We need to talk to young people about race more - not less. A recent study suggests that minority and white children avoid talking about race. They learn this "color blind" approach from adults, and avoiding the issue only widens the divide.
Studies show that talking to young people about race is important to their development. Understanding one's own racial and ethnic identity is important to developing a positive social identity.
Interestingly, the study showed that a white parent’s approach to race predicts their child’s concern about the appropriateness of talking about it, but the same is not true for minority children. Teachers are important influences for youth of all backgrounds in defining appropriate behaviors regarding discussions of race.
The study points out this tension: “On one hand, race is central to their identities, a source of psychological well-being, and a lens through which others perceive them, citing studies going back to 1954 -- Allport, Garcı´a Coll and Rivas-Drake, to name a few. “On the other hand, they are exposed to prevailing societal norms of color blindness that discourage discussion or even mere acknowledgment of racial difference.”
Reluctance to talk about race is common in schools across the United States. In my previous blog post, I highlighted a study conducted by Stanford and Northwestern universities that found that talking about class differences, rather than ignoring them, helps first-generation students advance in college. Similarly, another study points out the importance of addressing racism explicitly in schools. The study found in case studies of four Boston schools in which 78% of students were Latino and black, and which seemed to be doing everything else right, the black and Latino students were still experiencing barriers to success. One of these barriers was a color-blind approach to teaching.
The good news is that the color-blind approach to education is (although slowly) changing. Here in Minnesota, for example, St. Paul Public Schools has been implementing an equity policy that aims to “confront institutional racism” and “acknowledges that complex societal and historical factors contribute to the inequity within our school district.” Having a husband who teaches in the district, and two children who go to school there, I can attest to the attempts the schools are making to confront racism head-on through teacher professional development and changes in curriculum. I also saw isolated examples last year where explicit racist comments made by students were addressed immediately by school administration.
But there is so much more that can be done. Minority youth benefit from discussions about race because they help eliminate the feeling of invisibility that can accompany a color blind approach. White students benefit because without these discussions, even subtly taught racist ideals can end up tainting an otherwise healthy mind. All youth benefit because through these discussions, they can learn to recognize discrimination and do something about it. In fact, the color blind approach actually has shown to reduce the ability of young people to see and challenge racism.
Out-of-school-time presents an ideal opportunity to have meaningful discussions with youth about all the issues that matter to them. In our nonformal educational environments, youth workers can provide authentic opportunities for our young people to meet and interact with diversity – to challenge head-on the history and emotions that accompany race relations.
Are we doing enough in our programs to tackle issues of racism itself? What more could we be doing? I’d like to challenge us all to make discussions about race an everyday practice so that we’re all more comfortable confronting it.
-- Jessica Pierson Russo, Extension educator
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