Promotion of Mistrust

We use this term to refer to parental practices that discourage children from interacting with people of other racial-ethnic groups or that foster a sense of distrust across racial-ethnic boundaries. In our view, it is distinct from preparation for bias in that it does not incorporate messages regarding strategies for coping with and overcoming prejudice and discrimination (e.g., you have to be better; you have to do more). Mistrust may be communicated in parents' warnings to children about other racial-ethnic groups or in their cautions about racial barriers to success.

Few empirical studies have distinguished promotion of mistrust from preparation for bias, perhaps because the distinction is so subtle. However, in available studies, the incidence of explicit cautions or warnings about other ethnic groups seems to be quite low. For instance, based on analysis of the National Survey of Black Americans, Thornton and colleagues' (Thornton et al., 1990) reported that in response to open ended questions about strategies parents use to teach children about race, only 2.7% of parents reported instructing their children to maintain social distance from Whites. Hughes and Chen (1997) found that about 18% of African American parents reported promotion of mistrust using survey items in which parents indicated whether or not they cautioned children about interactions with Whites or encouraged them to maintain social distance. Although these percentages are low, there are still a significant number of children receiving such messages.

Whereas preparing children for racial bias may have salutary consequences for development, socialization practices that foster intergroup mistrust and alienation from mainstream values may promote maladaptive behaviors. For example, in Ogbu's (1974) research among high school students in Stockton, California, parents' overemphasis on racial barriers and discrimination seemed to undermine children's sense of efficacy and promote distrust of and anger toward mainstream institutions. Further evidence that parental practices that promote intergroup mistrust may have negative consequences for youth comes from studies that have examined relationships between parents' attitudes (as opposed to their racial/ethnic socialization practices per se) and children's experiences, or between children's feelings of mistrust and their outcomes on a range of psychosocial indicators. Patchen (1982) found that negative parental attitudes toward other races were associated with children's increased avoid ance of cross-race peers and with their reports of negative intergroup social interactions. Others have found negative consequences as well (Biafora et al., 1993; Rumbaut, 1994; Smith, Atkins, & Connell, 2003). Thus, racial/ethnic socialization messages that promote racial mistrust may prompt youth to withdraw from activities that are essential for access to opportunity and reward structures of the dominant society (Biafora et al., 1993). Moreover, they may motivate youth to engage in activities that deviate from accepted norms.


Many parents encourage their children to appreciate the values and experiences of all racial-ethnic groups or, as Spencer (1983, 1985) noted, to rear racially neutral children who notice people's individual qualities rather than their racial group membership. Theoretically, socialization that emanates from such egalitarian values may manifest itself in two distinct forms: one in which parents expose their children to the history, traditions, and current experiences of many different groups, including their own, and the other in which parents avoid any mention of race during discussions with their children.

Researchers have consistently documented that many parents either focus on promoting egalitarian views or are completely silent about race. Spencer (1983) found that over half of the southern Black parents in her sample reported that they taught their children to believe that all people are equal. In Bowman and Howard's (1985) study, 38% of African American youth reported that their parents did not transmit any information to them about Blacks or Whites, and 12% reported that their parents had emphasized equality among all people. In a study of southern Black adults (Parham & Williams, 1993), 20% of respondents reported that their parents "rarely" or "never" discussed race, racial attitudes, or both, whereas 27.8% said that their parents had emphasized egalitarian views.

Few researchers have directly investigated the influences of messages focused on the equality of all races and/or silence about race in terms of their consequences for children's development. However, scholars have emphasized that children of color socialized from an egalitarian perspective may have unrealistic expectations concerning intergroup relations and, consequently, unable to comprehend and cope with experiences involving racial bias (Smith, Fogle, & Jacobs, in press; Spencer, 1983; Stevenson, 1995). Spencer (1983) also noted that lack of direct instruction and discussion about race among parents of color means that traditional views and prevalent stereotypes remain unchallenged. Supporting this perspective, Bowman and Howard (1985) found that Black youth who were not taught anything about race had lower self-efficacy scores than did recipients of proactive racial/ethnic socialization strategies. In addition, Kofkin and colleagues (Kofkin et al., 1995) found correspondence between parents' and children's racial attitudes for only those parents who reported having race-related discussions with their children. A remaining and interesting empirical question concerns the potentially distinct consequences that may result from egalitarianism and silence about race. That is, research needs to examine whether or not overt messages concerning equality have the same consequences for children that have been observed with silence concerning race.


Thus far we have outlined components of current research and theory regarding racial/ethnic socialization processes within families. First, we provided an overview of our conceptualization of racial/ ethnic socialization and highlighted that such messages can be communicated through a variety of mechanisms: verbal, nonverbal, deliberate, unintended, proactive, reactive, child initiated or parent initiated or a combination of these. Importantly, we stressed that the complex synergistic nature of racial/ethnic socialization means that researchers must assess the degree to which the messages parents intend to convey to their children are actually conveyed and understood by children. We discussed the importance of assessing the substantive content of racial/ethnic socialization messages as the consequences for children's development seem to depend on the particular ideas about race and ethnicity that messages convey. For example, cultural socialization and preparation for bias appear to have salutary effects on children whereas an overemphasis on racial barriers may undermine children's efficacy and promote maladaptive behaviors.

Guided by the framework previously set out, we return now to a consideration of the extent to which children actually receive the different types of race-related messages that parents believe they are communicating. This particular issue is of concern to us, as we have noted, for a number of reasons. First, only a handful of studies regarding parents' racial or ethnic socialization processes, including those that have focused on relationships between parents' practices and children's outcomes, have included independent reports from parents and their children. Even fewer have attempted to explicitly examine relationships between children's and parents' views of racial/ethnic socialization (see Marshall, 1995 for an exception). This methodological issue, alone, severely limits our knowledge of the ways in which racial/ethnic socialization messages influence children's development and well-being. As with research in any area, relying on a single informant to report both racial/ethnic socialization and any particular outcome of interest leaves open the possibility that respondent characteristics, respondent bias, or an unmeasured third variable accounts for documented relationships. Second, there are theoretical reasons to question the extent to which children accurately hear the messages parents believe they are transmitting about ethnicity or race. It is quite likely that parents find it awkward or difficult to discuss racial issues with their children, opening the door for miscommunication. Moreover, parents are quite likely to be unaware of many of the messages they transmit, because the messages are so subtle. Thus, before we can begin to fully understand the processes of racial/ethnic socialization within families, we need to learn more about what messages parent believe they send to children, what messages parents are willing to report and how children hear and interpret messages about race and ethnicity from their parents.



In the remainder of the chapter, we present exploratory results from a larger study of ethnic identity in middle childhood which permits us to examine the degree of correspondence between parents' reports of the race-related messages they transmit and children's reports about race related messages they receive. Although far from providing definitive answers, the data permits us to raise questions and address issues that, to a large extent, remain unattended to in the available research literature. We begin by providing basic descriptive information regarding parents' and children's reports of three types of racial/ethnic socialization messages: cultural socialization, egalitarianism, and preparation for bias. Because this study utilized an abbreviated version of the measure described by Hughes and Chen (1997) that we viewed as being appropriate for young children and across multiple ethnic groups, we do not have data pertaining to promotion of mistrust. However, the dimensions of racial/ethnic socialization we include, albeit not exhaustive, have been highlighted as critically important in the available research literature. Next, using both correlational analysis and difference scores, we examine the degree of correspondence between parents' and children's reports of dimensions of racial/ethnic socialization, based on identical measures administered to parents and their children. We examine several potential racial/ethnic socialization mechanisms that would not emerge if we focused solely on parents or children's reports of racial/ethnic socialization—namely, that parents' ethnic behaviors influence children's perceptions of racial/ethnic socialization, independent of parents' racial/ethnic socialization reports; that parents' socialization influences children's ethnic identity independent of children's perceptions of parents' racial/ethnic socialization messages, and that parents' ethnic behaviors are associated with children's ethnic identity independent of racial/ethnic socialization (according to either parents' or children's reports). In addressing these issues, our primary goal is to emphasize the importance of including data from parents as well as children, and of considering the multiple ways in which sole reliance on reports from adults, adolescents, or children alone may result in mis-specified conceptual and empirical models of racial/ethnic socialization processes.

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