On Monday, the City of Davis hosted it’s 25th annual MLK Day Celebration at the Varsity Theatre. The keynote speaker was newly elected DJUSD School Board Member Cindy Pickett, a professor of psychology at UC Davis and the director of UC Davis’ Self and Social Identity Lab. She also serves as the Associate Vice-Provost for Faculty Equity and Inclusion.
Cindy Pickett read from MLK’s “I Have Dream” and said, “these were very hopeful words but in the end they were King’s Dream not his reality and not our reality as a nation.”
Dr. King instead spoke of two America’s – one characterized by prosperity and the other characterized by racism. In a speech at Grosse Pointe High School in March 1968, he addressed the audience saying, “The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist county.
“Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth. And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation.”
The question Ms. Pickett posed was how we advance the dream and she argued that “first, we need to be willing to have conversations about race even when those conversations are difficult or uncomfortable. We cannot stay in the safe space of silence.”
Second, “We need to pass on this ability to the next generation. We need to give our children tools to be able to talk about race so they can address issues of racism, discrimination, and injustice when those issues arise.”
There were two key points that she raised. The first is that drawing attention to race does not make the problem worse and, second, that children notice race and it is best to have those conversations at a young age to give them the tools to address those issues.
She presented research demonstrating that “openness is a better way forward.”
Are children color blind? The answer from both psychology and sociology “is a resounding no.” She explained, “Study after study has demonstrated that children recognize race from a very early age.” She added, “Racial biases emerge among both majority and minority groups by ages three to five.”
Ms. Pickett noted that many people believe they don’t have to worry about racial bias, because they were not taught it at home. “Unfortunately,” she explained, “racial bias doesn’t have to be taught.”
Ms. Pickett cited research that looked at how white mothers talk about race and that most “took a color blind or a color mute approach.” When asked about their approach, the mothers had assumed that their silence on the issue would lead to a color blind view by their children.
“Unfortunately,” she said, “that’s not how it works. Children do notice race and all parents have done by avoiding the discussion is to turn race into the elephant in the room.”
“To make matters worse,” she said, “the silence of parents also silences their children.” Research shows that, by age 10 and 11, “children have been socialized to believe that talking about race is socially inappropriate.”
Why does this matter? Other research, Ms. Pickett cited, found that both color blindness and color muteness “have been shown to magnify racial bias.” It also “reduces recognition of racial discrimination and stifles discussions of racism and social injustice.”
Later, she argued, “when children fail to see race, they fail to detect discrimination.”
Cindy Pickett said, “What all this suggests is that to empower our children to make a difference in the future, we need to allow them to find their voice. The key to that is changing our behavior and the conversations that we are willing to have.”
For minority children, Ms. Pickett said, “At the very time they are facing the critical years of racial identity development, they are also socialized to not talk about race, particularly in predominantly white environments. This can hamper their ability to effect change and enlist allies.”
Cindy Pickett laid out five steps in the path forward.
First, “Do not shut down the conversation.”
Second, “Engage in open, honest, frequent, and age appropriate conversation about race racial differences, and even racist inequity and racism.”
Third, “Let go of the notion that you are ‘putting ideas in their heads’ by talking about race.”
Fourth, “Don’t ‘dumb down’ the conversation. Avoid superficial multicultural education that focuses only on the celebration of culture and individual heroes, and leaves out any discussion of structural inequities.”
And fifth, “Take instances of prejudice seriously. If name-calling or other discrimination happens at school and then goes either unnoticed or is not discussed by adults, children infer that the behavior is widely accepted.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting