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


Senator Feingold’s statement on Northern Uganda

1 03 2010

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold’s address to President Obama about the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act:  (

February 26, 2010

Mr. President, I rise today to speak about a bill that I introduced a year ago with Senator Sam Brownback to confront Africa’s longest running rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. This bill was passed unanimously by the Foreign Relations Committee in November and it is now cosponsored by 63 members of this chamber, a supermajority. According to the Congressional Research Service, no bill specifically on sub-Saharan Africa has had this many cosponsors since at least 1973, which is as far back as our online records go. This demonstrates an unprecedented bipartisan consensus to address an issue that was called “the world’s worst neglected crisis” just a few years ago.

This historic consensus, Mr. President, should not go unnoticed and it must ultimately translate into action.

Mr. President, for two decades, the LRA and its brutal leader Joseph Kony terrorized the people of northern Uganda. They filled their ranks by abducting children – some estimates suggest over 66,000 of them – and forced them to fight as child soldiers. Meanwhile, the people of northern Uganda were forced into displacement camps with little protection from their own government, where they were vulnerable to attacks, disease and starvation. In 2007, I visited those camps and saw first-hand the terrible conditions people were forced to endure.

In recent years, the LRA have been pushed out of northern Uganda and fortunately many people have been able to leave those camps. But that has not meant an end to the LRA’s terror; it has just shifted to a new theater. Under pressure in 2005 and 2006, the rebels moved into the porous border region of northeastern Congo, southern Sudan and the Central African Republic, where they have recently resumed their attacks and abductions. According to the United Nations, between September 2008 and June 2009, the LRA killed some 1300 civilians, abducted 1400 more, and displaced 300,000 others. That level of violence persists today. The stories are jarring: families locked inside huts and burned alive; people having their lips and ears cut off; people hacked to death with machetes; villages massacred as they gathered for church on Christmas Day.

Mr. President, this continuing violence is senseless and it is horrific. It shocks our collective conscience. That is why Senator Brownback, Senator Inhofe, and I, along with 60 of our colleagues, leading human rights groups, and thousands of young idealistic Americans have come together around this bill. We may not agree on all the specifics of how the United States should go about addressing this issue and what role our government should play, but we all agree the ongoing atrocities committed by the LRA demand more attention, more resources and a more proactive strategy.

Our bill would require the Obama administration to develop such a strategy for how the United States will work more actively with regional governments, the UN and others to bring a lasting end to this war. That strategy would need to integrate all elements of U.S. policy – economic, political, intelligence and military – and coordinate our efforts regarding the LRA across the four affected countries. Our bill also authorizes a modest of amount of additional funding, $40 million over 3 years, so we can better support peace and reconciliation in northern Uganda and help meet the humanitarian needs of communities outside Uganda that are currently affected by the LRA’s violence.

Unfortunately, Mr. President, one Senator has objected to passage of this bill because of the authorization of funds. Now let me be clear: I share concerns about our record deficits and believe we have a responsibility to our children and our grandchildren to control reckless spending. That is why I make a point to include an offset whenever I introduce a bill that authorizes funds. This bill was no different. When it was introduced, it included an offset to reduce excess secondary inventory for the Air Force; inventory that the GAO found wasteful and the Air Force acknowledged it didn’t need. Unfortunately though, some objected to this offset and it was removed in committee.

Now, I have offered to stipulate that the bill should use already authorized funds, rather than authorizing new funds. Apparently that’s not sufficient. While I am disappointed that the offset was removed from this bill, I do not believe it is sufficient cause to stop this bill from moving forward. We should keep in mind that passing this legislation would not automatically trigger increased spending. This bill authorizes funds, but appropriating them is a different matter. I am more than willing to work with lead cosponsors of this bill and others, during the appropriations process, to ensure this bill does not increase our overall budget. In fact, I’d like to work with all of my colleagues in general to eliminate wasteful spending.

Mr. President, we need to pass this bill. We have a unique opportunity right now as members of Congress to make a statement that the mass killing of innocent life by the LRA is unacceptable, and that we as a country will not stand by as it continues to happen. By passing this bill, we can charge our government with looking seriously at how we can do more to help bring these atrocities to an end. When we look back at Rwanda in April of 1994, I think each and every one of us wishes we had done more to save lives. The same can be said about the brutal massacres by the RUF in Sierra Leone or by Charles Taylor’s army in Liberia. But we need to not only acknowledge those regrets; we need to learn from them.

Mr. President, the LRA’s massacres are taking place now. They are on our watch. This time, let us not look back and wish we had done more. I urge all my colleagues to come together to pass this bill.

Should Sport Hunting be Allowed in Uganda?

5 02 2010

Last night in Kampala there was a forum held by NatureUganda about whether sports-hunting should be used as a wildlife management tool in Uganda.  This is obviously a hot issue, with strong feelings on either side.  I invite you to read this post, and then vote in the attached poll.

Achilles Byaruhanga

Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director of NatureUganda
Sam  Mwandha, Director Conservation, Uganda Wildlife Authority
Dr. Richard Lamprey, Technical Advisor, Flora and Fauna International
Philip Chollet, Owner, Karamojo Safaris LTD

Sport hunting in Uganda is an activity that falls under “Wildlife Use Rights” in the Wildlife Act of 2000, as one of six ways that wildlife can be “used” to benefit people and the economy in general.  After nearly 90% of the wildlife in the country was decimated in the 1970s under the Idi Amin regime, all hunting was made illegal to allow wildlife populations to recover.  However, poaching continues to be rampant.  The Wildlife Authority decided that the populations of some species had recovered enough that they instituted a pilot sport-hunting concession around Lake Mburu National Park in 2001 (it is important to note that no hunting will be allowed inside the national parks).  The pilot period was subsequently extended twice, and finished in October 2009.  The Uganda Wildlife Authority website states:

“The overall objective of granting WUR is to promote sustainable extractive utilization of wildlife by facilitating the involvement of landowners and users in managing wildlife on private land. The underpinning principles are that;

  • Sustainable extractive utilization of wildlife can provide cultural, customary, and socio-economic benefits at the local, district and national levels.
  • The consumption of wildlife resources could contribute significantly to food security and poverty reduction in rural areas.
  • Profit motive and leisure factors are important in encouraging private sector and community involvement in wildlife conservation and management.
  • Benefits accruing from WUR leads to better wildlife management and increase in animal populations in those areas where they have been depleted.”

Many more official details about Use Rights can be found at:

The main arguments against sport hunting at this time are based on questions about whether the population sizes of the targeted species are actually viable, and whether the data the Wildlife Authority is using to set quotas is accurate.  There are also concerns about the transparency of the concessions granting process and the oversight of the actual hunt.

Here is a link to an article that covers some of the concerns:

Here are some highlights from each of the speakers:

Achilles Byaruhanga, Executive Director of NatureUganda

As the host of the evening, Achilles was primarily setting the stage for the discussion.  He pointed out a number of concerns that he has with the current arrangements for sport hunting.

  1. It seems that some of the quotas are not based on current population surveys.
  2. What message is being sent to the local communities?  They are still not allowed to hunt, but they will now see wealthy foreigners coming in to hunt.  They may even come to believe that hunting, in general, is now allowed since they will see others hunting, and meat from wild game will be consumed openly in communities (after a kill, the meat is often given to the communities since the sport hunter primarily wants the horns or skin).
  3. Uganda Wildlife Authority has very sparse staffing in the areas where these hunts will take place.  Will they really be able to patrol these areas?
  4. If the one of the main arguments for sport hunting is the livelihood benefits to the communities, how many animals will you have to kill at a price of $150 – $5,000 (depending on the species) to really have an impact on the communities?
  5. The concessionaire signs a 24-month agreement, which allows them to immediately begin operations, but their management plans are not due until the end of the 24 months.  This basically allows them to operate with no management plan for the duration of their concession.

Sam  Mwandha, Director of Conservation, Uganda Wildlife Authority

The Uganda Wildlife Authority position is based on what they say are observed increases in wildlife numbers in the areas where hunting has been happening during the pilot phase.   He started his talk by stating that for the sport hunting companies, “Their business isn’t sport hunting, their business is wildlife management.”  Here are some other points from his talk:

  1. There are five companies who have been given concessions in a total of 8 hunting blocks.
  2. 2% of a species’ total population is the maximum quota, and most of the quotas set in Uganda are below that threshold.
  3. Hunters want trophies, so they focus on the old males, leaving the females and young males alone.
  4. When they approve a permit to hunt a hippo or a leopard, they focus on “problem animals.”  Only 5 leopards have been killed by sport hunters in the last 3 years.
  5. The populations of hunted species are skyrocketing [note – he showed graphs that showed a more-than-tenfold increase in some species in five years.  During the discussions afterwards, many people expressed doubts about the numbers.]
  6. The income local communities have derived through sport hunting has improved local attitudes towards wildlife, which has reduced the amount of poaching.
  7. He confirmed that the hunting companies can operate for 24 months without a plan, but that it would not make good business sense for them to do that since they rely on healthy animal populations.
  8. Communities can benefit a lot financially from sport hunting.  The permit fee (ranging from $150 – $5,000 depending on the animal) is divided up as follows:  45% to the community wildlife association (for development projects), 30% to landowner, 15% to Uganda Wildlife Authority, 5% to local government, 5% to community protected-area institution. [note – the Uganda Wildlife Authority gets most of its income through selling the actual concession for the hunting block to the outfitter]

Dr. Richard Lamprey, Technical Advisor, Flora and Fauna International

Richard Lamprey has been involved in parks management in many parts of Africa and has been involved in decision-making around sport-hunting in Tanzania.  His talk was the most balanced of the evening, and I honestly couldn’t have told you at the end whether he is for or against sport hunting in Uganda.

He started his talk by saying that to truly get involved with this debate, you need to begin to understand the mentality of the dedicated sport hunter, who is passionately dedicated to the hunt and who will willing to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do it (currently a 7-day hunt for sitatunga in the Ssesse Islands of Uganda costs about $20,000).

Here are some of the points he made:

  1. Sport hunting can bring a huge amount of money into a country.  The “Daily Rate” that a hunter here pays is about $1,000 on top of permit fees, lodging, transportation, etc.
  2. In Tanzania, one study showed that 600 hunters per year bring the same amount of money into the country as 200,000 game viewers (people who go on a non-hunting safari).  That is a lot of money that can be used for wildlife management. [and possibly a lower overall impact on wildlife given the smaller numbers]
  3. The idea behind all “Wildlife Use Rights” is to put a value on wildlife.  If local villagers can earn significant revenue by supporting sport hunting, they will want wildlife numbers to increase and will be less likely to allow poaching on their lands.
  4. Hunting companies pay $10,000 – $30,000 for each “hunting block” per year depending on the country.  Tanzania has about 120 of these blocks, so it is a significant source of income.
  5. There are very few studies in Africa showing a change in animal populations (up or down) due to sport hunting because very little data is available.
  6. For communities to really benefit from sport hunting, they need strong, transparent community institutions to reduce the possibility of corruption.
  7. Because there is so much money to be made in the sport hunting industry, there is huge competition for hunting blocks and, thus, strong possibility for higher-level corruption between outfitters and authorities.
  8. There is not the strong control over illegal hunting practices (hunting from a car, baiting, using dogs, hunting with a spotlight at night, etc) that was in place in the early days of African big-game hunting.
  9. There is a lot of incentive for hunting companies to engage in illegal hunting practices.  If your client payed $20,000 to kill a sitatunga and didn’t get one, will he come back to you next year?
  10. The block rates that go directly to Uganda Wildlife Authority have the potential to be a very important source of revenue to fund their park management operations (the parks currently operate at a loss)
  11. There are already some signs of possible corruption.  One active outfitter that currently holds 3 of the 8 hunting blocks was removed from operations in the early 2000s for taking hunters into a national park.  Also, in a review of contracts that went through PPDA (Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority), 60% were found to be flawed.  As wildlife are a public asset in Uganda, it is my understanding that this is the body that is ultimately responsible for approving concessions.
  12. All quotas need to be made public, since wildlife is a public asset.
  13. The Wildlife Authority can use on-line tools to help monitor illegal activities.  There are “Hunt Report” websites where sport hunters post accounts of their trips to Africa and other parts of the world.  They will often mention in their reports if their guides did anything (even illegal things) to help insure a “good hunt.”

Philip Chollet, Owner, Karamojo Safaris LTD.

With Filip’s talk, we were able to get a glimpse of the passion of the hunter that Dr. Lamprey referred to.  He started his slide presentation with images of an eland that was wounded by poachers.  Clearly, his main thrust was to emphasize that sport hunting can reduce poaching.  Here are some of his points:

  1. With no animals there are no hunters.  With no hunters, there are no animals.  Hunters are strong advocates for conservation because they want to be able to continue to hunt.
  2. If nobody “owns” the wildlife or if they don’t benefit from it, they will kill it. [tragedy of the commons]
  3. If one hunter comes to an area for 2 weeks and kills one buffalo, the local communities get 4 million shillings (about $2,000) through their share of the permit, the hiring of trackers, porters, etc.  By contrast, when an eco-tourist comes to one of the game parks on safari, the local communities get almost nothing.
  4. If the communities keep benefitting from sport hunting, will they allow poachers to continue?
  5. Wildlife is a commodity.
  6. Ecosystems are not self-regulating and the only way to control animal populations is for hunters to kill them. [hmmmm…]
  7. In one of their hunting concessions, the Pian-Upe game reserve, you will find illegal snares every 500 meters.  When sport hunters are out every day they can patrol for and remove snares and, again, if the communities are benefitting they will also put pressure on the poachers to stop.

General Discussion:

There was a lot of discussion around whether the survey numbers that Uganda Wildlife Authority was using are accurate.  It doesn’t seem possible that impala numbers could increase from 5,000 to 35,000 in less than ten years.  Aggrey Rwetsiba, Director of Research for UWA, admitted that they had switched survey methods between the earlier and later numbers and that animal population counts are very difficult to do accurately.

If 30% of the permit fee goes to the landowner where the animal was killed, and most people are too impoverished to own land, it is a fair distribution of the revenue?

The owner of a lodge in Lake Mburu National Park pointed out that the quotas are based on total populations in the area, both inside and outside the park, while hunting is only allowed outside the park.  He argued that the quotas should only be based on the average populations outside the park since that’s where the hunting takes place.

The same lodge owner claimed that there have already been impacts on game viewing opportunities in the parks.  In Lake Mburu NP he has observed that the eland herds have become more skittish, as they have nearly all been shot at at some point.  This could have a serious impact on eco-tourism, which is still the primary form of tourism in the country.

There were also questions about whether ecotourism and sport hunting are compatible.  In general, eco-tourists don’t want to be in a place where animals are being shot.

Inconclusion (yes, I meant to spell it like that):

Sport hunting has the potential to increase livelihoods in communities around protected areas, fund the wildlife management activities of the Wildlife Authority, and reduce poaching which could result in increased wildlife populations.  At the same time, it is unclear whether the animal populations here are ready for hunting, there is a lack of trust in government institutions to manage the process in a legal and transparent way, and there are concerns about the impacts of sport hunting on other forms of tourism.

There was virtually no discussion about whether hunting is “right” or “wrong,” which is perhaps not surprising in an African context.  Hunting is being used as one component of wildlife management around the world (think about deer permits in the U.S.), and it does have the potential to bring far more money into local communities than game viewing.

If you really want to go deeper into this issue, here is a book that Dr. Lamprey referred to in his talk:
Recreational Hunting, Conservation and Rural Livelihoods: Science and Practice

So what do you think?  Should sport hunting be allowed in Uganda?

Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala