Teaching Our Children to Avoid Racial Bias and Prejudice

I am white. My husband is white. My son is white. ALL my relatives, both biological and through marriage, are white. And I am appalled by the findings of the Justice Department’s investigation into the racial discrimination in the Ferguson police and court system. As striking as the statistics are on the increased rates of police stops, ticketing and other charges faced by black residents of Ferguson, it was the racial slurs and stereotypes shared by police and court employees – through government email accounts! – that was most shocking. The box below shows the emails published by the DOJ (without names) and listed on NPR’s website.

Ferguson police/court staff emails disclosed by the Department of Justice:

  • A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.”
  • A March 2010 email mocked African-Americans through speech and familial stereotypes, using a story involving child support. One line from the email read: “I be so glad that dis be my last child support payment! Month after month, year after year, all dose payments!”
  • An April 2011 email depicted President Barack Obama as a chimpanzee.
  • A May 2011 email stated: “An African-American woman in New Orleans was admitted into the hospital for a pregnancy termination. Two weeks later she received a check for $5,000. She phoned the hospital to ask who it was from. The hospital said, ‘Crimestoppers.'”
  • A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.”
  • An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.”
  • A December 2011 email included jokes that are based on offensive stereotypes about Muslims

My 12-year old son was really surprised when we discussed this at dinner last night and I said that the least offensive email was the one that said President Obama wouldn’t be in the White House long because black men can’t hold down steady jobs. When we talked about the list he said, “Oooh, that’s racist!” Despite being white, racism is something he’s attuned to because many of his friends at school are Asian – and one of my best friends is black and we are god-parents/brother/dogs for her two little girls.

Avoiding-bias-and-prejudiceThere are many issues that the Ferguson report raises – but one that struck me is how we prevent these types of offensive perspectives and stereotypes being adopted by our children. This is important because we’ve seen that these biases limit the potential of victims, create mental distress and discord in society, and – as we’ve seen – can lead to violence.

What we’ve worked to do is expose our son to diverse people – not maybe for that reason – but because we are also drawn to diverse groups. I’m not friends with an African American woman so my son can experience diversity – but when she has taken him into her home, family and church I’ve been glad that he is experiencing another culture (she describes her environment as another “culture”); another slice of life. The same can be said of having his Chinese classmates over for a sleepover and having the Indian family down the street (who have since moved and we really miss!) over for dinner.

The other thing we’ve done – which I’m particularly glad of having just read an article called “What White Children Need to Know About Race” – is that we’ve spoken about race, discrimination and bias. We had to learn early how to have sensitive conversations about groups versus individuals and not being prejudiced about someone’s membership in a given group….because my mother-in-law is German and my husband is a war history buff – so we had to explain why Omi and all the German relatives are not bad when all the WWII movies here show Germans as the enemy. When talking about countries, dictators, racial groups, whatever – we often talk about the context of people’s lives and its impact on them, their opportunities, and behavior. We’ve also discussed what a stereotype is and why these short-cuts based on generalizations about groups – though often rooted in some truth – are offensive and harmful when applied to individuals. And we’ve tried to bring it back to a person or situation that is familiar…how do you think Miss T would feel? Is that really a fair thing to say about L?

But even with all the emphasis in our family on avoiding all types of prejudice, I’ve realized in thinking about the Ferguson case, that we fall short sometimes – on ethnic, gender, and lifestyle issues. This situation has caused me to think about how we can do an even better job of preventing bias and prejudice from taking hold in our house. Below are a few resources I found to create an inclusive environment – at home, school, or wherever:

Understanding Prejudice.org

Anti-Defamation League

Teaching Tolerance

Children Are Not Colorblind – University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity – The Leadership Conference

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


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