May 19th, 2010
04:40 PM ET

Imani Perry: The Color We See But Don't Speak

Editor's note: Imani Perry is a Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. This article was originally published on HuffingtonPost.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Imani Perry. Watch our continuing series on the doll study tonight on AC360° at 10pm ET.

This week Anderson Cooper 360 is airing a four-part series on a CNN commissioned study that examines how children view skin color. The results of the study, led by University of Chicago professor Margaret Beale Spencer, show that white children show a high bias towards white skin, and black children show a less, but still significant bias toward white skin as well. The children who were subjects of the research were in two age groups, 4-5 and 9-10.

I must say that the study, while heartbreaking, is not surprising. I am the mother of two African American boys, ages 4 and 6. In our household we talk about race frequently, we celebrate African American literature, music, and art. We teach appreciation for our culture and other cultures. We immerse them in the beauty of our ethnic tradition. However, even with all of this deliberate effort, it is a serious uphill battle to work against the image of race they are exposed to on a daily basis.

My elder son repeatedly comments on the marginality or complete absence of Black characters in virtually all children's television programming except what he, of his own accord, calls "black shows." He already knows that he is designated as the sidekick in this society. So do his classmates.

But more than that, he knows that for Black characters, lighter skin is valued, particularly on programming for tweens. It is even more dramatic for girls. I cannot recall the last time I saw a brown or dark skinned black girl on a mainstream children's television show besides that lone wolf of racial inclusion Sesame Street. Even when the parents are dark skinned, the girls are significantly lighter. The same issue exists in advertising in children's magazines and catalogs.

When Harry Reid's comment about Obama's light skin and absence of "Negro dialect" hit the media, my first thought was of children and how they probably also knew that Obama's lighter skin made a difference to many of the adults around them. After all, it clearly matters when it comes to the celebrities we teach them to admire, and even for the cartoon characters we entertain them with.

What happens on television and in print media gets repeated out in the world. I recently took my boys to the beauty supply store one day because I needed to buy some barrettes. They marveled at the rows and rows of long flowing wigs and weaves in this store catering to Black women. In that moment they learned that for many Black women hair that looks and feels like something completely different from what grows out of their heads is vastly preferred. And they were being taught something about what the world considers beautiful. How much will it matter, I wondered, that I model a celebration of our hair and skin, with a world speaking against me?

There are times when, at the bookstore, we have opened children's books dedicated to some hero in African American history, and found the troubling phrase "a good slave master" as in "Henry Box Brown had a good master" as though there wasn't a fundamental evil to holding people in life long inherited bondage. What does it mean to a Black child when we soft pedal the most inhumane feature of the Black experience in the United States?

My children are often witnesses when we (parents, grandparents, other adult caretakers) experience racist micro-aggressions: the change that is dropped on the counter instead of returned to the hand, the failure of retail sales people to make eye contact, the clutched purses, the rude responses, the greetings that we offer that are not returned, the clerks who follow us in stores. They see the adults who love and care for them, who diligently teach them to be kind and respectful and hard working, treated unfairly on the basis of race. This experience is normal for children of color in the United States.

All of our children see race. They see the differences in the way we are depicted and treated. They see the gaps in our socioeconomic conditions that are so highly influenced by race. When we don't talk to them about race and inequality, the only way they have to make sense of it all is to assume that there is a greater human value for those who by accident of birth are white.

I am a professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. By the time I get to talk to young people about race they are on the brink of adulthood. They are formed in many ways. But each day in the classroom with them yields so much. My students are bubbling over with the desire to learn, understand and make sense of race: this taboo subject that has been around then every single day. I immerse them in a great deal of scholarly research and analysis of race, to allow them to develop deep understandings of how it has operated and how it continues to matter. I am appreciative that these conversations are a central part of my life's work. However, I hope that this CNN series will encourage parents, schools and community organizations to begin these conversations with young people sooner, to demand better from our media and our communities, and to continue to educate ourselves along with our children, about race.

Filed under: 360° Radar
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    I think we will never rid our country of racial problems but we can make sure our children are more than competitive in education and marketable around the world. We don't have to live, work or be educated in this country, opportunities not based on color is more tolerated in other countries.

    May 20, 2010 at 9:57 am |
  2. Trisha

    My 8 year old son walked in the room while I was watching the show. Took a moment to pick his brain. I asked if he agreed with the boy and he said no, I then explained what the show was about and I threw a series of questions at him "what does your skin color have to do with your brain, what color is your brain, what color is a white persons brain etc" he said "a white person can be smart just like a black person". I told him his skin color is just that "a color"... I've done my part, now you do yours.

    May 20, 2010 at 12:20 am |
  3. Robert

    I wanted to write on the live chat but it was already closed. Anderson should have people from BOTH or ALL races, not just black. They should also be informed. I used to think quite a bit of Soledad O'Brien, until she brought up welfare mothers. She seemed very happy to say there are more white mothers than black on welfare. Big problem, that's only part of the truth. There are more white mothers on welfare but when you use the percentage of women on welfare in their respective races there are more black mothers on welfare than white. I would rather none were on welfare, I just want people to speak the whole truth.

    May 19, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  4. Diane Berube Canada

    I think this has a lot to with parenting.

    May 19, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
  5. MIke

    Having a Caucasian mother and African father, I know about race. Being born as well as raised in Miami, you have, as a child, experienced race.

    I am lighter than both of my siblings, because of this, I noticed how people would treat us differently. As time went on, I noticed that it was because I was born lighter than they. My mother loved us equally; and would share both races with us. The history; the culture, the literature; the cuisine, and the music. She embraced both; while ensuring that we understood to love all.

    Surmising Professor Perry's article, children should be educated about different people from young. Once educated, we would have made a leap towards further progress.

    May 19, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  6. Robert Stroney

    We change a person's perspective by example and the example CNN / Anderson Cooper's segment on "Race" – is a perfect wake up call.

    Periodically as a society – we need to have our world rocked; jolted – so we remember how something hurtful, felt.

    Race is an issue that is not going away. We need to teach ourselves and our children to Celebrate Diversity.

    May 19, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  7. Tamayu

    If we raise our children to acknowledge that yes there are differences in skin tone and even culture but not in being human which is we all want the same things such as love and a little connect and like all things we each have a place and purpose and should never be held back or told no based on ones skin color! I do see color but it has nothing to do with my judgement of a person, its character that I look at! @tamayu on twitter

    May 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm |

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