Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Peace and love to all mankind

When I was young, one of the first excitements of the Christmas season was selecting cards to give to my friends from the "Webb Ivory" catalogue. I often selected a "Children of all nations" card, adorned with cartoons of round faced kids representing different countries, usually waving flags, and with "peace" emblazoned across them.

We're fortunate to live in a place where our preschool classroom looks much like those cards, though perhaps with rather less peace than the teachers would like. It was therefore with great interest that I read the chapter of Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's fascinating book, Nurture Shock about race, diversity and children, which is published here in Newsweek.

The prevailing dogma has been that children don't really notice differences in race, and that furthermore a good way to ensure a child grows up "color blind" is simply to have them in a diverse environment. That had been my belief. Not true, and not sufficient, the authors say.

Anyone who knows kids, especially if they have been in a communal changing room while a three year old points to a fellow customer and starts singing  "I like big butts", knows that they are startlingly observant. They notice the differences and similarities in appearance between themselves, their peers and the characters in their story books from the earliest age, and what is more, babies prefer people who look more like them. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, those most likely to protect you are probably the ones whom you resemble.

No doubt since the very dawn of time  humans have been dividing themselves into groups based upon arbitrary differences in appearance or belief (skin colour, eye shape, whether or not the communion wafer actually becomes 'the body of Christ' or merely represents it, whether they support Arsenal or Chelsea..... ) and fighting each other over them. We do seem to be hard wired to fall into an "us" vs "them" mentality, as experiments (described in the article) giving kids different colored T shirts and watching the results on social interaction have shown. So if kids intrinsically seek out similarities and differences and divide the world accordingly, short of waiting for an alien invasion which will finally force all humanity to embrace each other as "Us" vs. the extraterrestrial "Them", what are we to do as parents to bring up children who truly believe all people are equal?

Well a diverse environment is a good start, but apparently it takes more than that. It turns out that my kids preschool already had the right idea. I was at first rather disconcerted by the proactive nature of the diversity education at our preschool. For one activity, when geekygirl was about two and a half, The teachers had provided construction paper circles in skin tones from pale pink through dark brown, eyes ranging from azure. through gold and green to black, and wool for hair in all kinds of curliness and colours. The children were encouraged to examine and describe themselves and each other, then made a picture representing their own appearance and that of two of their friends. The teachers had written examples of their lesson, and the children's comments and observations on the wall.

Geekygirl showed me proudly and explained her work "I have pinkish skin and reddish curly hair and green eyes, and Olivia has brown skin and black curly hair and brown eyes and Maya has light brown skin and short black hair and brown eyes. People have brown skin and brown eyes because a long time ago they come from hot countries where there is more sun, and people have pinky white skin if they come from cold places...." At the time, I wondered whether is was appropriate to be so blatant about describing differences and similarities to such young children, but according to the article, recognizing and describing our differences is the best way to teach tolerance and equality.

The lessons seem to have taken root with Geekygirl. I am hoping that the teaching she gets at preschool will help her grow into a person who has no vestige of racial prejudice. The philosophy, combined with the fact that her classmates and teachers are just about the most diverse group of people you could find anywhere in the world; Chinese, Filipino, Black, South American, Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Indian, as well as White Caucasian (which we are) and many kids with parents from different races with no one group having a majority, should set her up well to be a true citizen of the world.

Last week, colouring a picture of herself she told me "I'm going to give myself brown skin like Jaelle" and selected a dark caramel colored crayon. I have also heard her observe "Mummy, only one of the princesses has brown skin, that's Princess Jasmine and her skin is light brown (Though Princess Tiana is finally adding some diversity to the Princess posse this December). I was struck by how multicultural her world view is, when on a whim I asked her what her constant companion, her imaginary friend Leah, actually looked like. "Leah has golden really curly hair, brown eyes and brown skin" I was informed. 

Like many white British people from the home counties, I grew up in a fairly monocultural environment, one where being of Italian descent, as many kids at my Catholic secondary school were, was considered "ethnic". I have a strong desire, shared by many of the parents I know here to have my children in a socially, economically and ethnically diverse preschool and school environment. Our preschool achieves this effortlessly; it is relatively inexpensive, has hours that cater to two parent working families, and it is located in an ordinary, affordable (well as affordable as anywhere in the Bay Area is) neighbourhood, South San Francisco.

Some of the "snootier" private preschools and schools in San Francisco proper actively seek out ethnically and socially diverse families for their student body, making it harder for people who are in one of the majority ethnic groups of the upper middle class to get in to them.  We joke that ii is a "fake diversity", the students might be of many different races and speak several languages, and their parents might be gay or lesbian, but the only real diversity amongst the parents is whether they got their MBA at Berkeley or Stanford.

We're hoping to get Geekygirl into a decent San Francisco public school (for UK readers that means a state school, and the baffling complexities of the SF school system will be the subject of a future post), but if we have to compete for slots at one of these fancy private ones at least we have a trump card; the kids might be plain old whiteys (though with immigrant, not American, parents), but at least our daughter has a mixed race imaginary friend!

How do you and your kids and others in your community identify ethnically? Do you worry about helping your kids grow up to be color blind, or whether they will be discriminated against?