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Most white parents don’t talk about racism with their kids

Seldom are these conversations actually anti-racist.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Though race and racism are at the top of Americans' public discussion, most white parents don't talk about those issues with their kids.


Research on how white parents discuss race with their children is sparse. However, past research has shown that conversations about race, much less racism, are rare, even when these issues are highly visible – for example, during the Ferguson protests in 2014.

One study found that even though 81% of white mothers believed it was important to have such discussions, only 62% of them reported actually doing so. Of those who said they did, however, fewer than one-third of those people could actually recall a specific conversation.

Teaching generations

To understand the issue more deeply, we examined surveys of more than 2,000 adults ages 18 and older, collected from May 21 to June 14, 2020, in four major U.S. cities – Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York. We were seeking to understand how people's views on race were influenced by their parents. It was part of an ongoing study looking at how people's experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic have been shaped by their race.

Our initial findings indicate that among white respondents, 65% said their parents had "never" or "rarely" had conversations with them about racism when they were children.

In general, we found that younger white people were more likely to have parents who talked with them about about racism compared to those in older generations. Surprisingly, however, those in the youngest age group – 18- to 25-year-olds – were less likely to have parents who talked with them about racism "very often" (only 7%), compared to 26- to 40-year-olds (16%) and to those 41 to 55 years old (12%).

We found that those whose parents talked with them about racism were themselves more likely to talk with their own children about it. However, even during this period of unrest, 27% of white parents of children between 6 and 11 years old told us they "never" talked with their kids about the need for racial equality.

Another 15% said these conversations were "rare," and 34% said they happened "on occasion."

Missing the point

Research shows that the relatively small number of white parents who do discuss race with their children often use what are sometimes called "colorblind" approaches that downplay racism's significance in American society. These conversations usually involve emphasizing the sameness between all people, and minimize or deny the idea of differences between races. Typical themes include "not seeing race" or "treating everyone the same," which ignore or even reject the existence of white privilege and racism.

These discussions can promote a myth of meritocracy that claims anyone can succeed in the U.S. regardless of their race – a belief shared by 57% of the white respondents in our survey. The problem with this colorblindness is that it ignores how racism is embedded in society – for example, in where people live and what kinds of jobs and educational opportunities people have.

Sometimes conversations can also be explicitly or implicitly racist, relying on racial stereotypes premised on the idea of inherent differences between race groups.

Seldom are conversations anti-racist. An anti-racism dialog with children involves acknowledging racial inequalities and the historical and current reasons why they exist. They also include talking about ways a child could help actively undo racism and how not to be a bystander when they see racism being perpetrated.

Changing perspectives

Our data showed that white people who were taught by their parents about opposing racism and what our survey called the "importance of fighting for racial equality" were supportive of doing more to help racial minority groups hit harder by COVID-19.

By contrast, people whose parents had never or rarely talked to them about anti-racism were more likely to feel that racial minorities are themselves at fault for their higher death rates from COVID-19.

We also found that parents' discussions with their kids helped them grow up to have more nuanced views on other aspects of racism in the U.S.

Three-quarters of adults who had, as children, talked with their parents "very often" about racism said that racial minorities do not have the same opportunities as whites. A similar share, 69%, of them said race plays a major role in the types of social services that people receive, such as health care or daycare. And 69% also agreed that race plays an important role in who gets sent to prison.

But of the adults whose parents "never" or "rarely" talked with them about racism, fewer than half – 47% – said racial minorities have different opportunities than whites. Similarly, fewer than half of these people felt that race plays a role in the types of social services people receive or in incarceration – 49% and 48%, respectively.

Resisting racism, challenging racist societal structures and advocating for equity have been an uphill battle shouldered predominantly by individuals, families and communities of color. Our research indicates that the more white parents talk with their children about the realities of American racism, the more aware those kids are, as adults, of inequalities in American life.

David Chae, Human Sciences Associate Professor & Director, Society, Health, and Racial Equity Lab, Auburn University; Leoandra Onnie Rogers, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Northwestern University, and Tiffany Yip, Professor of Psychology, Fordham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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