Friday, November 11, 2005

Race and Raising Kids

I’ll be out of town and offline for a week so I thought I’d leave a post you can kick around in the comments section while I’m gone.

I’ve mentioned a time or two that I’m not always clear what the concept of “race” means at this point.

Seems to me that the best way to take a look at how people view race is to see how they raise their kids, or in some cases, how they plan to raise their kids.

Economists have long been aware that people’s actual economic decisions reveal a lot more about their attitudes than what they say about those decisions. I guess you could modify the old saying, “Follow the money” and substitute “Follow the moves” if you want to get a better feel for what people really think about race. And what could be more important or revealing than how people raise their children?

I recently reread Being White: Finding Our Place in a Multi-Ethnic World by Paula Harris and Doug Schaupp.

Overall it’s a useful book on race and culture in America.

But they make what I think is a very curious and specific plea for parents to avoid raising their children “color blind.”

They argue that parents of all "races" should raise their kids with a clear commitment to their "racial identity.”

They go to great lengths to explain the specific cultural and behavioral markers that characterize the "white race." In one section they catalogue a long list of ways “white” adults can be spiritually and personally inauthentic by departing from those characteristics. Innovation is one of those characteristics and presumably all 'white' children should be raised to understand that marker of 'whiteness' and be proud of it as a part of their racial identity.

They encourage parents of all 'racial' groups to get clear on the markers of their particular race and make sure their kids embrace those racial distinctives.

To their great credit, Harris and Schaupp make this argument as a way of encouraging a more honest and just society. They believe that the vast majority of European-Americans aren’t aware that they have a specific ethnic culture (or cultures) and believe their culture is just “American” culture.

They also believe most European-Americans are out of touch with the tremendous advantages they have as a “racial” group due to historical racism and racial prejudice and therefore aren’t willing to take actions and support policies that would create a fairer society. They believe the only way to remedy that wrong is to embrace race and ensure that children are not only aware of their racial history and its implications but also committed to their own ongoing “racial identities.”

I haven’t raised my kids along those lines. We’ve tried to make Andrew and Rebecca very aware of their ethnic background (northern and southern European roots, which are quite different, by the way) and keenly aware of historical and present ethnic and racial prejudice and the effect that has on their own opportunities and the opportunities of others. We’ve encouraged them to live now and as adults in a way that helps “make amends” for the damage that has been done by ethnic and racial prejudice and to build strong relationships with people of varying cultural backgrounds.

But we’ve also encouraged them to hold the concept of race lightly.

By race, I mean the idea that biological and physical characteristics and differences are truly meaningful and are somehow determinative of the way people will behave or act. Racial prejudice takes that definition a step further and says that biological and physical characteristics make one group superior to other groups. Racism, as I understand it, takes that second definition a step further still and says that racial superiority entitles the superior group to set up a society and economy that dispossesses the “inferior” group or groups.

Here’s how Jan and I have thought about race and why we’re raising the kids the way we are.

From a biological point of view it’s very clear right now that the physical differences between various ‘races’—in particular skin color, which is at the heart of the concept of race--are so minor as to be virtually meaningless. Basically, we’re talking about different adaptions to getting Vitamin D from the sun. So why make a big deal about race? Culture and ethnicity and history are all pretty solid concepts, but what about race?

And with the mixing of people of different ethnic backgrounds—which has been going on for millennia—what does race mean? Americans have reduced the ethnic and cultural complexity of the world to a 5 crayon crayola pack world view (white, black, brown, red, yellow), but it’s not clear to me that our point of view corresponds to the actual ethnic diversity in the world. Various asian cultures have always thought of themselves as different “races” throughout history and in many ways still do—-it took immigration to the US to learn that they were all one 'race' (“yellow,” I guess). And of course, the whole concept of a ‘brown’ race really creates headaches if you think about it for even a few moments. Does that include both Mexicans and Pakistanis?

And do physical characteristics really strongly influence culture or behavior? Culturally speaking, what does a Somali sheepherder have to do with an African-American banker in Cleveland? Or even a wealthy and 'white' Protestant suit in California and a poor and desperate farmer from a distinctly non-innovative place like Bulgaria?

But I guess my final question is “What good, on the whole, has the concept of race ever done anybody?”

There are physical differences, and people are indeed descended from ancestors coming from different parts of the world. So the concept of race can’t simply be ignored, but why play with fire by emphasizing it? If history has shown anything clearly it’s that whenever race is emphasized prejudice, racism, and injustice soon follow.

That's just our current take. But every parent has to decide whether to embrace race or hold it lightly. I'd enjoy hearing any thoughts.


Blogger jon said...

much applause for this post.

I have no idea what I will teach my kids about their ethnic heritage (it will be quite a mixed one - my family is ethnically Lithuanian, Swedish, English, and German, spent time as Spanish and Mexican citizens as well, and my future wife will likely have none of those backgrounds). But in terms of how they should think about and interact with everyone else, I think I will raise them in much the same way as you.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for the kudos, Jon. You're ethnic background is about as crazy-quilted as mine.

I thought this post would get a big response. Not sure if the topic is less controversial than I thought or maybe too controversial to respond to offhandedly. Or maybe nobody is reading anymore :^)

4:59 PM  
Blogger terrette said...


I am no specialist on the topic, but the differences you speak of that constitute the visible distinctions we call race have no corresponding genetic evidence. A white girl from Birmingham, U.K. can be genetically closer to a black citizen of Tanzania than to another white girl living in London. So, isn't that reason enough not to make a stink out of the sun-blenched differences among us?

11:23 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for the thoughts terrette. I agree that genetics has cast a whole new light on the issue or race and with some surprising results at times.

I don't have a problem looking at genetic differences between people groups because I do think they exist--given the scientific evidence that's hard to deny. So differences we traditionally refer to as 'racial' have a place in the discussion. I just deny that those differences mean anything relevant for social behavior.

12:37 PM  

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