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Mariah's avatar

How were you first taught about racism? How could we better teach our children?

Asked by Mariah (25876points) May 6th, 2011

The first time I remember learning about racial tension was in early school history lessons on the Civil War. In this context is wasn’t clear to me that race issues were not a thing of the past. When we did learn about modern racism, it instilled in me this odd sense of awareness that wasn’t entirely a positive thing. Whereas before, race was a complete nonissue, afterwards I developed a mental habit similar to the one where, when you tell yourself not to think about an elephant, all you think about is an elephant. I grew up in an almost completely white school, which didn’t help, so on the rare occasion I would see a black person my brain said, “that person is black, why am I noticing that does that make me racist, stop that” which is a habit that I still have, to a lesser extent now that I’ve seen more of the world than my hometown, but I hate.

Obviously we need to teach our children about these issues, and I definitely don’t think we should try and instill “colorblindness,” but what could be done differently, in formal schooling or in parenting, especially for kids with very little exposure to diversity, to prevent confused attitudes towards race?

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18 Answers

Judi's avatar

From my dad. He was a complicated guy with a very high sense of justice and equality. He actually lost his career as a truck driver (black balled) for standing up for civil rights. He talked about the horrors of inequality often from the time I was born I think. (I’m 50 now so it was a hot issue in the ‘60s.)
He was also a “separate but equal” guy and would blow his top if his daughters even hinted at having a minority boyfriend.

john65pennington's avatar

I was never really taught about racism, I actually lived it. My very first thoughts about skin color came one day in the criminal court building, as I went for personal relief before court began. I stood outside the bathroom(s) and gazed with amazement at the two signs I was reading. One said “Whites Bathroom”, the other said “Blacks Bathroom”. I then asked myself, “what is the difference, here? We both pee the same way. We both eat the same way. We both marry and have children the same way, so why two separate bathrooms?”. It was that day that I decided that racisim had to go. What really truly ticked me off was the saxaphone players I had in my band. After playing, we would go to an all-nite restaurant to get something to eat. Just because my two friends skin was black, they could not go inside the restaurant. We brought all our food to go and all of us ate in the car together.

My wife tells me about riding a city bus in the 50s and 60s. Upon boarding the bus, the bus driver would instruct people with black skin to go to the back of the bus. In other words, people with black skin could not ride in the front of the bus. This was “saved” for people with white skin. This was my wifes first experience with racism.

After the riots of 1968, in Nashville, I am happy to state that racism is no more in my city. The riots were instrumental for the white man to wake up and accept people with black skin, as an equal.

yankeetooter's avatar

I always think back to that “South Pacific” song, “You Have to Be Carefully Taught”, where the guy is talking about how as children we learn to be racist, or not. I was fortunate in that I was not brought up that way…we were taught to love everyone equally.

I think that children develop such ideas from the values and behaviors of their parents/guardians. Preschoolers first socializing have no concept of one person being better than the other based on any criteria, but if parents show these beliefs through their actions then the child is more likely to copy and eventually adopt that value system as well.
Kids can also grow out of these beliefs (for better or for worse), but they are more likely to emulate the behaviors they were taught growing up…

YoBob's avatar

Well, for me when I started middle school. This was during the great social experiments of the early 1970s in America where somebody thought it would be a great idea to bus kids around town to ensure that all schools had a politically correct demographic. Up until that time I had no clue about racial tension other than stuff in the bits of history we had been taught about the civil rights movement. Heck, I pretty much thought that stuff was history, especially being raised in an educated family where I was brought up to treat people like people and not judge them by their race. I went to a private elementary school that had a racial mix that pretty much mirrored America at the time. Sure, it was predominantly white (like America) along with a few Hispanics, a few black kids, and a couple of various other races. But, coming from pretty much the same socioeconomic background race simply wasn’t an issue in elementary school. Heck, I didn’t even really consider the concept of race when playing with my peers in elementary school.

Then I went off to a public middle school and found it populated with a bunch of angry black kids who were bussed in from across town, really didn’t want to be there in the first place, and resented the kids who lived in the district because their parents earned decent livings. In short, beat the snot out of the brainy white kid was pretty much the favored form of recreation for the kids being bussed across town.

Yep, racism was alive and well back then, but in my experience it didn’t really manifest itself in the form of “da man keepin’ the brothers down”.

ninjacolin's avatar

Love the stories guys! Thanks for sharing.. I don’t have a great one of my own, so I’ll just share a few thoughts.

Well, “Maria” if that is your real name i know it’s not I feel that color blindness is for the blind and the color blind. We all are visibly different skin colors and I don’t think I would consider it a worthwhile goal to neglect the diversity of people that we are. I would rather we celebrate it; Through exposure and experience and individual gains opportunity to grow accustomed to the diversity. Culture shock is a fairly natural part of maturing in our world, I would say. It’s a growing pain we experience but there’s a lot of opportunity to have a good time with it. Can you imagine travelling to a foreign country and not feeling a sense of awe and wonder at the differences that you see? Life might be a tad boring that way.

tom_g's avatar

My friends during high school were essential to my critical assessment of my father’s extreme racism. Once I was forced to honestly face my white privelege, the rest fell in place.
Racist father + great friends + honest reflection

MyNewtBoobs's avatar

I think I was taught the concept before this (although, I’m not really sure), but I know that in 4th grade, the whole class read “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”. It does a really amazing job of touching on the horrors and stupidity of racism just enough, while not getting too harsh for 9 year olds to handle. Plus, it’s really a good read all around, I love that book.

Michael_Huntington's avatar

I remember watching a commercial about black history month (something like “Celebrate Black History month”) during first/second grade, and it featured Rosa Parks. I asked my sister who was Rosa Parks, and I ended up learning about the civil rights movement and MLK jr. Then later, I would learn about the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, Native American reservations and other atrocious and racist acts.
I don’t think colorblindness helps either. We’re all different, yet that doesn’t mean that there should be inequality. I just think we need more education about racism, and it should start early.

Blackberry's avatar

@john65pennington You’re badass :)
To be honest, I don’t remember much about what I was taught specifically about racism (I don’t even think we’ve had a real talk about it in my family). I remember little things I was taught by parents, relatives, and friends, but I can’t rely on those things to have been what taught me about race, but I still heard them as a kid.

I had a distant relative (an older black man) tell me that I should be ready to look out after myself when I start living on my own because no white person is going to help me or look out after me. This was obviously very wrong, but there seemed to be some lingering elephant in the room that said, ‘We’re the oppressed minority, so we’re going to have a hard time making it’.

My grandparents told me stories of racism in the deep south (they grew up in Mississippi), but I also was told that we’re in a new time now and that we shouldn’t have to worry about racism. Growing up, I’ve only encountered ‘innocent’ racism like jokes about my skin color from whites in school, but they also always had to state how they were just kidding and really liked me. I was playing with a white friend in middle school, we went to his place to grab something, but told me to stay outside because his parents didn’t like black people (the same thing also happened when I started dating an asian woman in high school). But at the same time I was also welcomed with open arms to other white families who obviously didn’t care about color.

I do remember having a short mental struggle in my head, wondering if blacks were accepted or not. There seemed to be people that didn’t like us, and people that did like us, but I just came to the conclusion that not everyone is going to like everyone and left it at that.

I guess I just used my own experiences to teach myself about race and racism. I never asked questions as a kid. I had to wait until I was smart enough to start examining things on my own and do my own research.

wundayatta's avatar

A long time ago. I grew up in the era of Civil Rights protests. It was in the air. Everyone was talking about it. That hasn’t really changed during the course of my life. It’s an extended conversation that is still ongoing.

augustlan's avatar

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poisonedantidote's avatar

I was about 4–5 years old. My parents and I went to the UK to visit family one winter. Having lived all 4 years of my life in a small town in spain I was yet to see a black person.

I was at my grandmothers house in the UK around about dawn, when the door bell sounded. I ran to the door as my mother got up to see who it was. As the door opened, there stood the postman with some white envelopes in his black hand.

I was amazed, to think that there could be people with different color skin. Until then the
only alternative skin color I had came across was little green men from space in stories.

I was totally amazed by this man and his black skin, I thought he was the coolest looking dude ever. I desperately wanted to start a conversation with this new person, but before I could say anything my mother was saying bye to him. At the last moment, I called out to him “Cheario Mr. black skin”. As soon as I had said it I was imediately yelled at by everyone and told to get inside. I heard my mother saying sorry, and the man saying “it’s ok” and laughing.

I then asked my parents why they yelled at me. Suffice it to say their explanation was insufficient. I don’t recall exactly what they said, but whatever they told me had the wrong effect. I walked around until about the age of 10 thinking that white people owed black people something because blacks where inferior to whites and whites had treated them bad and made them work and hit them.

It was only when I was about 10–12 years old that I had my misconceptions corrected, when I found out that all my white friends where all actually a thing called hispanic or latino.

I guess you could call this story a little glimpse in to the ignorant mind of a person who has only ever been among their own kind.

Blackberry's avatar

@poisonedantidote Lol… say the darndest things….

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

I suppose that Dr. Seuss was how I first learned about racism by reading The Sneetches and Other Stories book.

It certainly wasn’t from my parents. Dad would occasionally call Mom and ask if he could bring someone home for dinner. Having a guest meant that we would eat in the dining room and the guest would have a captive audience when they told their stories about their life. Mom once told me that she never knew if he was bringing home the president of his company, the janitor of our church, or an international client. Race, religion, nationality, etc. just didn’t matter. Only their personality and morals did.

Even when I was repeatedly attacked on the grade school playground by a group of older girls of a different skin color, it did not cross my mind that it might be race-related. They claimed that I gave them ‘the finger’ when I was returning a wave to a friend on the monkey bars up on the hill. I had no clue what ‘giving the finger’ meant at the time.

It wasn’t until learning that one of the schools in my small Virginia hometown had been built to provide an education for a specific race and that, at one point, they had not been allowed into the other schools despite where they lived, did I receive a real wake-up call.

Then in high school, we learned about a Virginia county where the public schools stopped receiving funding because the community refused to participate in desegregation. The schools were eventually shut down, and a decade of young people missed out on an education.

@Blackberry Like you, there was a point in my life when I thought racism was virtually over and that it now only lived on with our elders. After living in Washington, DC, Minneapolis and Chicago where the color of one’s skin more frequently than not holds little judgement, moving back to the south was another wake-up call. In almost 20 years of living in Memphis, where the population is almost 50% black and 50% white, and I have worked side-by-side with people of all colors, I have only seen one interracial couple. And they relocated here from Chicago. It disturbs me.

So back to the OP’s question as to what can be done differently. It seems to start with the attitude of the people in a household. It takes a great parent to set aside their own prejudices while raising a child. It seems the only way to move forward.

asmonet's avatar

I think I experienced it before I ever was taught about it. My mother never made any distinctions when I was growing up. She took us to Buddhist temples, and Sunday Mass, we had family friends who were gay, people of all different nationalities. My mom has friends from all over the world since she used to travel. She grew up in different countries, grew up in the sixties and her first boyfriend was a black boy that she was totally smitten with. So I just grew up accepting people were people and paying very little attention to what they looked like. I was surrounded with all sorts.

Then, we moved to South America. Those of you who have seen me know I am pale as hell, blue eyes and my hair used to be platinum blonde as a child. I had big banana curls and it looked like Shirley Temple got lost in the wrong damn country.

I was pushed into mud, called ugly, wrong, freak – gringa. Adult strangers would grab my hair in the street and compliment my mother, which freaked me the hell out. I didn’t just not have any friends, I was a complete outcast in my age group and a novelty to people older than me. I was treated like a ‘thing’ for a long time before I was able to find people who accepted me. And that total only came to two. Two kids. I actually didn’t realize that a lot of it was racism until I was in elementary school and we began learning about MLK for black history month. A lot of what we learned about happened to me in a smaller scale. The country wasn’t segregating me, but the children made up arbitrary rules for me. The one I remember the most was that I wasn’t allowed to share drinks with the majority of them, you know, in case I infected their water.

I don’t know how you would raise someone in the way you would like without being exposed to diversity. ‘Colorblindness’ isn’t bad necessarily. I don’t like it when people make a point to be colorblind then it becomes offensive. But if you’re raised knowing many different people, experiencing different customs and learning about them you grow to appreciate the depth and beauty in all these different people.

Then if you decide to lock yourself away in jackass land it’s your loss. I really believe if you give kids all the information they need they never choose the cruel path intentionally. Kids live in a cooperative environment for the most part, save a few fights over who gets to be the leader in their games. Attitudes are bestowed upon them by their parents. If we would all just lay the fuck off them as a group maybe we’d get past this crap.

But if you want to make a small change, that I think makes a dramatic difference…

Stop referring to people as “My friend Sara, she’s a lovely woman. She’s black, 5’5”...”

Stop calling people colors and kinds. It’s a hard habit to break. I still do it sometimes, but I realized a long time ago, whether or not my friend is black, asian, mexican, spanish – whatever it doesn’t matter. It also occured to me that I wasn’t referring to my white friends in the same way, almost never. That’s a bit fucked up.

Haleth's avatar

When I was little I saw racism as mostly an abstract thing that adults did to other adults. My friends were all different races, but as a kid I didn’t notice that. Everyone was just friends.

I didn’t really start thinking about it until middle school, when I had a close friend with a very analytical mind who was African-American. She talked frankly about race and thought of it mostly in terms of cultural differences. We hung out nearly every day after school and our friends were a mixed group.

It was interesting watching out parents. Her mother saw nearly everything in a racial context, and she often said things like, “White people don’t understand x; they don’t see that y happens.” Her point was that white people often have no awareness of their deep-seated attitudes, because we are comfortable being in the majority. Her mom was always kind of gently teasing me about my race, but in an affectionate way. And she did real mom stuff, like making us cookies or picking us up from school. I lived there for a few months after I dropped out of college- I mean, she really made me feel welcome.

My parents work for the government and they’re pretty PC. They would never openly talk about someone’s race, but they weren’t friendly either. There was always this kind of disapproval emanating from them and they were never very welcoming. My friend was over one night for dinner at my house. My half-sister, who was about six at the time, piped up, “A, why is your skin so dark?” A was graceful about it, but I had this moment of, “What the fuck are my parents teaching those kids? Holy shit, my family is racist.” My dad apologized and had a stern talk with my little sister.

After dinner A and I were kicking around the neighborhood and we talked about it. We were teenagers, so the talk was kind of like, “Uh, dude…” “yeah, I know, like what the fuck was that?” She was pretty uncomfortable. I realized that my family might not outwardly show any racism, but there was still prejudice bubbling up under the surface- I started to see it more and more.

Political correctness, like in the case of my parents, isn’t the answer. They’re afraid to talk about race but their actions (like associating with only white people as often as possible) are racist. My friend’s mom talked about race all the time but treated me like a daughter. It makes me think that if you’re a parent, you need to lead by example through your actions. I think we could all use a healthy dose of candidness, self-awareness, and empathy.

mattbrowne's avatar

Actually at school when being taught about American history. In the recent history racism hasn’t been an issue in Germany.

How could we better teach our children?

Science revealed that there are no significantly different features. Take a group of 55 chimps and look at their genomes. There’s more diversity present in this group compared to all of the 7 billion people on our planet. Humans are almost identical genetically. Comparative genomics finally terminated the ill-conceived concept of race in the same manner as quantum mechanics terminated the concept of a deterministic universe.

Skin color or eye color or hair color isn’t what makes us human. It’s the structure of our brains, our sophisticated hands and our bipedalism.

70,000 years ago we were all Africans. A small group of people called

colonized the rest of the world.

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