Over the past decade, developmental psychologists have become increasingly interested in how children come to understand their own and other individuals' social group memberships and the consequences of such understandings for childhood and later life outcomes (Barber, Eccles, & Stone, 2001; Downe, 2001; Kiesner, Cadinu, Poulin, & Bucci, 2001; Martin & Ruble, 2004; Ruble, Alverez, Bachman, Cameron, Fuligni, Garcia Coll, & Rhee, 2004; Ruble & Dweck, 1995; Ruble & Martin, 2002; Spencer, Fegley, & Harpalani, 2003; Swanson, Spencer, Dell'Angelo, Harpalani, & Spencer, 2002). Of particular interest has been children's developing understanding of race and ethnicity, particularly in terms of the multiple determinants of such understandings, mechanisms of change in them over time, and their developmental consequences (Nesdale, Durkin, Maas, & Griffiths, 2004; Nesdale & Flesser, 2001; Udry, Li, & Hendrikson-Smith, 2003; Yip & Fuligni, 2002). We know, for example, that even within a particular age range children and adolescents vary considerably in the salience of race and ethnicity to their sense of self (Shelton & Sellers, 2000; Sellers, Chavous, & Cooke, 1998; Umana-Taylor, 2004; Yip & Fuligni, 2002) as well as in their interpretations of racial hierarchies, systems of social stratification, and associated processes such as prejudice and discrimination (Fisher, Wallace, & Fenton, 2000; Romero & Roberts, 2003; Rosenbloom & Way, 2004; Nesdale & Flesser, 2001; Wong, Eccles, & Sameroff, 2003). Indeed, our own data has reminded us repeatedly that children make meaning of race and ethnicity in very different ways. For example, when answering the question "What does it mean to be Dominican?" a fourth-grade boy responded that it means you are "part of a Spanish country that is growing. You should be happy because the country is fun and will become famous from the people there." Answering a similar question, "What does it mean to be White?" a second-grade girl told us, "Well a lot of people are White or Black and some jobs you have to be White and some you have to be Black so you get those choices." These are potentially very different types of understandings, one emphasizing ethnic or national pride, and the other differential access to resources.

In efforts to elaborate how children come to such varied understandings, researchers have focused in part on the role that parents play in shaping children's racial knowledge (Hughes & Chen, 1999; Phinney, Romero, Nava & Huang, 2001; Quintanna & Vera, 1999). As key socializing agents, parents' values, attitudes, and behaviors transmit fundamental information to children about their own and other racial and ethnic groups. Some parents deliberately discuss racial issues with their children; others communicate that race is "taboo" by avoiding the topic. Some parents emphasize group differences and disadvantage; others emphasize similarities among all people. Although early studies showed that children's racial attitudes were unrelated to those of their parents (for reviews, see Aboud, 1988; Katz, 1982), recent research among families of color suggests that parents' race-related messages may have important consequences for children's identity formation and development (Marshall, 1995; Peters, 1985; Sanders Thompson, 1994; Spencer, 1983, 1985; Stevenson, 1994). Although studied less often, White parents obviously transmit information to their children about race, ethnicity, and intergroup relations as well (Hamm, 1999). Thus, children's orientations toward race are derived, in part, from parental practices and world views.

It seems critical to note, up front, that parents are far from the only influence on children's racial knowledge; in fact, it has not yet been established that they are the most important influence. As Smith and colleagues (Smith et al., in press) have noted, community members, community billboards, school textbooks, teachers, and the media all contain or communicate an abundance of racial messages to children about who is valued, smart, beautiful, dangerous, disruptive, rich, and so forth—and who is not. Moreover, children learn about race and ethnicity through a range of interactions and observations across the various contexts in which they participate. Research on youth's discrimination experiences, their awareness of stereotypes, and the like each demonstrate the power of ambient messages about race to which youth are exposed (Graham & Taylor, 2002; Graham, 2001; Hudley & Graham, 2001; Steele, 1997, 1998; Steele & Aronson, 2000).

In the present chapter, we focus on parents' racial/ethnic socialization practices, emphasizing what is known about the processes, and on some key limitations of the existing research. First, we describe our conceptualization of racial/ethnic socialization and its most salient features. Then we provide a brief review of existing research concerning the nature of racial/ethnic socialization messages parents may transmit and their potential developmental consequences. Our purpose here is simply to introduce novice travelers to current theory and empirical work in the area, since in-depth and systematic treatment of this literature is provided elsewhere (Hughes, Rodriguez, Smith, Johnson, & Stevenson, 2004). Finally, in an effort to explore in more detail some conceptual and methodological issues that are of particular concern to us, we consider the absence of knowledge about the degree of synchrony, or correspondence, between parents' and children's perceptions of parents' racial/ethnic socialization messages, and how children interpret or hear the messages that parents' believe they transmit. In doing so, we describe findings from an exploratory study in which we examined correspondence between parents' and children's views of parents' racial/ethnic socialization practices.

In closing, we consider the implications of current theoretical and empirical research in this area for future studies.


The concept of racial/ethnic socialization is based to a large extent on early scholars' efforts to identify strategies that ethnic minority parents use to rear competent and effective children in a society that is largely stratified by race. The majority of this research and theoretical writing has focused on African Americans, a group that historically has been at the bottom of the social structure in terms of access to privileges and economic resources. Consequently, current conceptualizations of racial/ethnic socialization have emphasized parents' efforts to promote racial pride in their children and to prepare them to succeed in the face of potential racial bias (Bowman & Howard, 1985; Marshall, 1995; Peters,

1985; Sanders Thompson, 1994; Stevenson, 1994, 1995; Thornton, Chatters, Taylor, & Allen, 1990). In recent years, however, both theory and empirical work has attended to racial and ethnic socialization practices in multiple ethnic groups, including various U.S. and foreign born Latino and Asian groups, adding to researchers' conceptualizations a focus on processes of cultural retention.

As in prior work (e.g., Hughes, Rodriguez, Smith, Johnson, and Stevenson, 2004; Hughes & Chen, 1999), in this chapter we use the term "racial/ethnic socialization" to refer generally to the full range of parental practices that communicate messages about race or ethnicity to children. Elsewhere, we note that the terms "ethnic" and "racial" socialization have been used interchangeably in the literature and provide guidelines for distinguishing the two (Hughes, Rodriguez, Smith, Johnson, & Stevenson, 2004). In the current chapter, however, we use term "ethnic/racial/ethnic socialization" to refer to the literature in the area. Notably, the definition we use here is both broad and limited. It is broad in the sense that it is applicable across multiple racial-ethnic groups. All parents transmit messages about race and ethnicity to their children, even if it is by way of silence on the topic. The definition is limited, however, in its exclusive focus on parents as the sole source of racial/ethnic messages to children. Moreover, it is likely to exaggerate commonalties in practices across parents of different racial-ethnic backgrounds. For instance, the behaviors that make up certain categories of racial/ethnic socialization (e.g., promoting pride in one's ethnic group; avoiding discussions about race/ethnicity) are likely to be different for different racial/ethnic groups (e.g., Hughes, 2003; Kofkin, Katz, and Downey, 1995). Thus, we recognize that although information related to ethnicity and race is transmitted in all families, the essence and specific contents of such messages, and their origins, may vary across racial and ethnic groups.


Recent efforts to delineate components of racial/ethnic socialization underscore both the subtlety and complexity of the phenomenon (e.g., Smith et al., in press; Stevenson, 1994, 1995). In this section, we highlight important features of racial/ethnic socialization that may have important conceptual and methodological implications. Specifically, we hope that this discussion will clarify the importance of assessing the degree to which various types of messages actually reach and are understood by children.

Verbal and Nonverbal Communication

Parents' communicate their values and perspectives on race and ethnicity to their children in a variety of ways—verbally, nonverbally, explicitly, and implicitly. The most commonly investigated messages are explicit verbalizations about race. For example, parents may teach their children racial attitudes or discuss race relations with them in a direct and conventional manner, just as they would teach their children rules for conduct or moral values. However, verbal communications may also contain implicit or subtle messages about race, as when parents emphasize the importance of morality, hard work, education, and self-pride in order to prepare children for potential racial bias (Peters, 1981, 1985; Richardson, 1981; Thornton et al., 1990; cf., Peters, 1985). Indeed, the later type of implicit messages are among those that parents most commonly report in studies that have coded parents' responses to open ended questions about racial/ethnic socialization (Thornton, Chatters, Taylor, & Allen, 1990).

Parents may also socialize race-related attitudes, values, and perspectives through a variety of nonverbal implicit mechanisms. Practices aimed at promoting children's racial and ethnic pride and their knowledge about their cultural history and heritage are often nonverbal and unarticulated (Boykin & Toms, 1985; Peters, 1985; Sanders Thompson, 1994; Spencer, 1983; Stevenson, 1995). Modeling racial-ethnic behaviors (e.g., cooking traditional foods, speaking in native languages), structuring children's environments (e.g., displaying culturally based art in the home, influencing children's peer choices), or selectively reinforcing children's behaviors (Hamm, 1996; Marshall, 1995; Smith, Atkins & Connell, 2003; Smith et al., in press) may each serve as nonverbal communications to children about the meaning and traditions of their racial or ethnic group. Nonverbal messages may, of course, convey negative attitudes toward other or one's own ethnic/racial groups as well as positive ones, the prototypical example being when people clutch their purse or cross the street upon seeing a group of Black or Latino teenage boys.

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