Are Kids Naturally Racist?

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Every Monday, The Takeaway focuses on the family. Today, author Jeremy Adam Smith joins us to talk about his young son and discuss the provocative question of whether parents unconsciously raise kids to be racists. He is the author of “Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting Are Transforming the American Family."

Click through for a transcript of this interview.John Hockenberry for The Takeaway: Friend of The Takeaway Jeremy Adam Smith joins us now to talk about his son and pose a provocative question: Is it possible that we unconsciously raise our babies to be racist? Jeremy, you’re the author of “Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family,” joins us. And you are a dude from San Francisco, California, joining us live this morning. Jeremy, thanks for being here.

Jeremy Adam Smith: Thank you very much for inviting me.

John Hockenberry: How did you come to this question, are babies, are young kids, born to be racist and are we as parents responsible in some sense?

JS: Well I work at something called the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley and we’ve seen a wave of research suggesting that human beings are hardwired to notice racial difference and to actually react negatively to it, for a part of the brain called the amygdale to go into high alert when we notice racial difference.

John Hockenberry: And how has this been expressed in your own family?

Jeremy Adam Smith: Well, you know, I think that…We’re a multiracial family, my wife is of Chinese descent, my son’s name is Liko Wai-Kaniela Smith-Doo. And we live in the city, we live in San Francisco. My son rides public transportation, he has playmates of all colors and I think for his first three years that was irrelevant to him. But then when he was about four years old he started asking questions. For example, one day we were watching a pick-up basketball game and he said, he turned to me and he said very thoughtfully, “Daddy, do only black kids play basketball?” Being a good, white liberal, my stomach clenched with anxiety and my palms started sweating and I’m like “My son’s asking about race, what am I going to say to him?” And I remembered this line of research that we had been reviewing and I noticed that, for our son, he’s in a stage of his life, as a pre-school child, where he’s noticing differences all the time and always asking about them: hair color, gender, eye color, why are the drinks over here in the convenience store and not over here? These are just things in his world and he’s making sense of his world, and this is just one question that he has in a series of questions.

John Hockenberry: It’s interesting what you’re describing here because on the one hand you’ve got a child asking totally legitimate questions about why are there these differences in the world, but then you’ve also got popular culture, the external differences in the world, answering some of those questions by the patterns that a child picks up. And the parent, it seems to me, is in the middle here attempting to decode and translate and encourage kids to maybe push out of their comfort zone and question some of the things that they’re seeing. How do you do that?

Jeremy Adam Smith: I think that the most important thing is to really allow your child to set the pace with their questions. Your child is going to ask questions when they are ready to ask questions. And so it’s not a good idea to try to lead them too much. It’s not a good idea to try to instill fear, to try to talk about race in a way that might trigger feelings of fear or anxiety. You have to wait for them to ask the questions, then you have to treat the questions like they’re normal. You can’t say it’s wrong to ask about race. You can’t say it’s wrong to notice race. You have to take it at face value because our children don’t think about race and racism the way we do as adults. They’re really trying to understand their world, and if you approach it from that perspective and if you answer their questions in a way that’s thoughtful and in a way that tries to make the world a better place, then research shows that it has really good results developmentally.

Farai Chideya: Jeremy, this is Farai. I’m not going to question the science that you bring up about, perhaps an initial negative reaction to racial differences, but when I’ve seen kids in different contexts I’ve noticed that the affiliations that seem really strong on a playground or in a classroom, they can be very different. Style of play, whether kids like to rough-house, some kids don’t some kids do, kids split off that way. In some schools where you have a lot of immigrants I’ve noticed that you can have kids who did not speak English in the home clumping together, regardless of what part of the world they come from, and kids who speak English in the home clumping together regardless of what kind of ethnicity they are. On a broad spectrum how important is race to young kids?

Jeremy Adam Smith: One day I was picking up my son at preschool, he goes to the Jewish community center here in San Francisco, and a most of his classmates are Jewish, but there is a substantial number who are half-Asian, half-white. That describes my own family as well as many families there. I go to pick him up at preschool one day and I saw the white boys off to one side hanging out, I saw the white girls to one side hanging out and I didn’t see my son at first, and I look over and there he is with the other half-Asian kids. They were all hanging out. A week later we met with his teacher and she was describing his playmates, who he liked to play with at school, and I noticed they all shared his racial mix. And I think that that was a little bit alarming for me, but again I remembered this research. Children as young as four years old will start sorting themselves according to race, not just race but other differences as well, for example gender, that’s a big one. That’s normal. That’s normal and healthy. And my attitude as a parent…

John Hockenberry: You have to be careful, because then you’re saying it’s abnormal to mix? It’s abnormal to be integrated?

Jeremy Adam Smith: No, it’s not abnormal at all. I think that it’s part of a process, that’s how you have to see it. Are children are not born knowing how to say please and thank you. They’re not born knowing that you can’t hit the table in a restaurant. There’s a lot of things that just don’t come naturally. And we teach them, we socialize them. That’s our job as parents. It’s very important to guide them through their social world and help them grow as people. And a big part of being a parent, helping kids to negotiate race, is helping them notice racial difference, but also teaching them that prejudice is wrong. That it’s good to try to reach across racial bonds and build social bonds.

John Hockenberry: You’ve certainly set out a course for yourself. Jeremy Adam Smith, you are editing a book for Beacon Press called “Are We Born Racist.” I gather you’re comfortable with answering angry e-mails.

Jeremy Adam Smith: [laughs] Yes, we are comfortable with that.

John Hockenberry: And that’s what you intend in this book.

Jeremy Adam Smith: When this first wave of neuroscience research came out that showed that the brain switched to high alert when it noticed racial differences, there was a tendency to say, “Oh my god, we’re born racist. This is terrible news. We’ve revealed the true nature of humanity and that nature is savage and hateful.” But then there was another wave of research beyond that where they discovered, for example, that the longer you were exposed to racial difference, the calmer your mind became. In other words, it wasn’t…we might initially react negatively to that racial difference, but just through exposure, through contact, we gradually became less negative. And sometimes this contact, it was just a matter of minutes. We’re talking about milliseconds and minutes here. So what this second wave of research revealed is that we also have something, there’s a part of the brain called the amygdale, sometimes it’s called the reptile brain, it’s very animal part of the brain, that’s the part that’s lighting up when we see racial differences.

John Hockenberry: Everyone knows that the reptiles are terribly racist. Unfortunately we have to go right at this moment. But Jeremy Adam Smith author of “Daddy Shift: How Stay-at-Home Dads, Breadwinning Moms, and Shared Parenting are Transforming the American Family.” Jeremy also writes the blog Daddy Dialectic.