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Your baby is racist, and so are you (and so am I, so let's talk about it)

It's a moment I'm still ashamed of.

I was 19, and on a spring break trip to Georgia. One of those alternative spring breaks where you spend the week feeding the homeless or saving the earth.

We were in our bed bunks, and I was talking to Vicki, another spring-breaker. Vicki was telling me how the Georgia heat and humidity messed with her hair. She explained that because she was black, her hair could get dry and brittle, and she had to use a lot of moisturizers on it to keep it healthy. And she said, her hair was even more unruly, because she was half Mexican.

"Does that make your hair even more strange?" I asked.

And the moment it came out of my mouth, I knew. I knew it was horrible. I felt her wince.

I had said it without thinking. Growing up in a rural Michigan town, I didn't have any black friends, and so African-American hair was "strange" to me. I didn't grow up being told black people were bad. Or strange. Or being told anything about them at all. I knew prejudice was wrong. I just didn't know it could come out of my mouth without me even knowing it was there.

Apparently, it's not just me (or so I hope).

Newsweek cover 9/14
The cover story on this week's Newsweek - Is Your Baby Racist? - is a good read.

The article is based on current research that shows our ability and tendency to discriminate may begin as young as six months.

And if not addressed, it flourishes in what goes unsaid.

In the article, a researcher from the University of Texas is studying whether multicultural  videos change how children think about race.

First, she gives the kids a basic racial attitude test that they can understand. How many white people are nice? she asks. All, Some, Not Many, None. She repeats it with black people, and then puts in numerous other adjectives - dishonest, pretty, snobby, etc.

Some of the parents are supposed to just have their kids watch the videos, but some are supposed to engage their kids in discussion about race as well.

And that's where the revolt occurs. Most of the parents don't or won't. Some even drop out of the study. The parents want their kids to be "colorblind," and fear talking about race will make them notice differences they might otherwise ignore. 

Trouble is, their kids already showed racial bias in the first place. The children, as young as 5 years old, generally said more black people had negative traits. When asked about their parents feelings, 14 percent said their own parents didn't like black people.

The solution, researchers say, is to talk about race with kids. Actually talk. No vague terms that they can't understand, like saying, "We're all equal," or "We're all the same underneath." Children don't really get those messages, the research says.

I don't think adults do either.

Race is ingrained in us. We live in a society where people are sorted by race. Every day, every hour. We may be less racially divided than we were two hundred years ago, but we still carry that baggage around, and man, is it heavy.

We talk the talk (sometimes). We say everyone's equal and everyone should be given the opportunity to succeed. Blah blah blah. That's the happy Sesame Street message.

Trouble is, I think those messages don't get in deep enough. I think if we're going to be less racist as a society, we need to hash this stuff out. Or ugly things are going to keep coming out of our mouth when we least expect it.

Those ugly things are like lava spewing out of a volcano - evidence that all is not right on the inside.

Here's my evidence. I took the IAT - the Implicit Association Test. It's a Harvard research test that measures how we associate terms - whether we associate black or white with good or bad. You can take it and read about it here.

I did. And here's my results.

IAT results.png
 

Moderate automatic preference. It's "automatic" that gets me. Before I even have the chance to think about it, there it is. Before I can check the words coming out of my mouth, they're said.

So what do we do?

The same things that the kids do. We talk about it. In real terms. No more vague euphemisms so we don't hurt each other's feelings. The real words, like big boys and girls.

I think this is going to be tough, especially for white people.

General IAT results
I was talking to my friend David the other day. David is black, and he was saying that in his family, if someone makes a derogatory joke or comment about a white person, it's simply not okay. Someone will take them on. Family or no, prejudice is not allowed.

He asked me, "Do you think white people do that?"

No. I don't think they do.

I think white culture is too polite. We don't yell at each other. We're quiet in public (okay, maybe not in Wrigleyville on game day, but mostly). We don't dance and sing in church. White people are reserved.

And so when someone says something racist, what do you do? Nothing. It's just not polite.

It's hard to get over the urge to be polite. I feel my mother's fingers pinch my arm whenever I am less than perfectly polite.

But this is big doings. This is the future of our society, of our country as a whole. We gotta get over being polite so we can be good. Not just good on the surface, with our euphemisms and equality talk. Good underneath.

It's going to take work. It means I'm going to have a lot more embarrassing moments like I did with Vicky.

So, let's start now. Take the IAT. Tell me what you find out. And what you think about what it says. Were you surprised? Shocked? Upset?

There's no skipping this one. There's no ignoring it 'till it goes away. The only way is through it. Let's go together.

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5 Comments

feliciacago said:

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2 FYIs: The link to David's blog isn't working. Also, I wanted to take the IAT race test but the link provided has many different tests selected randomly and I couldn't find the race one. Found it here in case anyone else wants to take it: http://www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/index2.htm

Very interesting, as always, Megan.

Megan Cottrell said:

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Thanks, Felicia! I fixed both links.

Craig Kanalley said:

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Megan, thanks for starting this dialogue. You raise some very interesting points and some that I don't think anyone can ignore. It definitely needs to be talked about more.

I admit I've said some awkward things in the past which I later regretted --- I think the biggest thing is being informed and educated about other cultures at an early age.

Joe the Cop said:

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Good post. I tried taking that test but for some reason couldn't get it to work. Maybe another time.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that everyone hates someone. It's good to see someone trying to face those perceptions head on and do better.

silkysoul said:

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It's funny how our "automatic preference" for one culture almost implies that we have a prejudice or hatred for others. I know as an African-American, I have been raised with open-mindedness and tolerence when it comes to other cultures. However, I learned about life more when I was immersed into a culture, instead of just briefly interacting with it. It seems that the mainstream culture is extremely resistant to sharing resources (reputation, money, commercial property, etc) and people with a minority business venture, or even on a casual / social level on a long term basis. Then, when I find a locale for my business venture that's in an "ethnic" neighborhood, mainstream friends shy away from supporting the events.

Yeah, if we could address this mess at infant / toddler stage, life for everyone would be more fulfilling!

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