Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Racism and Children

Debra Van Ausdale’s provocative social scientific study entitled The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism militates against conventional perspectives on the unilinear transmission of racial prejudice from adult to child, as well as the ominous persistence of institutionalized racism in this country. By investigating the habitual behaviors and rhetoric of young children in a familiar environment without deliberate ethnographic intrusion, the author reveals a striking level of cognitive and emotional complexity in three-to-five year-old children, frequently ordered by relations of power and dominance.

In contrast with most fieldwork to date, Van Ausdale chooses to enter children’s ‘worlds of experience,’ in search of “how children themselves perpetuated racial and ethnic patterns, away from the prying eyes and controlling activities of adults” (2). She moves, thus, from an adultcentric worldview based on an ignorance-mimicry paradigm to a sociocentric perspective that stresses the centrality of the social-mind in the complex construction of Self through human interaction. Her observations illustrate the multiple ways in which children experiment with color and power. By reshaping, blending and synthesizing racial and ethnic information from multiple input sources, children begin to build a toolbox for making sense of and evaluating racial categories. Often dismissed as impossible on account of their immaturity and lack of cognitive development, children are shown to continually carry out complex performances of identity-roles based on power asymmetries. This imbalance fuels and is fueled by the pervasive specter of pejorative stereotyping. Van Ausdale shows how such conceptions are formed not in isolation, but rather in community with other children, which she labels the “process of self-other creation” (92). The text is littered with appalling vignettes of (proto?)racism at work: “only white Americans can pull this wagon” (37), or “I don’t want an African taking care of her [a doll]” (86). And yet, a handful of cases reveal a surprising fortitude and prowess in children’s ability to negotiate intricate multi- and bi-racial identities: four-year-old Corinne’s statement about having ‘two colors in my skin’ due to her parental racial identities, for example. Van Ausdale effectively evidences her suspicion that “the question of color is much more than a question of physical reality” (58).

Van Ausdale’s strategies for reconciliation and growth towards equality maintain that “the unyielding reality of racial segregation at home remains an important and conspicuous part of most children’s everyday lives…Children learn what they live.” (202). This recognition re-focuses the racial lens on the home, which is often neglected in chastising indictments of institutionalized racist settings. The author effectively highlights the web of social and institutional activities that collectively perpetuate solidified power inequalities and prejudice, ranging from the home to the school to employment to incarceration and beyond. The church, too, operates within this broader network, while simultaneously offering a venue for re-programming parental positions on race.

Hope, thus, is never fully lost. Even within a system that produces “privileged participants in a racially rigged game” (210), moments of subversion and resistance break through: “‘So what are you?’ Susan asks Kumar. ‘A person,’ he replies.” (81)

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