What happens when we define some people as more human than others? A Q&A with Susan Fiske about the new science of racism. Note: This post originally appeared on the Greater Good.
The questions raised by racism and xenophobia go straight to the heart of what it means to be human, for they involve dehumanization. Prejudice means we implicitly embrace a definition of humanity that includes some—usually those who most resemble us—and excludes others.That’s why Susan T. Fiske was invited to speak at Being Human 2013, a showcase (co-sponsored by the Greater Good Science Center) of scientific insights into the nature and direction of our species.
Fiske has especially explored how snap judgments shape our social interactions. She has found that people we see as warm and competent elicit the most positive emotion and behavior from us. Unfortunately, however, her studies show that those perceptions are heavily influenced by factors like race, age, gender, disability, and more—and that this millisecond social-sifting translates into widespread stereotyping and discrimination.
As Fiske described at Being Human, all over the world it is the poor, homeless, and immigrants who bear the brunt of discrimination, eliciting feelings of outright—but often subconscious—disgust from study participants. I spoke with her backstage at that event about her research and hopes for a future without prejudice.
Jeremy Adam Smith: What does prejudice reveal about what it means to be human?
I empathized with the issues he faced—I’ve also felt ambushed by racist imagery when reading classic children’s boReadoks to my multiracial child—and I was sympathetic to his viewpoint.
But ultimately, Marche just seems flummoxed by the problem. “How am I supposed to explain to a child the superimposition of cultural generalizations onto toy cars and monsters and space aliens?” he writes. “I can barely explain it myself.”
Neither can I, really. But I think Marche is much too quick to dodge tough questions about kids and race. His bottom-line answer seems to the question in the title is, “Don’t—don’t read racist books to your kids”—and if you do, to excise racist language and imagery. I saw this response echoed by followers on Twitter when I shared his piece.
The trouble with this answer is that it assumes books are either racist or they are not—and if they are, the solution is to simply ignore them. But as a parent and as a journalist who covers scientific research into the roots of prejudice, I don’t believe that’s the best plan, in reading or in life.
Some books, like The Story of Little Black Sambo, are obviously too explicitly racist to bother reading, but since those are often out of print and off library shelves, they are the red herrings of this debate. Because the truth is that there are many very good children’s books which are, like people, often a mix of the bad and the good.
Take the Little House series, for example—wonderful stories that my wife and I have read aloud to our son since he was five. A woman born in the 19th century and raised on the American frontier, Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote these books. They are the product of a time and a place, and we are reading them across a span of time that makes the stories strange to us.
Thus there are portrayals of African and Native Americans that seem stereotypical; many of the characters in the books are casually, bluntly white supremacist in their attitudes. In one passage in Little Town on the Prairie, for example, Laura’s father—a good man—participates in a minstrel show with grotesque racial caricatures, and Laura refers to the performers as “darkies.”
At the same time, however, there are elements in these stories that confound our own stereotypes of the time—characters like the African-American doctor, based on the real-life George Tann, who saves Laura, her family, and her neighbors from malaria in 1870. A black doctor treating whites in 1870? Who is, indeed, the only doctor—and likely the most educated man—in the region? In the narrative, Laura notes his race but doesn’t dwell on it. Tann is less strange or unexpected to her than he might be to us. This is part of the value of reading old, classic stories—discovering how people of past times lived and saw the world, and taking the good with the bad.
But even granting that reality, the question remains: How do we help our children navigate obsolete racial attitudes and stereotypes that will, if internalized, hurt their ability to navigate multiracial 21st-century America—and even hurt them, if they are kids of color? Here are three tips, largely distilled from the Greater Good anthology I co-edited called Are We Born Racist? New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. Each one arises from scientific research, but I’ve put them to the test in my parenting, messy and imperfect as that is.
1. Openly discuss the existence of race and racism.
Prolonged exposure to people of different races helps reduce anxiety—this is the famed “contact hypothesis,” and the reason why it’s very good to raise children in multiracial environments. But it might be even more important to openly identify and discuss feelings about people who are different from us, to make ourselves conscious of kneejerk responses so that our conscious brains can take over and regulate unconscious bias. Children can be trained to do this from a very early age—teaching impulse control is, in fact, fundamental to childrearing. This is just one more example of that.
How is that insight operationalized in my parenting?
Long before our son was exposed to ambiguous racial imagery in books like the Little House series, we read him children’s books about black, Asian, Native American, and Latino history, especially ones that show how non-White peoples were treated at different times in American history. These include Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s trilingual Pie-Biter[Editor's Note: McCunn is also the author of A Thousand Pieces of Gold, which was published by Beacon Press], Diana Cohn’s ¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!, Richard Michelson’s Across the Alley, and Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House series, which does a pretty good job of dealing with race and racism in historical context. Each of these books reveals, to some degree, the realities of racism, while also giving children heroes—people throughout history who have struggled against prejudice.
This, I hope, is the framework my mixed-race son brings to encounters with yellow menace imagery in the old comic books that I love reading to him. And when we encounter a “slant-eyed, Oriental mastermind” (to quote one old comic of mine), I stop, close the book, and tell him that image is a product of prejudice, and that I think prejudice is wrong. I try to answer any questions he has. Then I re-open the book… and keep reading.
2. Emphasize our capacity to grow and change.
Speaking of comic books: Ever hear of the superhero team Thunderbolts? They’re a group of Marvel supervillains who are trying to reform themselves and put their powers to use in saving the world. I love the Thunderbolts—as well as other morally complex comic characters like Wolverine, Catwoman, Silver Sable, and more—because they reveal an essential human truth: few of us are pure good or pure evil. “Good” people can do bad things, and “bad” people can do good things—and perhaps become a force for good in the world, no matter what bad they did in the past.
That message is completely consistent with neuroscience. This is a message readers hear again and again in our anthology Are We Born Racist?: “Research consistently shows that we can override our automatic associations through our behavior, and can even unlearn our automatic associations with enough practice,” writes co-editor Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Thus we’re not simply either egalitarian or prejudiced; egalitarianism is a learned skill.”
This is a message kids need to hear—not just when it comes to countering prejudice, but in all areas of life. Psychology calls it the “growth mindset,” and its message is simple: You will grow and you will get better with practice—and so will other people. When we encounter Oriental masterminds in the comics of yesteryear, I emphasize to my son that what was OK then is not OK now. I often connect this process of change to the political activism we’ve read about in other books, like Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins.
These moments are also excellent opportunities to develop empathic skills, which both scientific studies and common sense say can help reduce bias. We can, for example, ask how it might make black people feel, to be told they couldn’t eat or drink in certain places, just because they were black—or to see the minstrel shows like the one in Little Town on the Prairie.
“To understand prejudice and the brain,” writes psychologist David Amodio, “one must take the brain (and the mind) for what it really is: a survival machine.” It’s designed to search for threats, which could come from people outside the tribe. But it also evolved to negotiate complex social interactions and to override automatic impulses. “The brain cannot be anti-racist, per se, because it never stops spotting differences and sorting people into categories,” writes Amodio. “But it is pro-goal—and if the goal is to make judgments without regard to race, the brain can do that, though it may take a bit of effort and practice.”
The point is that we should encourage children to adopt fairness as a goal, and to not reject people just because they look different—and reading a children’s book with racist imagery and ideas provides an excellent opportunity to reiterate the importance of that goal. And in this, we are again helped by evolution. As we report every week here at Greater Good, many, many studies have suggested that human beings are wired for altruism, compassion, and empathy. Group identification can limit those qualities and prevent us from extending them to people outside the tribe, but that’s no reason to throw up our hands in defeat. The challenge—and the opportunity—is to provide our kids with the messages and the social environments that elicit their natural impulses for fairness.
Even if human nature is not quite the ally I hope it is, the basic point stands: We have to ask our children to adopt fairness to all people as a goal, and to call out unfairness when we encounter it in one of their books, movies… or inside ourselves. Research says the more explicit we are with children about that struggle, the better. We’ll overcome racism by talking about it, not ignoring it.
In anticipation of Father’s Day, the International Museum of Women put together a gallery on “the changing role of the modern dad,” which includes a global facts and figures, a three-minute video on how mothers around the world view fatherhood, a documentary about stay-at-home dads in Hungary, and profiles of fathers in South America and Africa. They also invited me to contribute an essay on why and how fatherhood has evolved in North America. This was originally shared on the Berkeley Blog, and reposted on Beacon Broadside in honor of Father's Day.
In 1946, when my grandfather mustered out of the army and married my grandmother, he set up what looked like the ideal family at the time. His wife quit her job and he started work driving a crane in a quarry—a job he would do for the next forty years, working up to six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day. When I asked him if he faced any challenges raising his three children, he replied, “I never did. My wife took care of all that. She brought the kids up.” This arrangement came with a rigid hierarchy: “She worked for me,” said my grandfather of his wife. “I always said, ‘You work for me.’”
By the time my mother and father met in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, more and more people were starting to question this division of labor between men and women. The following year, the United States Congress formally abolished sex discrimination at work. I was born in 1970. “I wanted to be closer to you than my father was to me,” my dad told me when I interviewed him for my book, The Daddy Shift. “I wanted to participate more in my kids’ lives.” Even so, my parents never questioned for a moment that he would make most of the money and she would change most of the diapers.
By 1988—the year I graduated from high school—only 29 percent of children lived in two-parent families with a full-time homemaking mother. And like many Baby Boomer couples, my parents split in 1991—the same year I met the woman who is today my wife. By the time we became parents in 2004, my wife and I were stepping into a family landscape that was totally different from the one my grandparents faced in 1946.
For one thing, we never assumed that one of us was the natural breadwinner and the other a natural caregiver—instead, we saw those as roles that we would share and negotiate over time. For a year, I took care of my son while my wife went to work, and as we visited playgrounds, I met many other dads who took care of their kids while their female partners were at work.
This personal reality reflects one that has been empirically measured. For almost every decade for the past 100 years, more and more women in the United States have gone to college and work. For most of the past three years, men have been much more likely to lose their jobs than women, who are concentrated in fast-growing, high-skill industries like health care and education. Between 2009 and 2010, men with college degrees saw their median weekly earnings drop three percent while the income of women with degrees grew by 4.3 percent. Today, young women’s pay exceeds that of their male peers in most metropolitan areas.
Not coincidentally, fathers now spend more time with their children and on housework than at any time since researchers started collecting comparable data. I call it “the daddy shift” — the gradual movement away from a definition of fatherhood as pure breadwinning to one that encompasses a capacity of caregiving.
The right-wing “family values” movement has painted these trends as a crisis, but no one I know experiences them that way. Instead, we seem to share a positive (if often unarticulated) vision of the family as diverse, egalitarian, voluntary, interdependent, flexible, and improvisational. Many people hold these ideals without necessarily being conscious of their political and economic implications—and they’re not making politically motivated choices. In researching The Daddy Shift, for example, I didn’t interview any breadwinning moms and caregiving dads who adopted their reverse-traditional arrangement for feminist reasons. They almost always framed their work and care decisions as a practical matter, a response to brutally competitive labor and childcare markets.
Indeed, I don’t believe that a political force like feminism has driven men and women to share roles more equally; it seems more accurate to say that feminism has tried to teach people to personally adapt to broad, deep economic and technological changes that made equality more possible and desirable—and the movement has fought for public policies that would support our new roles at home and at work.
Rising inequality and economic instability has meant that many families can’t afford specialists anymore, with one focused on career and the other exclusively on taking care of the family. And so couples are moving from a family model that prioritizes efficiency to one that tries to build resilience in the face of economic shocks. In the ideal resilient family, both women and men are capable of working for pay and working at home.
But families often fall short of this ideal, partially because of lingering structural and interpersonal sexism, and partially because men lack support for their new caregiving roles at both home and work. Studies consistently show that 80 percent to 90 percent of mothers still expect fathers to serve as primary breadwinners (and very few will consider supporting a stay-at-home dad). At work, only seven percent of American men have access to paid parental leave, among other structural limitations.
How can the daddy shift continue? The to-do list is long. It includes an education campaign to help men of all social classes understand what workplace and public policies can help them be the fathers they want to be — and legal campaigns that will defend their jobs against backward attitudes at work. Men whose mindsets are still shaped by the sole-breadwinner ideal need explicit permission and encouragement from both their female partners and their bosses to take advantage of leave policies and participate in family life.
We also need to shift the language we use to discuss work-family issues in a more inclusive direction, so that it includes fathers as well as mothers. That language should stress resilience and meaning to men instead of the language of equality that has mobilized women. In the end, it’s up to guys to tell the stories of our lives and speak up for what we want. No one will do it for us.
1. When I walked up to the studio, the guest entrance was besieged by awe-struck teenage girls. Were they waiting for me? Er, no, they were there for a supernaturally handsome dude I later learned was Peter Facinelli, one of the stars of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse:
Peter and I were ushered into the studio together; he gave me the once-over to make sure I wasn't somebody famous, and then ignored me. That's OK, because I didn't recognize him either, and I would rather gouge out my own eyes than watch The Twilight Saga.
"Last month my son and I were playing with his friend Oliver (not his real name) when Oliver had a seizure.
It came at me sideways; his scream possessed a rattling amplified quality, as though it were coming through an old speaker, and I saw his little body flex and seize out of the corner of my eye. I knew Oliver had epilepsy (as well as other difficulties) but I confess I needed an agonizingly eternal five seconds to understand what was happening. I was knocked out of my momentary paralysis by Oliver's mom, who leapt over to him and shouted at me to call 911. Even in the moment, some part of my mind murmured to me a reminder that I had been spared watching my child go through what Oliver was going through."
Once upon a time, I rode a bike instead of driving to work, because that seemed better for the sky and the earth—not to mention my health. I read the newspaper every day and I voted in every election. I joined our friends in marching for peace in the Middle East and for gay and lesbian equality, even though I’m as straight as a ruler.
And it goes without saying that my wife and I enjoyed a habitually egalitarian relationship. Of course she worked and I worked. Of course we shared housework. Of course we talked through all decisions that affected both of us.
In short, I led a reasonably socially conscious, environmentally responsible life, just like lots of guys.
Then in July 2004, we became parents. The marching stopped. Instead I pushed a stroller. I struggled to change diapers, not society. And the issues I once cared about so much—peace, the environment, economic and racial justice—seemed suddenly irrelevant to my daily life. My values hadn’t changed, but everything else had: the demands on my time, my priorities, my view of the world.
No surprise there, of course. Moms are still the ones most likely to be taking care of kids. But where does that leave families who don't fit the traditional mold? And how does that help parents who want to provide caring role models to their sons?
There are books out there, few and far between, that depict dads as co-parents and primary caregivers. In an effort to find them, I consulted bookstores in San Francisco as well as my local children's librarian.
My list is not exhaustive; these are only the ones I can recommend, and there are many titles I found online that I wasn't able to read in real life. And because these kinds of books are so rare, I'm willing to bet that there are plenty out there that few people know about.
Today's post is from Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming from Beacon Press in spring 2009. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic.
Predictably, opponents have been predicting that the sky will fall. Chuck Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center, for example, claims that heterosexual marriage is the "seabed and cradle of civilization," and that same-sex marriage "is a battle of good versus evil, truth versus lies."
I'm not gay. I am a married, heterosexual father. I am also raising a child on the border between Noe Valley, a notoriously child-friendly enclave in San Francisco, and the Castro, one of the world's gayest neighborhoods. In San Francisco, one doesn't have to imagine a dystopian time when homosexuality is an integral part of American life. In my neighborhood especially, that particular "apocalypse" is now, and it apparently involves a great deal of diaper changing. Gay and lesbian families are a daily reality in the place where I live-- in particular, they are very much a part of my family's daily life, my son's life.
I expect Iowans and Vermonters-- along with residents of Maine and New Hampshire and, indeed, everyone in America-- might be interested in hearing how it's going, since those states are about to join Connecticut and Massachusetts in becoming popular destinations for same-sex weddings. Have the gay and lesbian couples around us undermined my marriage or threatened my son in some way? In neighborhoods like ours, have the Christian Right's apocalyptic predictions of social collapse come to pass?
Today's post is from Jeremy Adam Smith, senior editor of Greater Good magazine and author of The Daddy Shift, forthcoming from Beacon Press in spring 2009. He blogs about the politics of parenting at Daddy Dialectic, where this post, in a slightly different form, originally appeared.
Three weeks ago I went to pick up my son, Liko, from preschool and found his class gathered outside the school, waiting for the mommies and daddies.
Something struck me: The white girls huddled in one group and the white boys in another.
Where was Liko? He and his three other part-white/part-Asian classmates, boys and girls, were off to one side, hanging out with each other. (A note on demographics: Since this is a Jewish Community Center preschool, a majority of the kids, including the half-Asian ones, have at least one Jewish parent; there are no black or Latino kids in his class. I should also note here that the white/Asian mix is very, very, very common in San Francisco, as it is in Hawaii, where my wife grew up.)
Now, my perception has to be taken with a grain of salt. When it comes to sources of social tension like race, adults see what they're prone to see, and I'm no exception.