Monday, September 07, 2009

Food for Thought

In our textbook is an essay by Susan Brady Konig, "They've Got To Be Carefully Taught." In it, Konig decries the insistence of schools on instilling ideas about racial difference in children. It is better, she feels, for children not to be taught about racial difference:

So now these sweet, innocent babies who thought they were all the same are becoming culturally aware. Two little girls are touching each other's hair and saying, ``Your hair is blonde, just like mine.'' Off to one side a little dark-haired girl stands alone, excluded. She looks confused as to what to do next. She knows she's not blonde. Sure, all children notice these things eventually, but, thanks to the concerted efforts of their teachers, these two- and three-year-olds are talking about things that separate rather than connect.

Apparently, Konig is wrong to think that such attempts to instill multiculturalism are damaging to kids. In fact, Konig's strategy of denying racial difference actually backfires, according to a new study. The Newsweek article discussing the study asks:

We all want our children to be unintimidated by differences and have the social skills necessary for a diverse world. The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race?

The researchers think that we make a mistake in believing children have no ideas about racial difference until they are taught that there are. Remember Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God: "Aw, aw, I'm colored!" she says after seeing herself in a photograph. Until then, she had thought she looked like everyone else.

That moment is interpreted by scholars as evidence that children do not understand racial difference until it is pointed out to them, but that may be a gross misinterpretation of the moment. The point is not that children do not understand racial difference. The children understand that Janie is of a different race; they can recognize her in the photo. It is Janie herself who lacks self-knowledge. Until that moment, she cannot associate herself and her identity with that of others who are deemed "colored" and thus treated differently.

That is a digression, but it goes to show how badly we have wanted to see people as born blind to racial difference, and it might explain why the problem of the color-line, what DuBois called the most important problem of the 20th century, might also be the most important one of the 21st, and probably was of the 18th and 19th centuries as well.

Omi and Winant have a famous definition of racial formation as "a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies." The work of the researchers mentioned in this article seem to support that:

We might imagine we're creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they're plainly visible. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors. Bigler contends that children extend their shared appearances much further—believing that those who look similar to them enjoy the same things they do. Anything a child doesn't like thus belongs to those who look the least similar to him. The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics—such as niceness, or smarts—is called essentialism.

It is race's apparentness, its obviousness, that makes it the organizing principle of difference. We can see the difference, and we ascribe meanings to that difference.

It's all very fascinating, and I'm looking forward to responses to the article on other blogs.


Amy P said...

You might want to check out Joanne Jacobs' recent post.

Wendy said...

Thanks! I have to say, though, her commenters mostly seem to have missed the point of the study!

Amy P said...

There's a new comment by KateC on that thread that's rather interesting:

"At my daughter’s big, urban, all girls Catholic high school, the lunch tables seemed segregated by racial lines, but those lines were pretty fluid. Mexican girls and Filpinas mixed fairly easily, Koreans and Anglos also mixed, but African American students and white girls would mix, if everyone else around was Asian. Weird, but it made a wacky sense, in a way."

Intuitively, that sounds right--choice of friends being chosen by cultural affinity, with that affinity being relative to the presence or absence of less-like individuals, if that makes any sense. Human behavior is very complicated!

I once taught workplace ESL to some groups that were mostly ex-Yugoslavs a few years after the Bosnian conflicts. There were subtle differences in names and coloring, but a non-Yugoslav would have had a devil of a time telling the difference between a Croat, a Bosnian, or a Serb. I sometimes wondered whether (as members of very small ethnic groups in the US who all spoke roughly the same language) they would eventually coalesce.