At several points in my career I have been asked, and at other times have volunteered, how I came to be interested in the research subjects I write on. Before I say how I came upon these interests, first let me say what those interests are.
My work has tended to revolve around mainly three areas: race, men, sexuality. I write about many other things, but questions about race, men and sex run through my work.
The last of these, sexuality is something which I find I always return to, sometimes in spite of myself. I wish I could discard it and write only on more important issues like employment and violence and power. However, I seem unable to escape the idea that sexuality is a powerful force in our social lives, not only in our close relationships and intimate interactions. I can’t get over how it is buried under what are regarded as more important issue like employment and violence and power. Remember Bill Clinton? Jacob Zuma? The money put into having sex, the effort put into making movies about sex, watching sex, talking about sex?
My other interest, which you know of, is men and boys. Nothing more needs saying on that here.
These two areas overlap the first topic I wrote down above and subject of this post: race.
This is an interest I can’t get over even if I wanted to. It always returns in other ways. It is not always a burden, to be sure. Sometimes, many times, I can’t believe who much reward I get from seeing, understanding, and living in the world in this skin – in this place, at this time.
However, the world is not only for delighting in, is it? It has to be explained. It has to be revealed to others. Among those we have to explain and communicate how the world works are children, our own and those for whose education we have been entrusted.
Sometimes that interest in race is focussed on the question of black as identity, practice, relation, or social structure as well as on other aspects of blackness.
At some other times, more so in the last few years, I have looked closely at whites as a race. I have tried to persuade whites to critically engage with their unearned privileges. I have considered whiteness as a culture. I have wanted to understand how people become white. I have also written on the domination of whiteness and other related topics.
The answer of how I got interest in race as a topic I had to research and better understand is that in my first year at university I read what in hindsight was a minimised and yet disturbing reference to a study about the preferences expressed by children when presented with dolls of different colour.
The reference to the study by the Clarks, which is well-known only among a certain generation of psychologists, left an indelible mark on my mind.
Could it be true? It might be understandable in white children. But why would a black child prefer a white doll? (Well, I know the answer now, but it is clear to everyone else). Wasn’t this an American phenomenon?
I don’t know if I promised myself that soon as I got a chance I would investigate this problem. Yet this was the topic I chose to research when I started my postgraduate or graduate studies.
It wasn’t to be. There was no one in the department of psychology who was interested in the topic of race or racial identity, or of any other kind of identity. It was embarrassing, but I was only a student. Thank god they do now.
Frankly, though, there were some individual researchers in South Africa keen on the subject, people like Chabani Manganyi. But there weren’t too many university professors in the country prior to 1994 who were interested in race as a subject of research inquiry.
Funny is not. Identification, racial identification, was the cornerstone of apartheid. It determined near everything. It continues to trouble post-apartheid South Africa, as it does all societies with significant diversity of races.
I never got to do doll racial preference studies. It was only years later, when I started to work as a university teacher, that I returned to the topic by another route.
However, the development of racial consciousness and identification of black children in my view remains one of the most important issues to undestand. This is clear from this report by CNN’s Anderson Cooper in which he is interested in the way black and white children perceive each other.
Please watch the report. If not then watch this. Does it it make you feel all funny, upset, or troubled? Good. As long as it does not leave you indifferent, you have something to work with. Your body is telling you there is a problem.
Here is what I think we need.
We need television that raised issue like these in South Africa. We are talking CNN here, not Al Jazeera.
We need some nationallly representative studies on this topic. And we have to do something about the results we get from such studies.
And last, more practically, as I said earlier in the year, let’s be reminded of what Kenneth Clarke said in ‘From Prejudice and Your Child’ published in 1955:
In spite of the important and rapid steps toward better race relations in the larger society, the (Black) parent is still faced with the responsibility of providing his children with basic foundations of a healthy personality. It is difficult for these children to feel that they are of value unless they are given such indications within the intimate family unit. (Black) children need special assurance that their parents love them and want them. These children need to know that this love is unconditional – that they are loved because they are human beings worthy of love and respect from other human beings. Paradoxically, the social forces that necessitate this relationship in the (Black) family may interfere with the ability of these parents, particularly of the working classes, to express warmth, love, and acceptance for their children – for the (Black) parent is himself the product of racial pressures and frustrations. It is imperative, however, that this cycle be broken. Because it cannot be broken by the child, it must be broken by parents and by larger society.
There are some problems with the Clark’s work. And there are issue about the universality of American children, whether the results of research conduted in the US in the mid-1900s is applicable to South Africa in the 200s. However, Kenneth’s Clark’s assessment is one of the simplest and best conclusions about the way children learn to love, or not love, their bodies, minds and faces. The cycle’s got to be broken. What I get from Clarke work is that which we need more than any other thing.
This is that each of us, today or tomorrow or whenever, if we are to leave the world a better place for our children, must say: I start today to value my child. A child can only really to value himself if he feels valued by his parents and the adults around him. Children learn to love from seeing and learning how love is expressed by those around them. We accept ourselves warts and all if we are accepted by our fathers and mothers warts and all.
Of course this is hard. But this, this work, it’s got to be done.
Even if there is only a thousand of black children who think that black is not as intelligent, talented, and beautiful as white, changing the preference of black children from white to black remains key challenge for black parents everywhere in the world.