Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Color Me Confused

I wrote a post last year about how a certain African American teacher said something particularly insensitive and hurtful to me when I was in elementary school and I responded by calling her "Ol' Black Flo" (her first name was Florence and she was darker than me). My grandfather admonished me about calling other black people names and especially, where skin tone and color was concerned. He said that the Ku Klux Klan didn't discriminate and that me and "Ol' Black Flo" could possibly be swinging from nooses right next to each other on the same tree.

I never again called another black person a name concerning their skin tone. It's not like I'm light skinned. I'm brown skinned... the color of a paper bag, if you will. Nobody is going to mistake me for white anytime soon. I don't know where my early impressions of black skin being negative came from. It wasn't from my house or my family because we had many different hues in my family. I suppose it was sub-consciously from the outside world at large. This type of thing can happen to children without them even recognizing it.

Most of my girlfriends were dark skinned. Now, figure that out... while my friends were falling over themselves for the so-called "Redbone", I was more inclined to be attracted to the darkest girl in the room. It had nothing to do with politics of any kind. I was just a child during the "Black Power" era and the Civil Rights Movement. I wasn't too aware of any of that stuff at the time.

So, again... my preference in women and my idea of beauty must have come from somewhere else. My society at large? It could have been nothing more than my tendency to go opposite of what everybody else is doing. Who knows? I don't try to understand too much of what I do... I leave that up to professionals.

Now, I was a child and in grade school in the late 1960's, so any attitudes I had might have been affected by that world... that strange world I was born into where race and race issues were exploding, seemingly everyday. So, you can understand my confusion when I was watching a show on CNN the other night, hosted by Anderson Cooper.

These children, both black and white live now, in 2010, with an African American President. A white child looks at a picture of a black child and says she's bad because she's black. A black child says a white child is ugly because he's white. A white child says a black child is dumb because she has dark skin. This isn't a schoolyard fight that takes a racial turn or a vestige of the "Jim Crow" South... these are American schoolchildren in 2010. Can you believe it?

Nearly 60 years after American schools were desegregated by the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, and more than a year after the election of the country's first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children also have a bias toward white, according to a new study.

Renowned child psychologist and University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, a leading researcher in the field of child development, was hired as a consultant by CNN. She designed the pilot study and used a team of three psychologists to implement it, two testers to execute the study and a statistician to help analyze the results.

Spencer's test aimed to re-create the landmark Doll Test from the 1940s. Those tests, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, were designed to measure how segregation affected African-American children. The Clarks asked black children to choose between a white doll and, because no brown dolls were available during that time, a white doll painted brown. They asked black children a series of questions and found they overwhelmingly preferred white over brown. The study and its conclusions were used in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, which led to the desegregation of American schools.

In the new study, Spencer's researchers asked the younger children a series of questions and had them answer by pointing to one of five cartoon pictures that varied in skin color from light to dark. The older children were asked the same questions using the same cartoon pictures, and were then asked a series of questions about a color bar chart that showed light to dark skin tones.

The tests showed that white children, as a whole, responded with a high rate of what researchers call "white bias," identifying the color of their own skin with positive attributes and darker skin with negative attributes. Spencer said even black children, as a whole, have some bias toward whiteness, but far less than white children.

"All kids on the one hand are exposed to the stereotypes" she said. "What's really significant here is that white children are learning or maintaining those stereotypes much more strongly than the African American children. Therefore, the white youngsters are even more stereotypic in their responses concerning attitudes, beliefs, attitudes, and preferences than the African American children."

Spencer says this may be happening because "parents of color, in particular, have the extra burden of helping to function as an interpretative wedge for their children. Parents have to reframe what children experience... and the fact that white children and families don't have to engage in that level of parenting, I think, does suggest a level of entitlement. You can spend more time on spelling, math, and reading, because you don't have that extra task of basically reframing messages that children get from society."

So, I'm going to ask the question where do we go from here? This isn't something you can throw money at to solve. This is something deeply ingrained in our culture as a whole and therefore, harder to deal with. And, while it is complex, it is surprisingly simple to deal with too. When my grandfather heard me say something he found to be offensive, he quickly corrected me and gave me a rather strong and frightening reason why I shouldn't continue my present behavior. Some people today might have argued that he could have chosen a better parable but I say, he did the right thing. He broke it down where I could understand it and he got his point across.

Parents of both children, black and white can make the difference. Tolerance, being taught by a parent and a relative goes a lot longer than the same message being taught by a teacher, Anderson Cooper, or me for that matter.


Arlene said...

Keith, I've been watching AC360's reporting for the past couple of nights too. I wasn't surprised about this information because not too long ago students in my Sunday School class expressed some ideas much on these same lines. The chatter that day was who liked who in the group. One girl made it known that she didn't care for one of the guys solely because he was dark-skinned. She said straight out, "I don't like dark skinned boys!" Mind you, this came out of the mouth of an academically talented girl. (A Girls' High girl!) She was accepted at Morgan St. Univ, the dark boy at Temple (on a full tuition scholarship) and the light skinned boy was on his way to Morehouse. The girl had 2 brown skinned parents. The dark boy, one dark and one brown skinned parent. The light skinned boy's mother was very dark and his father very light. These kids came from 6 college educated parents, 4 had master's degrees and all had higher than middle class incomes. Where did these color issues come from???
We, parents and adult society as a whole, must be sending wrong messages to our kids if our children are still stuck in this color thing.

Don said...

Yes, I saw the video from the Anderson Cooper deal. I don't know why I remain surprised by the actions of small children when it's obvious they only imitate their atmosphere. Something witnessed or read or heard.

I was very impressed with some of the answers given by certain children where they expressed that people should be judged by how they act and not skin color.


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