Tuesday, May 18, 2010

race in america

Has anyone been watching CNN Anderson Cooper's 360 doll study special on Race in America? Tonight was the second installment of the four-day series on how children view skin color. This is just a pilot study performed on a little more than 100 children of different backgrounds and races, but the results were profound. CNN says that the goal of the study was "to determine the status of children's racial beliefs, attitudes and preferences as well as skin tone biases at two different development periods. Specifically, kindergarten children and middle childhood youngsters attending grade schools in either the Northeast or the Southeast regions of the United States of America were tested by same race female testers. However, the post-test interviews conducted with children and/or their parents were not matched either by race or gender of the interviewer." You can read the full results of the CNN doll study here.

For the study, a child was shown a chart consisting of cartoon-like children, all the same in terms of body-type, dress and facial expression, the only difference being the skin color which ranged from white to black in five different shades. The child was then asked a series of questions and told to point to what skin color they thought was the answer. The interviewers asked what skin color would they most like and least like to have? Which skin color belonged to the nice child and which belonged to the mean child? Or which child would you like as your friend, and which not? An overwhelming amount of fingers (both white and black) pointed to the darker-skin cartoon child on the chart in response to the negative questions. There was also a small amount of children - usually the older ones - who said they could not answer which child was dumb or smart based on their skin color because they would need to talk to them first to find out.

Experts in the field were then shown discussing the results with Anderson Cooper. They pointed to social media, lack of parents taking time to discuss race, and/or parents discussing races other than their own in a negative way, as some of the explanations for the astounding results. And on tonight's show, one of the experts talked about the children's answers having to do with Essentialism, or rather, the idea that a child will group herself with other children of similar skin color and characteristics like height, dress and speech, as a way of identifying herself and fitting in.

I tried to imagine how I would have answered these questions as a child, but I'm not really sure what I would have said. That's why a study like this is done on children, because their minds are still quite pure. I don't really remember my parents ever talking to me about race - although I know we had the "birds and the bees" discussion because my sister reminds me, I was just too young to remember. I grew up in a fairly "white" town in Northern California, very close to San Francisco. There were children of other races at my schools, not a lot, but I was always friends with everyone, no matter what their color. That said, I can see how, even if a child has friends of every race, that they might pick their own skin color as a preference because, if they're anything like me as a child, they're most likely scared of giving an answer that will make them look bad. It seems obvious that when a child is asked who is the smart child, that that child will respond with picking the cartoon character most like them, while choosing the child with the opposite skin color as the one who is dumb. They're associating themselves with their answer and most children will want to give the positive traits to someone who looks like them, wouldn't you if you didn't know better? But, if this CNN pilot study is any indication of how the rest of our country's children would respond, I think we really need to start doing a better job of educating children about discrimination and race. That should probably start with more books and positive shows featuring children of all different colors. Watch some of the clips from CNN below and tell me, what do you think?

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