“Everyone’s a little bit racist sometimes.”
So goes the line from hit Broadway show Avenue Q.
The findings of a book entitled “NurtureShock” about racially discriminating infants and toddlers seems to add some scientific credibility to the possibility that even the youngest among us recognize and realize the utility in making racial distinctions. Should we be concerned? If so, by what exactly?
That the very young recognize skin color variation is not shocking. The fact that youngsters even make attributions about others based on skin distinctions is also not as scandalous as it seems at first thought. What should really give us pause is parents’ (white parents of white children in particular) inability to help their children understand the significance and meaning of skin color differences. This radically reinforces the oldest of racial fallacies: the notion that birds of a feather rightly flock together, that our deepest loyalties lie with our own kind.
So what is it about today’s white parents – who can’t muster a conversation about race with their children, according to the book – that unintentionally links them to centuries-old slave owners, yesterday’s segregationists and present-day opponents of everything from trans-racial adoption to school integration? Quite simply, parents’ silence about the color differences their children recognize very early on communicates a very clear signal: not only are skin color differences natural, but the way we act around and react to those clothed in different skin is natural. It’s natural that everybody that lives in my neighborhood looks like me. It’s natural that most of the kids in my school don’t look like them. It’s natural that the people I pray with at church don’t look like them, and it’s natural that everybody mom and dad invite over for dinner looks like us. That’s how it is supposed to be. Without a clear, explicit voice clarifying how our color-coded society resulted from explicit choices we made, the racial world we now live in appears to the infant eye as the world that always was and always should be – naturally.
Will we ever be able to exorcise the myth of natural selection based on skin color from our collective American consciousness? The twenty-somethings of Generation Next provide some hope that we can. These young men and women are apparently more racially tolerant than previous generations, are less xenophobic, and not as hamstrung by the kind of hollow religious dogma that often curtails racial sensitivity.
More importantly, however, members of this generation interact more closely with individuals from different racial groups. More than half of them frequently talk about racial issues in their school classrooms, and significant numbers of them allow their discussions to impact the way they think about important racial issues. Their ability to openly and honestly discuss race will be important as Generations Next start families of their own and confront racial issues with their children.
But along with the next generation’s optimism, must come a change in the images with which we surround ourselves. If we are to shift thinking away from a naturalized, to-each-his-own approach to racial diversity, our media must reflect the belief that everyone is included in the kinds of “us,” “we,” “our,” forms of racial language and images we use to signal acceptable forms of racial interaction and relationships.
When we look at prime time television for instance, we not only find a continued lack of racial diversity in general, we find few images that convey the reality that diverse forms of configurations even exist, let alone are normal. Shows like Different Strokes or Webster featuring racially blended families are a thing of the past, while those led by interracial couples never were. Reality dating shows feature all-white beauty queens chasing after great white kings, and the scant few interracial friendships work only because those involved resist seeing and certainly discussing race.
Like our real world where purportedly colorblind parents evade racial discussion with their children, our fictitious world of moving images underscores – consciously or unconsciously – a belief in a racially defined natural order. Both must change if we ever hope to loosen the stranglehold the myth of natural – and therefore compulsory – racial separation has on our society.