Talking About Race with Kids

24 09 2010

Three Musketeers

Three Friends

White people over there!  Black people over there!”

My wife and I stared at each other in horror as our then-3 1/2-year-old son stood on his chair and shouted this during a dinner we were hosting for a group of Ugandan and ex-pat friends.

The girl next door, a 6 year old from Zimbabwe, had been learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the United States at her school.  As the older and wiser of the two, she often plays the role of “teacher” when they are together in the afternoons.  Apparently on this day she had been teaching him about segregation, and he was sharing with us what he had learned.  Can you say “awkward?”

When we moved to Uganda in 2008, our son was 2 ½ years old and seemed to have no awareness of skin color or, really, of the fact that Uganda is a different place from America at all.  Even though there were very few mzungu kids in his school, we never heard him talk about being different, or show any awareness of the fact that most people around us on a daily basis are black and that we aren’t.

About six months later, he came home from school talking about “the black kid.”  We thought “ok – honeymoon’s over.  Now we’re going to have to figure out how to talk about this with him.”  But then moments later he started talking about “the blue kid” and “the red kid” and we realized he was referring to the clothes the other kids in his school were wearing.  Whew.  Dodged the bullet for a little while longer.

Then came the dinner party.

Not surprisingly, our Ugandan friends just laughed.  I say “not surprisingly” because here in Uganda, you call it like you see it.  Some people are black, some people are white, some are fat, some are skinny, and somebody with one leg is known as “the guy with one leg.”  You frequently hear Ugandans say “you white people are like this” or “we blacks are like this.”  It’s not like in the United States, where we all try to pretend we don’t notice differences between us, and where we will twist ourselves into all kinds of verbal contortions to avoid mentioning that someone is black/fat/disabled/whatever:

Person 1:  “Excuse me, do you know if Jim is in today?”
Person 2:  “Who’s Jim?”
Person 1:  “Oh, you know, he’s about 5’8”, usually wears a sweater, has longish, shortish hair and a beard and mustache.”
Person 2:  “Hmmm, I know a few guys like that here.  Can you be more specific?”
Person 1:  “Well, he’s worked here for about six months, has a blue coffee mug, and always reads a book in the break room at lunch.”
Person 2 (wants to say):  “Oh yeah – do you mean the only black guy who works here?  It would’ve been easier if you had just said that!”

Not that we should become known strictly by one aspect of who we are but, interestingly, we don’t have the same issues with using some physical descriptors, like “the woman with the really long, blond hair.”

We Need to Talk About Race

A recent article in Newsweek, See Baby Discriminate, makes me wonder if our son really hadn’t noticed skin color before, or if his “lesson” with his friend just finally gave him the language and permission to talk about it – an opportunity and framework that we hadn’t given him because we were waiting for it to come up (and on some level probably hoping it wouldn’t).

The take-home lesson of the article, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman, is that kids develop racial awareness earlier than we expect, and that there is no substitute for explicit conversations about it (as opposed to vague platitudes like “everyone is equal”) very early in their development.

The first study that the authors looked at was done in Austin, in 2006, by Birgitte Vittrup of the University of Texas.  Vittrup wanted to see if there was a change in kids’ racial attitudes after watching multi-cultural themed videos, watching videos with accompanying guided discussions with parents, and participating in race discussions without the videos.  She selected 100 Caucasian families from the Austin area (a liberal bastion within Texas) who had kids between the ages of 5 and 7 and divided them into the three study groups.

The first thing she found was that most of these families just plain didn’t want to talk directly about race issues, and many either dropped out of the study or had conversations that were too vague for their kids to really get the point.  According to Bronson and Merryman, “Of all those Vittrup told to talk openly about interracial friendship, only six families managed to actually do so.  And, for all six, their children dramatically improved their racial attitudes in a single week.”

This finding is significant given that, according to a Journal of Marriage and Family article, 75% of white families “never, or almost never, talk about race.”

Kids Notice Color

Yesterday, as I was giving my son a bath, he sorted all of his bath toys by color along the edges of the tub.  Is there any reason to think they don’t do the same thing with people?

Referring to findings by another researcher, Rebecca Bigler, Bronson and Merryman state that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own.  Children naturally try to categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”  This was seen even when different shirt colors were randomly assigned.  They also cited studies showing that 86% of white 3-year-old children show preference for white friends, and that by third grade, it might already be too late to reshape attitudes.

Diverse Environments Don’t Necessarily Engender Racial Equality

Perhaps the finding in this article that surprised me the most is that integrated school environments might actually increase racial segregation socially.  This goes against the prevailing view that kids who are raised in diverse school environments are more likely to have inter-racial friendships and see other races as equal, something the authors call the “Diverse Environment Theory.”

A study done by James Moody from Duke University on 90,000 teenagers at 112 different schools found that “the more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down.”  Only 8% of white American teens have a best friend of a different race.

We have just assumed that by raising our son in Africa he will develop a feeling of equality with people of other races because that is who he interacts with the most every day, and that he will somehow not really feel that there is any difference between him and the other kids around him.  This article shows that we might be very wrong about that.

If you ask him who his best friend is in Uganda, he names the girl next door, who is black.  However, if you ask him who his best friend at school is, where most of the other students and all of the teachers are black, he will usually name the girl who is the only other white kid in his class.

My wife and I originally wanted to believe that it was because the two of them transferred together from their old school so they had more history with each other, but I really think it has to do more with this desire to categorize, and Bigler’s finding that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”  He and she notice that they are similar to each other in a very obvious way, and this draws them to want to form a group in the same way that my son’s bath toys “belong” in groupings of red, blue, green and yellow.

Lessons Learned

I don’t think it is bad that he has formed this bond with his friend at school.  He plays with all the other kids, loves his teachers, and the girl next door is like his sister.  While it is obvious that he is becoming more aware of the differences between himself and so many of the people he sees around him, I don’t notice any type of value judgment.  Different, to him, does not mean better or worse.

But if what this article says is true, we need to get busy and make sure that we don’t leave a vacuum to be filled regarding what those differences mean.  We can’t just expect that living here in this environment will lead to him believing that everyone is equal.  We can’t even expect our own attitudes about equality to magically transfer to him, not least because we might have unconscious bias that we aren’t even aware of, but that he picks up through subtle behaviors.  We need to be clear and explicit with him about our belief that different races are equal and that discrimination is not acceptable.  And we need to start having these conversations…ummm…about a year and a half ago.

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala




26 responses

20 12 2010

As the Mom of Nile’s best (white) friend at school, I wanted to let you know that we have struggled with race issues, too. I moved to Africa with my oldest daughter (now 13) just before she turned 4. I thought for sure that she would be colorblind. She wasn’t. Josie (now 4-1/2) was born in Sudan, lived in Ethiopia and now lives in Uganda. She’s never lived in the US. Same with Benno (he was born in Ethiopia). Josie frequently points out the color of people’s skin (sometimes benignly and sometimes not). On a few occasions, she has said, “I only like white people!” or “Black people are bad!” Where does that come from? She loves her teachers at school (all Ugandan), loves her nanny (Ugandan) and loves our non-white friends and has even expanded her friendship circle at school a bit to include some Ugandan girls (sorry Nile!)… but only after her other white girlfriend transferred to another school.

I feel like I HAVE done due diligence about race issues with my kids — and from a very early age. We talk quite frequently about how the most important thing about a person is what’s in his/her heart — not their skin color. Josie parrots what I say right back to me but when it comes down to it, she gravitates to the white kids at school and so did Tess. For what its worth, I’ve noticed the same thing with the black kids at school. There IS comfort in being surrounded by what’s most familiar. If we’re honest, we adults usually do the same thing. We understand each other’s humor, pop culture references, even language.

I think we are fooling ourselves when we think that kids are colorblind to race. When I was pregnant with Tess, I also used to think that if I just exposed her to both “girl” and “boy” toys and dressed her in both “girl” and “boy” clothes, she would automatically bust out of whatever little box society puts girls in. Guess what? She loved pink (still does) and always gravitated toward “girly” toys. She’s now putting HERSELF in that “girl” box — trying to be “model” thin, getting up super early in order to have time to curl her hair and put her Avril Lavigne eye liner on, wearing form-fitting clothes, etc.

You can’t NOT notice skin color. My approach to this is that we don’t shy away from it, despite what I was taught growing up in the US. We refer to the black lady with the pink shirt. We point out the white guy walking along the road. And we always come back to the point that what matters most is what’s in a person’s heart. I’m not sure what else to do.

For what its worth, throughout our entire 9 years overseas (in East Africa and Pakistan), Tess’ friends almost exclusively have been white Americans, Brits or Western/Northern Europeans). Here in Uganda, her closest friends are a Kenyan, 3 Indians (and a Dane). She has American and British friends, too, but they’re not in her inner circle. She’s taken things a bit too far lately in that when we mention someone’s race/skin color, she barks at us, “You’re racist!!!!” Sigh…

9 12 2010
Talking About Race with Kids. ~ Mark Jordahl | elephant journal

[…] to start having these conversations…ummm…about a year and a half ago. Originally published on Mark Jordahl’s blog. Mark Jordahl is a writer, naturalist, educator and trip leader in Uganda, living by the words […]

19 10 2010
7 10 2010
Ben Wheeler

My step daughter is white, so her white priviledge is not my fault! None the less, she has it and so do I.

Race is nearly insignificant in terms of DNA. Duh. We are all people. But race is historically and politically profound.

Google “The Backpack of White Privilege”. As a white middle school teacher that’s how I deal with race. Being white swimming in a majority (for now) of white is so easy and ignorant, like a goldfish swimming in it’s bowl. Travel, evolving demographics, and maybe education can change this (take the goldfish out of water).

Terms for white, black, etc. got codified when Europeans colonized the world. It became convenient and profitable to categorize and degrade. “They are less so we can take their land, resources, and souls.”

The solution? Talk with good intentions, but without political correctness. We can’t pretend to deal with race. We actually have to talk about it honestly and ignorantly. It’s the elephant in America’s living room.

My white students struggle and progress. My students of color roll their eyes and exercise patience.

Love you, Mark.

7 10 2010
Mark Jordahl

The world needs more teachers like you, Ben, who are willing to have these tough conversations. I wish I had you as a teacher when I was a kid, but I guess I have to settle for having you as my Teacher now.

I really like that fishbowl analogy. Being white and recognizing the privilege that brings takes serious introspection and a willingness to not always like what you find when you look closely at yourself. Scary stuff. Necessary stuff.

“We actually have to talk about it honestly and ignorantly.” – Well said.

3 10 2010

Great post! Just yesterday, as I was translating my German post (Being a white person between Africans) into English my husband put all the ‘black people’ expressions into politically correct ‘Africans’. So silly, I was thinking.

Also the “mzungu, mzungu” shouting everywhere – here in Uganda so normal. Imagine you would do this only once in Europe or America and shout “black person, black person” at somebody; you’ll find yourself behind the bars in no time.

4 10 2010
Mark Jordahl

The rule book is a little different here, isn’t it? I often think about how the way I write posts must come across to people on the other side of the water. I think it is healthy, though, to be a bit more up-front about these issues than we are back in the States (I can’t really speak for how things are in Germany).

Thanks for adding your thoughts here!

1 10 2010

As a Ugandan living in England, I found this very, very interesting! I have not had this talk with my son (aged 6) and my daughter (aged 5), even though I have had difficult and embarrassing moments with them. When we first arrived in Coventry in 2007, my son was the only black child at nursery. One day when I was putting him to bed he started crying that he had been born white and why did I later paint him black? He was also upset that his hair “didn’t work” (didn’t blow around his face when he ran or when it was windy). I was shocked! I tried to soothe him, but have always wondered what happened at nursery that day to bring on that episode. Now at primary school, he is one of less than 10 black children out of about 120. Most of his friends are White, including his best friend. I thought he’d come to terms with being different, but some months ago he wistfully said: ” I wish I were white.” What’s going on in his head? At times like those I feel like packing up my bags and returning to Uganda (I’m a PhD student here).
At present, my five year old daughter sees people as “pink,” “dark brown,” (African) or light brown (Asian). A few weeks ago, a Ugandan friend hosted a birthday celebration at my house. Most of the guests were black, but there was one Greek lady. My daughter promptly told her to her face, in front of all the guests – “You’re pink!” I mumbled an apology to the flabbergasted lady and hoped she hadn’t taken it too hard.
Oh, and need I mention that my daughter only likes hair styles where she has extensions? Whenever I take out the extensions and let her wear her Afro, she is very upset. I try to teach her to be proud of her Afro, but she is not convinced.
So what exactly am I supposed to tell them?

4 10 2010
Mark Jordahl

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Monica. Interesting that you are looking at this issue from exactly the other side! It must be painful to hear your son saying he wishes he was white. I remember in middle school wishing that I was Filipino or Mexican since I was one of very few white kids at my school in California near the border of Mexico. In terms of what you should tell them, I wish I had a good answer for you. I’m certainly no expert in this, and am just writing about the thoughts that article stirred for me and how it relates to my experience parenting here.

The answer that comes to mind for me from what I read in the article is this:

“The other broad category of conversation, in Harris-Britt’s analysis, is ethnic pride. From a very young age, minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She found that this was exceedingly good for children’s self-confidence; in one study, black children who’d heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability.”

So it sounds like you are doing the right thing encouraging your daughter to be proud of her Afro (even if she isn’t yet), and giving her the opportunity to be around peers from Africa. I don’t know how long you have been living in the U.K. with your kids, but it would be interesting to see their reaction when you bring them back here and they are part of the dominant culture.

I am sure you will figure out the right things to say. It’s not like we can avoid race issues in this world, so now it is just a matter of figuring out how to turn them into opportunities to grow.

27 09 2010
Cheryl F

Great post, sweetie! Made we wonder how we handled this with you and Kristin when you were young. I don’t really remember, do you? We didn’t have as much diversity around us, but I’m sure the issue must have come up at some point. I do remember the time you came home from school using the word “fag” or “faggot” when you were in about second or third grade (I seem to remember you had no idea what it meant) and it really shocked me. I know we had a talk right then, but don’t know what you took away from it. If your answers turn out to be horribly embarrassing to me, please reply privately : ()

29 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

I don’t really remember anything either, although I think you are probably right that race didn’t come up much when we lived in Illinois. I know that Mark Griffie was one of my best friends and he was black, but don’t know if the fact of him being black was really front-and-center or not. It was much more present when we moved to San Diego and I was getting messed with and called “white boy” all the time.

27 09 2010

gonna send this to my mom

26 09 2010
Why Heartbreak Hurts: Your Brain On Love |

[…] Talking About Race with Kids « Wild Thoughts from Uganda […]

25 09 2010
Yvette Busch

Thank you Mark… I will have to have the conversation. Germany being so very white – I think it is very necessary….

Love to you all

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

Let me know how it goes. We might need a whole on-line forum where we all post what works and what doesn’t in our conversations about this with our kids!


25 09 2010

Great piece, Mark. Thank you.

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

Thanks, Eileen. Nice to hear from you!


25 09 2010

Thanks for this post Mark – it is a challenge to know when and how to introduce the idea of race and harmony to a child. When Alicia was about 18mo when she began calling every black man she saw “Daddy” (much to the embarrassment of the young student who was packing groceries after school…and much to my horror after finding out she though Evander Holllyfield was her father). We also constantly deal with people who that that I adopted her or am her nanny. I wonder whether, as she grows, she will struggle to decide if she fits into the ‘white people’ group or the ‘black people’ as Simmy so succinctly put it! As you say the best approach is to be open about it and discuss it honestly – and sooner rather than later.

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

Evander Hollyfield!?! Too funny. It’s also a good point about the assumptions that other people make about your relationship to her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she picks up on that. Thanks for adding your thoughts here. Hope you are all doing well.

24 09 2010

Great post Mark – really thought provoking and touching. Love that kid – and you!

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

We always wonder what he will “take away” from this experience, and this just reminds me that we have absolutely NO idea. Miss you guys.


24 09 2010

Of course kids notice color, I have twins that could not be more different in color, one is very brown, dark hair, dark eyes the other has dark blonde hair, hazel eyes and is very light. The darker one asks all of the time why he is “white” like Daddy and why his brother is “white” like Mommy. Too funny.

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

Do you notice if the kids feel more connected to the one of you with skin closer to theirs, or isn’t there any difference in that?


24 09 2010
torkin wakefield

Hi Mark,
This wonderful blog post reminds me of when you son, my grandson, once commented that a little boy in the pool looked Orange. I said, “He is Chinese. Do you have any Chinese children in your school?” And Simmy replied “No, in our school we are all Africans.”

Much to learn from the children.

26 09 2010
Mark Jordahl

Love it! He really did see himself as African until his class did a lesson on national flags. They made flags of the countries that the students were from, and from that day on he saw himself as American.


24 09 2010

Hilarious, thought provoking and the truth seen through the eyes of a ‘young person’ …

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