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.

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