The evolution of identity

Psychologist Dr. Eun Rhee, of the University of Delaware, received a five-year grant in 2002 to study the development of racial identity in children and its impact on their well-being. The project, "Racial Identity and Psychosocial Consequence," is funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Rhee is concerned with the "development of social identities, particularly racial identity, in African-American, Asian-American, and European-American children." Rhee's research focuses on the "role of social factors, such as perceptions of group status; on the development of racial identity; and the impact of this identity on mental health, social behavior, and development of inter-group attitudes." She is investigating how racial identity evolves and how children of color learn to cope with perceived discrimination as they grow older. Her methods also include interviews with parents to discover what ideas and support they offer their children, and what degree of preparation they offer to help their children cope with discrimination.

Raising unbiased kids is an outcome of diversity education that begins in the home, according to Derek S. Hopson and Darlene Powell Hopson. The Hopsons are authors of the book Teaching Your Children to be Successful in a Multicultural Society. They suggest that positive and realistic interactions with others are a necessary part of preventing racial distrust, conflict, aggression, and violence.

"Segregation is damaging to the individual, damaging to the society's claim to justice, and damaging to whites as well as blacks," Clark said in a 1995 Washington Post interview. However, de facto segregation persists throughout the country and at all levels of society, perpetuating racial tensions.

In a 2003 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology, K. Kowalski assessed preschool-aged children's attitudes toward their own group and two different ethnic or racial groups: Japanese and Mexican. The study was done in the Southwest United States with 70 children (32 girls and 38 boys) from three to five years of age. The authors used dolls and asked the children to assign positive and negative traits to the dolls that represented their own racial or ethnic group and that of two other groups. When forced to choose between their own group and an ethnically or racially different group, the researcher discovered, the children clearly favored their own group. Kowalski concludes that "young children's positive own-group feelings do not necessarily entail negative out-group attitudes."

Thandeka, author of Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America, believes that racism is not innate, but something we are taught through custom and beliefs that are passed from one generation to the next. Thandeka is a minister and teacher at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Like Clark, Thandeka believes that whites, too, are harmed by racism "The first racial victim of the white community is its own child," she said in a 2004 interview in the Dallas Morning News. Children are forced to adapt to the way of life of the community or risk being ostracized, she says. Thandeka, whose name was given her by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, believes that much of the racial division in America is due to social and family pressures to declare a racial identity at an early age. The chosen racial identity becomes a marker that divides us, she said. Thandeka suggests that an obsession with problems of race can divert us from the realities of class in our society. Many whites are as much victims of an unjust economic order as blacks, she notes.

Debra Dickerson, author of the book The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners, believes that it is "everybody's responsibility to fight injustice. This is America," she says. "We pride ourselves on being the land of the free. It's not just black people's job to fight against injustice. It's America's job because it hurts America." Dickerson discussed her book on National Public Radio with host Tavis Smiley in January 2004. Dickerson proposes:

I think we ought to have a moratorium on mentioning white folk. And that's really, really hard to do, and again it's not because racism is not a problem. Racism is a problem. But the answer is not to constantly be trying to fix other people's hearts and minds. All we need for them to do is leave us alone. They don't have to learn to love us. We have to learn to love and believe in ourselves.

"Americans are choosing to opt out of any racial classifications on the Census, college applications, and the SAT," according to Eric Wang writing in The Cavalier Daily, the online publication of the University of Virginia. "We cannot talk about racial progress without using the language of race and collective identities," he says. Given the growing diversity and multicultural face of America, the five commonly used racial categories, according to Wang, "fail to capture the full array of diversity in our society."

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