Can Babies Be Racist?

While many parents try to bring up children who don't discriminate based on race, one researcher found that white parents have a hard time discussing the topic with their kids. Host Michel Martin talks to Briggite Vittrup of Texas Woman's University. She says several white parents dropped out of a study she conducted on race, saying they were uncomfortable talking about the subject. She's now looking at what kind of effect that has on race relations among children, who she says start noticing things like skin color as early as six months old.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Now, we want to go behind closed doors. That's the part of the program where we talk about things that are often hard to discuss. Later, we'll talk about that South African runner who has undergone testing to determine whether she is in fact genetically female. It turns out the question is not an easy one to answer. And we'll explain why in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk about children and race, about how very young children understand race. It's become a cliche that kids are color blind, that they just see people as they are, whatever that means.

Well, it turns out it's quite a bit more complicated than that and how we as adults talk about race or don't talk about it is quite important. Briggite Vittrup headed up a project to investigate how media affects children's racial attitudes. She's now an assistant professor at Texas Woman's University and is looking into how parents teach their children about race. And she joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

Professor BRIGGITE VITTRUP (Family Sciences, Texas Woman's University): You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: There was an article in Newsweek magazine earlier this month that came out titled, "See Baby Discriminate." Now, I didn't mention that headlines drive all writers crazy, but is that what we're talking about here? That people start discriminating based on race even before they can talk?

Prof. VITTRUP: Well, the word discriminate there, when you talk about babies, is really more in terms of being able to distinguish because babies very early on - some of the research that's been done where they're as young as six months, they can distinguish the different races. And what you'll see is usually they will have a preference for what's familiar.

If a white baby grows up in a white household and most of the - the faces and bodies they see are white, when you show them, if you show them a picture of a person in - with various skin tones, they're most likely going to look the longest at whichever skin tone they find to be the most familiar.

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, let me walk through this. In 2006, you were working on a project to try to figure out how media affected white children in the way they formed relationships with people of color. But I understand that this study took a surprising turn when some of the parents who volunteered for the study began to dropout even though they knew what the subject was about. It was because they were asked to talk to their children about racial attitudes. They said it was uncomfortable. And not because they had negative attitudes but because they just did not want to talk about it at all. So, I wanted to ask where that led you in terms of your research. What was the next question you then decided you wanted to find out?

Prof. VITTRUP: The next question then was why. Why are these parents so uncomfortable talking about race? Even the parents that said that they were talking about it made very generic statements like everybody is equal. We're all the same on the inside, which may or may not translate to children as an actual conversation about race because it is so vague. And then some parents were saying that they really wanted their kids to grow up and be color blind, so they didn't want to point out race at all.

MARTIN: But it turns out from your, at least your initial findings that not talking about race has consequences.

Prof. VITTRUP: Children are exposed to so much - whether it's from television which contains a lot of stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes. They hear things at school, from their peers. And then if there are no conversations at home, they form their own opinions. And I think that became very clear when we looked at their perceptions of their parents racial attitudes, where a lot of children just said they didn't know or they thought that their parents - their white parents didn't like blacks, even though when we looked at the parents racial attitudes measures, these parents had no problems with black people.

For those where parents actually did have the conversations, which turned out to only be a few of the parents that participated, those children were much more aware of their parents' racial attitudes.

MARTIN: You note that there's a difference between how white parents and non-white parents approach the subject of race with their children. As I understand it, non-white parents are far more likely to discuss…

Prof. VITTRUP: Right.

MARTIN: …race with your children. Why is that?

Prof. VITTRUP: I think that part of it is that just based on the history of this country, minority parents, a lot of times the discussions they have with their children is teaching them what they might have to face later on in life because of their race. Whereas white people, I think, sometimes were scared of talking about it, because we don't want to come across as being racist.

And some of the parents that I talked to even mentioned that. It wasn't that they thought it was wrong to have these conversations. They just didn't know how to talk about it in an appropriate manner without it coming out the wrong way or them pointing out the wrong thing. And so, they were very uncomfortable simply because they don't know what to say or how to have those conversations.

MARTIN: Is part of the issue here that kids really do see the distinction or they see at least physical differences, whether people like it or not, and that they need information on how to interpret those differences?

Prof. VITTRUP: Yes, because they do see it just like they see a lot of things. Children learn very early on some of the differences that are important and not important. So, they can see if somebody has a different hair color but they learn that this is not just something we pay attention to. It's not an important distinction. Whereas, they learn very early on that race does become an important distinction because that's the way our society is still set up. And they see it in the media, especially these days when children watch so much television. They hear it at school.

It's the same thing with children growing up, not having any experience with maybe somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who has a handicap. It's just different to them if they're not exposed to it, if they're not used to it. But usually when they are exposed to it and when it becomes less strange and when parents have conversations about them, you see that that's when children feel more comfortable and they learn that we still have so much else in common.

But if we don't actually make that distinction, if we just say, well, everybody is equal, everybody is the same and God created all of us just the same - which was common statements that some of these parents said that they were telling their children - but then children are still left to their own devices figuring out what does that really mean?

MARTIN: I was going to ask you what is wrong with saying, well, we're all the same? Is that - it just defies logic, that kids can say, well, I know we're not the same because I'm brown and Johnny is pink, and, you know, Sue Ellen is tan and that they've just feel like you're not telling them the truth or…

Prof. VITTRUP: There's nothing wrong with saying it. It's just that if you are trying to convey a message that even though people may have different skin color, you know, we all have similar interests and we're all worth the same, that last part of the message doesn't come through unless you actually explain it. Just because somebody is from another culture or from another race and they look different and they live - maybe they live in a different neighborhood, we can still have things in common. Like at school, we might want to play with the same things. And we can still be friends with them.

But because children don't really see that very often, because even the schools are very segregated, and children self-segregate in schools as well, then it becomes very obvious to them that even if we say we're all equal and if that's what we say, if that's all we say, children see that our society is set up differently.

MARTIN: So what is a good way to raise these issues? It just - and obviously this depends on how old the children are that we're talking about. But one of the things that you're pointing out is that kids notice differences very early on. And they see it, they notice what the differences are, attributing meaning to it comes later. But how should parents start talking about this? I mean assuming that they share the value of not wanting their kids to make distinctions based on race.

Prof. VITTRUP: Right. Well, I think it's important to actually have open communication about it. Because, again, what we're seeing is that when we have no communication about it, and there are biases out there, then that's what children pick up on. And then they keep it with them for the rest of their lives.

And there's a lot that parents and teachers and educators can do to start early on and just really teach children that we need to grow up and respect each other regardless of what race you are, what religion you are, what culture you come from, what, you know, physical abilities you have. And I think that's a very important message to send very early on.

MARTIN: Briggite Vittrup is now an assistant professor at Texas Women's University. She was kind enough to join us from Dallas. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. VITTRUP: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: We will have more on this story in our Moms conversation tomorrow. We'll ask are there ways to talk about race and heritage issues with your child but without feeding into either a sense of superiority or guilt or victimization - passing on heritage without passing on baggage. That's on Moms conversation tomorrow.

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