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Let's talk about race -- It's important

By Jessica Pierson Russo

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, Garc─▒´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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  1. Powerful article Jessica. Last week, my 12 year old son and I watched the remake of Roots. I had seen the mini-series as a child but this time I was able to see it through my son's eyes and he had many questions. Mostly, "Why would they do that?" He couldn't understand the thoughts behind the racist comments and actions. It was difficult to explain why people felt that way in the 1800's and even harder to explain why people treat each other that way today. I turn to my spirituality to explain these actions in my home but I don't have the same ability to explain the behaviors to youth in the programs I work. What are some suggestions you have used to talk to young people about racism?

  2. Thank you so much for raising this essential topic, Jessica, and for compiling some of the most recent research being done on this. I have been doing some reading on colorblind approaches and their effects. What struck me most powerfully was the fact that, while adults were often trying to promote equality through this approach, they actually were often enforcing inequity because they were not equipping the youth with the skills such as lenses to see and language to express when racially-motivated discrimination occurs. This is a prime example of the fact that equality and equity are not the same thing.

    In response to Melissa's question, I have found as a white woman that the best thing I can do in working with young people is to interrupt situations that may be occurring (when I perceive that they are happening, which is not as often as they actually occur). Then I pose questions and provide a space for the young people to talk about what is happening. Equally important is I need to believe young people when they pick up on something I did not perceive, and provide a space to bring it to light (whether in the group, or 1-on-1, depending on the situation).

    One thing I wrestle with is when I see something as an issue of discrimination (perhaps with an historical context), but the youth of color I work with do not perceive it as such. How do others navigate this challenge?

    1. Thank you both, Melissa and Kathryn. I echo Kathryn's suggestions for how to respond to situations within our youth programs. And I would add that honesty and forthrightness is essential. Regarding how to explain the "why" behind racism, there's a helpful series of articles published in the Huffington Post you may want to check out:

      I too draw on my spirituality to help with the issue with my own children, but understanding other approaches is important and helpful as well in helping other young people wrestle with the situations they see or are experiencing first-hand.

      In answer to Kathryn's question about what to do when we as adults see something as discrimination but our young people don't...Sometimes they don't have that historical context, or the historical context they do have may be misinformed. So I have gone into explanations of the historical context, and when my own details on that context are fuzzy, I do the research with the youth right by my side. I also take a proactive approach by bringing in that educational component during those times when discrimination isn't necessarily happening in the moment. With my own kids, for instance, when we go to the library, while they're looking for the fun fiction novel, I look for enticing history books geared towards their age group. I look for the books that don't gloss over the horrors of the past. And I don't force my kids to read them, but they do naturally, because they're lying around, and they're curious, and they want to understand. In the youth program context, I make sure I bring subjects up when they're not immediately "needed" as well as when they are (such as when something has come up in the news, or when they're dealing with issues personally). Another tactic that I think is helpful is to bring in storytelling. Once, I brought in a friend of mine to tell his story of Apartheid in South Africa, and then we discussed those situations in their own lives that may not have seemed discriminatory from one perspective, but that very much were from another.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I am getting caught up on some reading. So I am chiming in late.

    Performing arts can be an effective method to get young people (and adults for that matter) to talk about race and cultural differences. For instance, the SteppingStone Theatre in St. Paul, MN featured a play entitled Ruby! The Story of Ruby Bridges. Some schools and youth-serving organizations built that play into their curriculum helping youth to learn about civil rights, segregation and integration of schools. The Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis has hosted a workshop on Talking to Children about Race. I am interested in your thoughts on the use of performing arts. Thanks again.

    1. I agree, performing arts is a wonderful way for youth to explore their cultural identity. In 4-H we have used performing arts specifically for this purpose, because it allows for the young people to find their voice. Through that exploration, they discover a bit about their cultural background and can express its importance in their lives in a way that speaks to the heart.


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