused effort in analysis to overcome the effects of internally normalizing such images. With that in mind, I don't see how a child can be exposed to them "properly."

    But I'm open to debate. What do you think?

  5. I think I agree. There's a part of me that feels like books are sacred, and you can't just throw them out!! But shortly after I posted this I thought, I would feel pretty damn awkward sitting down and reading this book to a black kid, and if that is the case, then why should I feel any less awkward reading it to my white kid? It's such hard work being a critically thinking parent!!!