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Commentary: Black Parents, We Have a Problem

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Black parents we have a problem. Sixty years after desegregation and 41 years after the King of Soul urged us to "Say it loud, we're Black and we're proud," and with everything from Black Barbies to a Black president, White children still have an alarmingly high rate of "White bias" and Black children are still highly likely to associate White with good and Black with bad. These sad findings were part of a pilot study by CNN's Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien on "Kids and Race" that aired this week. They studied a sampling of children from the Northeast and Southeast aged 4-5 and 9 and 10, who were showed five cartoon-like pictures of girls, all identical except for skin color. The children were then asked a series of questions like, which child is smart? Which one is the mean one? When told, "Show me the bad child," 37% of the younger Black children and 59% of the younger White children picked the two darkest skin tones. When asked to show the "good looking" child, 82% of the younger White children, and 30% of Black children chose the two lightest skin tones. When asked which child was ugly, 57% of the Black children chose the two darker skin tones. Even more painful were the comments of some of the children. It was bad enough to hear White children as young as 4 or 5 years old express how the cartoon child is bad because it is darker, but there was a young Black girl who explained her answer with, "I don't like the way brown looks. It looks nasty sometimes." What a wakeup call to Black parents! The study was similar to the infamous "doll" test conducted in the 1940s by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, designed to study the psychological effects of segregation on Black children. In that test, the Clarks used four diaper-clad dolls, identical except for color, and asked children aged three to seven simple questions to determine their racial preference and perception. The results were so damning, the findings were used as part of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case to show that segregation caused Black children to develop inferiority and self-hatred and damaged their personality development. But we don't have segregation to blame anymore, yet somehow, some way, the majority of our children are still experiencing some level of self-loathing. They don't see being Black for what it truly is: beautiful, powerful and regal. Why is that? According to the study, Black parents are talking about race at an earlier age and more often than White parents. So what is it? Is it the media? Are we talking to our kids but not being cognizant of what they are watching? Even the evening news can be problematic when the welfare story always includes a Black face and the firefighter rescuers are always White. Some time ago, when my son was about four years old, he said very casually one day, "I wish I wasn't Black." I was about to pass out, but instead calmly asked him, "Oh yeah, why is that?" He said, "Wait. What does Black mean?" I told him how Black meant power, strength, beauty, love and then we talked about all the beautiful dark things we love from the soil to chocolate to Batman's costume. At the end he was skipping around the house, shouting, "I love being Black. Black means POWER!!" in his best superhero impersonation. I felt good that I had dodged that bullet for now, but I always check in with that boy of mine to see where his head is at. And I realized that my work of educating my two children and preparing them for the world that awaits goes deeper than telling them they are beautiful. It means telling them why they are beautiful. Making sure they know their real history and not just the empowerment rhetoric. I give my daughter specifics about why I love her hair and all the things we can do with it that her white classmates cannot. It means making sure they see Black beauty and power in action in our friends, our activities and in our travels. Now, let's be clear, I'm more concerned about what we think about ourselves than what they think of us. But my greatest fear is what if all our well-intentioned conversations, our real-talk discussions on having to work harder than White kids does more tearing down than building up? Or perhaps, until White parents step up their game, we are simply outnumbered and the external forces our children meet in school and in the media are greater than the internal power we can exert. After all, the study showed White parents are barely talking about race at all. Instead of dealing with what one psychologist called, "the uncomfortable business" of having real talk about the injustices that continue in our country, most White people prefer to naively act like we live in a color-blind society, while continuing to act out their own biases that are now being picked up by their children -- classmates and teammates of my son and yours. Now, do they really believe we are living in a color-blind, post-racial society or is it that just easier to say so that they don't have to deal with their own issues? I'd argue all day, every day for the latter. And therein, perhaps, lies the problem; no matter how hard we try at home, our children meet White teachers, classmates, coaches and others, who are carrying their own hidden biases. Sometimes unknowingly so. But these biases are playing out in their interactions with our kids, their softer expectations, their language and their cues. Our children feel it. Our children know it. I don't know if I have the answers. I'm just a concerned mother who will be checking back to see your comments and suggestions here, but I do know that our work as parents, my work as a parent, must go beyond talk to making sure our children also have living, breathing role models, good examples, and overexposure to Black culture, books, theater and movies. Their success or failure in life depends on it.
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