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Raising racist kids

Wired Magizine’s GeekDad Jonathan Liu recently highlighted a new book called NutureShock: New Thinking About Children. Authored by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NutureShock disproves many of our assumptions about how kids grow up thinking about race and race relations.

It is tempting to believe that because their generation is so diverse, today’s children grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact.

According to Liu and the research in NutureShock, here’s how to go about raising racist kids:

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.

What Nutureshock documents is that most white parents don’t really talk with their kids about race.

The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it.

More research:

  • Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For students of color, it’s about 15%.)
  • The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships.
  • 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
  • A child’s attitudes toward race are much harder to alter after third grade, but a lot of parents wait until then (or later) before they feel it’s “safe” to talk frankly about race.

Basically . . . silence is not golden if what we want is for kids to be tolerant and open-minded of others. So how does this apply to the classroom?

I think we’re often afraid of discussing potentially uncomfortable topics with our students because, well . . . it’s just easier not messing with it. This includes the topic of race relations.

So perhaps the best advice? Talk about differences, provide examples of positive collaboration, read authors from a variety of experiences, be honest about the past and be open to discussion.

A good place to start would be the Legacy of Brown site created several years ago as part of a Teaching American History project. You’ll find both print and web resources on race relations, lesson plans and document-based question strategies.

Because it’s too easy to ignore the important stuff.

Photo – University of Haifa

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t doubt what the author says, and maybe it’s addressed in his book, but I’ve always had this theory:

    Race relations, specifically b/w black and white, will see it’s best improvement once we are two generations away from those who experienced segregation personally.

    My theory being, while in white people’s homes, most parents (sadly, there are exceptions) tell their kids that racism and prejudice thoughts are wrong. But, for black children, they hear stories of discrimination and such, which must also influence them as much as a white mother who squeezes their child’s hand when a black man walks by them.

    So sometimes I feel that white children are told not to discriminate, then parents act color blind, while black children are subtly taught to watch for discriminatory behavior.

    I hope folks reading this understand where I’m coming from and don’t just assume I’m making some racist generalization.

    April 1, 2010
    • glennw #


      I think part of the problem is that parents (and teachers) think that are talking about race and prejudice but really aren’t.

      I also think many white parents and teachers fail to fully grasp the concept of “whiteness” that influences their world views. David Roediger has written quite a bit about how race and whiteness including “Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White.” I just got a just published book that I need to work through titled “The History of White People” by Nell Irvin Painter that also looks interesting.

      I certainly don’t have the answers but I think we certainly make it harder by not having a clear idea of the problem and by not talking about it openly.


      April 1, 2010
  2. Oh… by “two generations away from those who experienced segregation personally” I mean those folks aren’t alive anymore… so probably about 2070, no one should be alive in the US anymore that actually experienced segregation first hand. I’m thinking maybe a 10 year old still saw it in 1970 in some random place.

    April 1, 2010
  3. At, the source for kid-friendly answers on how the world works, we’ve partnered with qualified experts for talking tips and advice on discussing race with kids ages 4-7:

    April 12, 2010

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