Children / Race

The Way Children Learn To Love, or Hate, Their Bodies, Minds, and Race

Feb 25 - Racism is taught

Yes, that’s right.

Racism, as act or structure, thought, feeling or  in instutionalised form, is deliberately cultivated and built and so can be undone. 

Exactly 7 month ago, on July 25 2013, I wrote on “How I Came To Be Interested in the Development of Racial Identification in Black and White Children”. A slightly update version of that post appears after this opening remarks.    

The piece followed a chance encounter on the web of the 2010 – is this correct? – CNN study and report fronted by Anderson Cooper on how kids in Obama’s America see race: what they called the AC360 Doll Study. See the fascinating, full coverage of Black or White: Kids on Race here.

In the piece I sketched out my interest in the development of racial consciousness in children. That interest has many fonts, to be sure. Some of the origins of that interest are older, going to age 4. Others sprung up much later. Some of the causes are surely forgotten. I have a faint memory of myself as 4 year-old boy visiting my late, wonderful great aunt who worked as a ‘girl’ in Rosebank, Johannesburg and playing with the employer’s daughter, Nicola or Nicole, and the two of us being kind of discouraged. Much, much, later, around 1995, I am taking a quiet jog in Pretoria when a group of white boys-men on a bakkie throw liquid on me – just for fun –laughing and calling me names. This is infuriating, makes you want to hurt those who hurt right back. And yet, here is the thing: as one keeps working at the racism itch, making friends of all hues, shapes and sizes, taking more jogs, reflecting, researching, theorising, now, only now, one is able to ask: how does the kind of pleasure that boys-men like these develop; what kind of pleasure is there in insulting and injuring others?

Like the pieces of memory just mentioned, the piece of memory work I wrote on last year aimed to point to one of the birthplaces of my interest in racial identity and racism as a subject of scholarly inquiry. Did you think because one is white, one naturally gets interested in studying whiteness? Or because one is born black one must naturally be interest in black men? Right.

I seem to suggest this very false connection below, but what I intend is that South Africa remains a laboratory to understand the changing face of race identity and dynamics of racism.

I am reposting this slightly altered version of the piece, with a different title, because I am at the moment trying to think what to tell the group of young media and film practitioners attending the Sonke Gender Justice Network/Women’s Health and Research Unit at the University of Cape Town (UCT) MenEngage African Training Initiative taking place right now at UCT. The workshop, which goes under the title ‘Media, Film and Gender Advocacy Workshop, started yesterday, Monday Feb 24 and runs till March 5. The workshop is aimed at bringing together organisations that make and use films to address a variety of social issues, with a special focus area the portrayal of men and masculinities in media and film

I am not going to talk to the group about how I came to be interested in the development of racial or gender identification in black and white children, then. But I suspect we will touch on some of the issue. We can’t talk about masculinities, boys and men without talkng about identities. Same with femininities, girls and women. Masculinities and feminities are both structures of practice and identities. And even if I do get to say more about their development, I feel examining how racial, gender and sexual identification develops is very much a subject worth of pursuit, and this reflection deserves rewriting as a longer piece. For the moment, though have a read again and let me know what you think.

  Feb 25 - Is white skin really fair skin


“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. Those interests have tended to revolve around three areas: race, men, sexuality. 

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 hwo 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 whites over blackness and blacks and other related topics. 

One 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. 

Earlier this year I referred to one of the researchers associated with these famous studies: Kenneth Clark. The other researcher was Mamie Clark.

 Feb 25 - Mamie and Kenneth Clark

The reference to the study by the Clarks, which apparently is only known by a certain generation of black 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. I didn’t believe it back then. I didn’t prefer white dolls, did I? But is it clear to everyone else?) Wasn’t this an American phenomenon? 

I don’t know if I overtly promised myself that soon as I got a chance I would investigate this problem. I do know that the issue of how we, black women and men, get to have our preferences and aversions, weaknesses and revulsions, stayed in my mind from then on, usually as a low burning fire but once so often as an internal raging storm. There is, as I have suggested something instructive too for black scholars to learn from investigating whiteness white predilections and hates. But this insight would arrive much later.

However I came to the topic of children’s racial preference, this was the topic I chose to research when I started my post-graduate studies.

It wasn’t to be. It was said there was no one in the department of psychology at the University who was interested in the topic of race or racial identity, or of any other kind of identity. In hindsight, it was unbelievable. Nay, embarrassing.

Here we were, with a history of a vicious, unique, racial discrimination system, the world has ever known, and in a few years’ time the country would undergo a change so fundamental as to reorient, and there was no one working on the psychology of race in this prestigious University. Thank god they do now.

There were some individual researchers in South Africa keen on the subjects of racism, race identification, and related ones, people like Noel Chabani Manganyi. However, there weren’t too many university professors in the country prior to 1994 who were interested in race as a subject of research inquiry.

I can’t get over this. 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 understand. 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 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 nationally 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, such as whether the results of research conducted 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, instead of a million, who think that black is not as intelligent, talented, and beautiful as white, it means changing the racialised preference of black children remains a key challenge for parents of black children everywhere in the world.

Even if there is only a thousand of whites who think that blacks are not as intelligent, talented, and beautiful as them, it means the quest to undo racism and prejudice remains one of our great challenges.”



2 thoughts on “The Way Children Learn To Love, or Hate, Their Bodies, Minds, and Race

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