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Having 'The Talk' (About Race)

cultural diversity, juan williams npr

What exactly is The Talk when it comes to prejudice?

Racism — and intolerance of all kinds — is everywhere. If your kid hasn’t yet been exposed to it that must mean she’s still in the womb.

For the older kids, there’s gay-bashing and Juan Williams‘ very un-nuanced take on American Muslims. For the younger ones, there’s TV, the movies, pop music and books, with all those caricatures and stereotyping and the continued dominance of white kids in all the plum roles. Raising healthy and tolerant kids among prejudice isn’t so much about keeping them from witnessing. Rather, the best you can do is discuss, discuss, discuss.

The Center on Media and Child Health‘s mediatrician — their expert in media as it relates to child development counsels a mom whose 11 and 13 year old sons have just discovered Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris. They’re pretty young to really understand irony, Dr. Michael Rich says, which is where Rock’s anti-bias messages ultimately lie. There’s a risk that kids will take Rock’s jokes at face value — that it truly is funny to demean someone based on race.

Since you can’t really explain irony to tweens, Rich instead recommends the mother also show the other side of race history through the series Eyes on the Prize, for example. I think that’s great advice.

He lists a few media facts with links to studies, which are worth noting and reading in full: whites still dominate television, negative stereotypes of racial minorities have lasting effects on minority viewers, TV characters frequently show a racial bias even when not using racial slurs, and prejudice-prevention programs don’t work.

As a white parent of white kids, it’s sometimes hard to know when to talk to kids about race, particularly if they’re growing up among kids of all backgrounds. Do you bring it up and risk them looking at their peers differently? What, exactly, is the script?

I’ve found talk about race (and socio-economic differences, body size, gender bias, etc.) have been most naturally brought up when I see them in TV programs or movies that they’ve seen. Also, books: especially the really old ones. I was surprised the first time I read a Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods to my daughter. They’re loaded with racist attitudes. Instead of banning them from my daughter, who is still totally into the prairie thing, I used the books to talk about Native Americans and the families attitudes and fear (not to mention some of the land ownership issues). I also read her a book by Louise Erdrich and  helped her make the connections between the native Anishinabeg family in that book and the Ingalls. You think Ma was scared, honey, check out this family dying from small pox contracted from pioneers!

The Juan Williams flap took some consideration. My girls wanted to know why I was yelling at the radio. I boiled it down to platitudes — don’t discriminate based on how someone is dressed — but I fear the take-away message there was don’t judge people in jeggings. (People in “Muslim garb” isn’t such an unusual sight for them. Plus, I only had five minutes! I’ll do better next time.)

Of course, all of this is on-going and will get ever more difficult. But if I can get my kids to question what they see in the media, I think my job will be done.

Do you talk to your kids about race and about prejudice? When and how? If your child is in a discriminated against group, how do you approach the prejudice talk?

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Photo: 11thourblog.blogspot.com

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