Teaching kids about race after a “teachable moment”

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Sgt. James Crowley and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. agreed to disagree Thursday night when they met for a beer with President Obama at the White House. But the cold draft that the men shared did not quite quench the hot controversy over race relations that has swept the nation.

“My hope is that as a consequence of this event, this ends up being what’s called teachable moment,” the president said just a few days before the “beer summit.”

Gates’ arrest was the so-called “teachable moment” that re-ignited a debate on race in this country. It created a conversation about whether we are living in a post-racial America, and raised the question: how do we learn what we know about race in the first place?

“If you don’t have a teacher, don’t have a parent, don’t have other who engage you in conversation about what these things mean, then you’re stuck with those very prejudicial notions about people and that’s how the ball really gets rolling,” said Charlton McIlwain, associate professor of media, culture and communications at New York University.

Experts agreed that social interactions and the media are important in developing children’s attitudes and opinions on race. But the most influential factor is what they learn in their very own homes.

“The number one way we learn about race as children are from what we hear from our parents,” said psychologist Dr. Jeff Gardere. “It is what our parents say about race, how they react to other people, and what the culture is in our homes around issues of race.”

Parents like Kathy Miller agreed.

“If you start to laugh, and, then they learn that that’s what they should do,” she said. “If you see another person of a different race, and you make a comment, then that’s what they learn. They learn that even before they become articulate on the subject.”

Although there is no specific age at which parents should first address the issue of race with their children, experts and parents said that in most cases the younger the child, the better.

Terrance Wilmore, a director from New York, thinks that youth should be first taught about race when they are entering kindergarten.

“That’s when they really develop who they are,” he said. “So if you can get that embedded in them at that time, they wont grow up to be influenced so easily.”

Bless Roxwell, a black woman who grew up in Boston, said that she never interacted with people of other races until she entered middle school.

“My mom would only buy me black Barbie dolls because she felt very strongly about the fact I wasn’t represented on television,” she said. “In terms of identifying myself, and identifying with people who look like me, I didn’t really have that.”

Originally from California, Lily Faden was never exposed to other cultures until recently moving to New York to attend New York University. She first learned about racism late in elementary school while studying civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

“Until moving to NY, I was not surrounded by basically any other race than white, Protestant America,” she said. “Living here has been a big culture shock and it’s definitely the best way to learn how to tolerate different people and learn about new cultures and everything just by living in it.”

As Gates and Crowley get back to their normal lives, the lingering impact of their altercation remains strong fodder for the American public as it works towards Obama’s goal of living in a post-racial America. The conversation about race — and how to teach others about racial differences — will likely continue.