What Did Your Parents Tell You About Race?

Earlier this week, a school in Hartford, Conn., made headlines after parents complained about its, uh, novel approach at making America's racial history resonate with seventh graders.

Sandra Baker said Thursday that her daughter, who is African American, and fellow classmates at Hartford Magnet Trinity College Academy were essentially "terrorized" during the nighttime Underground Railroad exercise that was part of a field trip to Nature's Classroom in Charlton, Mass.

Parents were not informed that students would be part of a slavery re-enactment, said Baker, a social worker. Baker learned of the exercise from her child, who was 12 and in seventh grade...

According to the Bakers, the re-enactment exercise occurred on the third night and included threatening language and use of a racial epithet; packing together students in a dark room, as if they were on a slave ship; and hiding in the woods from "white masters" — instructors at Nature's Classroom who were white.

The students were acting as slaves who had escaped.

As you might have imagined, that ain't really going over too well. The parents are suing the school, which was probably well-intentioned despite its ham-handedness. (By the way, "well-intentioned" is the "bless your heart!" of race conversations.)

Okay, so most people aren't likely to be this dramatically clumsy, but these are tricky conversations for adults to have with kids, whether those adults are teachers or parents.

Which got us thinking about how parents talk to their kids about race. A colleague laughed as he recalled trying to respond to his young daughter's question: why do so many black people play basketball? (Seriously: try and answer this question for a 10-year-old when we haven't figured out how to explain it to adults.)

In The New York Times last year, KJ Dell'Antonia pointed to research that found that parents of color were three times as likely to talk to their kids about race, and that attempts to raise children in "colorblind" homes had the opposite result.

"It's the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin," Dell'Antonia wrote.

Dell'Antonia was riffing off Po Bronson's parenting book called NurtureShock, in which he championed some counterintuitive approaches to child-rearing — and decried the head-in-the-sand approach to race.

Here's what he told Tell Me More in 2009:

They will develop much better attitudes and get on a track where they really can do what we all want, which is to get along with people and embrace those differences rather than be scared of them, because not talking about race teaches kids one thing: It teaches them that race is taboo.

It probably won't come as a surprise that since we run a blog about race, culture and ethnicity, we essentially agree with that idea.

But how do folks go about actually talking about it?

We asked people on Twitter just how their own parents did (or didn't) try to wrestle with big, unwieldy issues related to race, and we were flooded with responses.

A lot of people got the twice-as-good conversation (as in: "you'll have to be twice as good to get half as far").

Some people said their immigrant parents steered them toward English and away from their parents' tongues, while other immigrant parents told them to practice their Chinese.

Some said their parents never broached it, while others said their parents were silent about it — until the child started dating someone of another race.

So how did your parents talk to you about race, when they did? What prompted those discussions? Tell us in the comments or on Twitter at NPRCodeSwitch.

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