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Why Are All the Hapa Kids Sitting Together?

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.

Book Cover for The Daddy Shift, links to Beacon Press page for bookThree 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.

But this morning we had a parent-teacher conference and his teachers (one Jewish, one Asian, incidentally) unknowingly confirmed my suspicion: Liko and his Hapa classmates have indeed formed a posse. ("Hapa" is a Hawaiian word for half and half, usually meaning white/Asian. I would actually characterize my son as being "a little bit of this and a little bit of that," but I have no idea how to say that in Hawaiian.)

The teachers didn't put it that way; instead they said, "Liko really enjoys playing with O., A., and L. and they engage in lots of fun activities like...etc." I was the one who privately noted the racial mix of the posse.

I thought about bringing this up in the meeting, but I decided against it. I guessed (wrongly?) that the teachers would greet my observation in a defensive way, as though something bad is going on in their classroom.

But I don't think that at all. I think what's happening is normal and healthy, and I have absolutely, positively no problem with it.

A couple of months in my personal blog, I reported on new research into kids and race: kids do notice race from an early age; by the age of three, they will start sorting themselves into racial groups; it's not unusual or unhealthy for children to gravitate toward the familiar; studies find that kids "who recognize these kinds of differences from an early age show a stronger general ability to identify subtle differences between categories like color, shape, and size--which, in turn, has been linked to higher performance on intelligence tests."

Knowing of this research is a comfort to me, and should be to all parents, I think.

This doesn't mean that Liko and I, and all of us, aren't facing a perilous racial landscape. Racism is a system of privilege based on race, one that still shapes our society. As Beverly Daniel Tatum points out in her 1998 book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, when racial segregation combines with cultural misinformation and inequalities of power, the results are toxic for individuals, institutions, and cultures.

Like does indeed usually attract like, but prejudice is not the inevitable result. Other, considerably less innocent and natural, factors are in play. It's us adults, not the kids, who are responsible for the stereotypes and the power.

There are lots of things children do that we as adults help them to grow out of. We teach them to share, and to say please and thank you, and how to clean up after themselves, and how to cross the street, and much more. All of these lessons are a struggle; our kids resist every step of the way, until they don't. This is just one more item on that list. No need to hyperventilate, no need to feel guilty.

I'm not going to tell Liko, or anyone else's kids, who to play with, but I will do my best to help him expand his world, and try to help him see through stereotypes, and, when he gets old enough, fight against power imbalances. That's what counts the most, or so I believe.

You may also be interested in Jeremy Adam Smith's previous post about being a dad in uncertain times; and Barbara Katz Rothman's post about Barack Obama's mixed heritage.