AMST 2225: Controversies About Inequality invited guest lecturer Prof. Margaret Hagerman, sociology, Mississippi State University, to discuss her research in the way children perceive and learn about racism.

November 11, 2020

How Do White Kids Learn About Race? Lecturer Says It Starts at Childhood.

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After a contentious election season highlighted issues of racism, inequality, privilege and oppression, discussions of such problems have continued to be spotlighted in classrooms. 

Discussing how racial socialization in white families can reinforce white supremacy and social inequality, Prof. Margaret Hagerman, sociology, Mississippi State University, lectured for Cornell’s Center for the Study of Inequality’s capstone course, Controversies About Inequality. 

In the lecture, Hagerman explained the findings in her book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, that seeks to answer how white and affluent kids learn about race, racism and inequality.

In Hagerman’s longitudinal ethnographic study, she found that children’s social environments influence their understanding of race and racism more than what their parents say to them, highlighting the importance of recognizing a child’s agency and role in shaping their own world view.

Careful not to focus on white people, Hagerman also wanted to highlight the work of Black sociologists and sociologists of color who spearheaded this research on racial and ethnic socialization before her as “a necessary step in confronting the continuing reality of racial inequality.”

In her study, children who attended racially-diverse public schools conceptualized racism as a systemic issue and possessed anti-racist views on racial issues. Meanwhile, children who attended segregated and predominantly white schools did not think racism is an existing issue. 

Using the example of a private school student who said “his school is not for everyone” because he believed his classmates are smarter and more likely to become leaders, Hagerman explained how “the whiteness of this gifted school reinforces racial stereotypes about achievement that he holds.”

Hagerman also pushed against the notion that children’s beliefs are exact replicas of their parents. Instead, her study showed that children are constantly challenging their parent’s beliefs as they are interpreting the social world for themselves. 

“This book demonstrates [that racial socialization] is an interpretive, active process,” Hagerman said. “Kids are not just blank slates. Kids are participating in their learning and are developing ideas based on what they see in their social environment.” 

Even white families that don’t support racial inequality end up reproducing it, Hagerman said. 

Hagerman provided examples of affluent white parents using their social status and network to obtain tutors and job opportunities for their children, as well as parents “removing their children from explicitly racist and contentious situations as a way of protecting them, even though they know that children of color cannot escape racism whenever they please.”

“Even though the parents told me that they knew they were giving their kids unfair advantages or hoarding opportunities, and even express feelings of guilt to me, these parents still make these choices,” Hagerman said.

During a Q&A session of the panel, Hagerman was asked how parents with privilege could have the best intentions for their children but can continue to be an anti-racist in way that doesn’t perpetaute inequality. 

On an individual basis, Hagerman said she believed there needs to be a shift from the belief that “good” parenting is solely providing your children with material goods. 

“In moments where there is a choice between advocating for your own kid, try to think about ways to advocate for more than just your kid and think about community,” Hagerman said. “Every community has its differences. Generally speaking, I think a collective approach to parenting is better than an individual one.”

Hagerman’s future research seeks to explain how the political climate affects the way children learn about racial ideologies and think about the social world.

“I have been collecting data from kids across racial class lines about how they are thinking about race in the era of Trump,” Hagerman said. “I was curious about how kids will be making sense of and processing these explicit forms of racism.”