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Race: The Power of an Illusion

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Today we showed part 1 of the PBS documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion to the introductory class I TA for. This part is about the lack of biological support for the idea of human races as sub-species as they exist in the rest of biology – sub-groups that effectively don’t mate or mate very little, occupy different habitats or geographic range, and are considerably genetically different from one another. On the whole, I very much liked the approach of the section we watched – the documentary shadows a group of students at a DNA lab examining their thoughts about race and comparing their mtDNA with their classmates in ways that highlighted the larger points about the continuity of human diversity between ‘races’ and the large proportion of human variation present between two individuals with the same racial identity.

I look forward to the second two parts of the documentary, but some review of my own racial attitudes and awareness got me thinking about when racism is transmitted to children, particularly whether there is any work in cognitive psychology about the age at which discriminations and preconceptions are first transmitted. In The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, sociologists Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin write about the problem whereby adults, particularly white ones, excuse racist statements in young children by saying that “they don’t understand.” This denial of the early emergence of racist attitudes then hinders the active challenging of such attitudes, as teachers and parents convince themselves that children do not understand the implications of racial identity and do not actively teach children about the issue. This book includes descriptions of classroom interactions involving race between children as young as three, based on 11 months of non-interactive observation performed by Van Ausdale. Many of the incidents she describe point to the difficulty of interpreting the actions of young children, particularly in a racial context, but some are unambiguous in their characterization of young children making racial judgments. However, one of the most striking elements of the book is the manner in which the teachers (in an institution that places high emphasis on child acceptance of all races) are constantly shaping the children’s views of racial categories and classification and are showing their own discomfort with racial ambiguities or mixed heritage.

Another article I lit on during my brief Google search is a public health study by Caughy entitled Experiences of Racism Among African American Parents and the Mental Health of Their Preschool-Age Children. ¬†One of my own classes, Biocultural Anthropology, focuses on the interaction between cultural and social processes and health disparities. In terms of health impacts children are often a very sensitive barometer of population stress (their deciduous teeth can reflect maternal nutritional deficiencies, for example). It’s interesting to consider, as this article¬†does, how children might measure social impacts of racism equally sensitively.


Written by diggingellen

February 4, 2011 at 9:58 pm

Posted in Biological Determinism, Race

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