Youth and Tell

The health and wellness of our children

The Color of Fear: Xenophobia and Racism in the Suburbs

How racism and xenophobia impact our children and society.

My children are moving to a new elementary school next year. Our neighborhood, like so many across the country, was redistricted this past spring. The good news is that my daughters don't seem to mind the change because some of their friends will be attending the new elementary school. Quite frankly, it seems as though most of the parents in the suburbs welcome the boundary changes. After all, our children are moving to a school with high SOL scores, extra enrichment programs, and a PTA that is one of the strongest and most influential in the county. Yet I just can't seem to get behind all of the hype - not when I know the burbs dirty little secret.

I've discovered that along with the new school comes new rules and new issues concerning socioeconomic status, culture, and race. The kind of rules that subtly exclude certain "types" of kids from attending some of the best schools in the county. While our suburban neighborhood of two-story colonials was moved to an academically sound school with a plethora of resources, the boundary changes were not so kind to other families. Some of the rezoning seemed strategically placed to ensure that the lower income neighborhoods were shoved into another elementary school that is sub-par at best. It matters not that these children live closer to the school my daughters will attend or that many of them have been at the same school since kindergarten. It's business as usual in the burbs.

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It's been over fifty years since Brown vs. the Board of Education (1956), and this incident has left me wondering what ever happened to the annihilation of separate but equal? Instead, I'm reminded of the harsh inequalities in our society that affect our most vulnerable population - our children. I hear the whispers among some suburbanites that there are benefits to excluding the underprivileged African American and immigrant children from certain schools: "Our property values will increase if the schools redistrict," they say. Or, "The kids that are moving to another school will like it - it's no big deal for them, they move around a lot anyway." What? Seriously? Would any of those same Caucasian parents think it's simply "no big deal' if they were working two jobs trying to make ends meet and the school board suddenly scooped up their kids and plunked them in a new school with fewer resources, a further commute, and an academic curriculum that would make even the harshest critics wince? It's this kind of hostile environment of emotional fear and ignorance that breeds racism, prejudice, and xenophobia among the suburban masses.

The Fear Factor: Xenophobia and Racism

The suburbs, like many communities in the United States, are ripe with psychological issues that seek to prevent those deemed less worthy from joining their group, xenophobia and racism are two of many. Unfortunately, issues such as school redistricting manage to bring out the territory defending parents that seek to protect an education that they feel is rightfully theirs. The problem is, it's not solely theirs to lay claim to in the first place.

Having a conversation about race and ethnicity is never easy and almost always controversial. In many ways, it should be. Our nation still wrestles with a long history of inequality, exclusion, and the disenfranchisement of groups of people based on ethnicity, gender, race, and social class. In the psychological community we have a name for the intense hatred or fear of people from other countries and cultures, it's called xenophobia. Xenophobia occurs when an individual exhibits attitudes, prejudices and/or behavior that rejects, excludes and even vilifies a group of people based on the perception that they are foreigners or outsiders in a given community. It can even happen among people of identical physical characteristics and shared ancestry.

Xenophobia should not be confused with racism as the terms are often used interchangeably. Xenophobia is a generalized dislike or fear of strangers or foreigners whereas racism is a specific dislike for people from a different race. In addition, racism is born from an ideology that gives a certain ethnic group or race a position of power over others on the basis of features like physical attributes and the superior race exercises domination and control over all of the others.

For some living in the suburbs, fear and ignorance are masked as a means to protect their children. Parents reason that they are doing the "right thing" for their family when they successfully derail lower income housing children from attending a middle class school. Many are convinced that mingling the middle class with the lower socioeconomic status children will surely bring with it a host of problems like requiring school metal detectors, free-lunch programs, lackluster parental participation, decreasing property values, and - the absolute worst fear of the burbs - that these "type" of kids will negatively impact their child's educational process and cause horrendous chaos leading to the downfall of humanity. They make no attempts to hide their racist attitudes by insinuating that certain types of kids are not worthy of an equal education. Others are more forthright and brazenly reject children and their families that speak a different language or have immigrated from a different country.

Unfortunately xenophobia and racism in our communities are more widespread than we have been lead to believe.The psychological and behavioral characteristics that govern group dynamics play out daily in suburban cities across the nation. As Irving Yalom's group dynamics theory suggests, the school redistricting process in my community serves as a microcosm of our society. Racism and prejudice experienced in a small subsection of the our country ultimately reflects upon the larger community. Such insight should give us all pause to think about how we respond to xenophobia and racism among our friends, relatives, and neighbors - especially given the fact that our beliefs and values will eventually be passed on to the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society - our children.

The Psychological Impact of Fear and Racism on Children

Racism and xenophobia are learned behaviors. Children internalize and adopt a belief system based on their parents morals and values. Educating children about racism and prejudice is our responsibility as parents. Studies have shown that children typically learn negative racial attitudes by a combination of observing their parents behavior and adopting the stereotypes of their society.

President Obama continutes to advocate that Americans openly discuss race, and find ways to let go of misgivings and hatred. Turns out, he's right - studies consistently show that we begin to end xenophobia and racism by talking about it. Parents should discuss the topic of race and ethnicity with their children. Contrary to the popular belief that talking about race with your child will actually draw more negative attention to it, a 2005 study found that bringing racial differences to their attention will not make them develop negative racial attitudes as they mature. On the other hand, remaining silent on issues of race suggests to children that talking about race is off-limits. If children are left to their own devices they stand a higher chance of developing negative attitudes or feelings of unease around people of different cultures and races.Ultimately, it's what we choose to teach our children about different cultures and race that will have the biggest impact for future generations.

Raising children in today's society can be challenging, but teaching them to honor our differences and reject discriminatory ideologies is not negotiable. Like many parents, I hope that there will come a day when the terms xenophobia and racism no longer exist - but until that day arrives change can only happen when we understand and acknowledge our differences and learn to value and celebrate them.

Elizabeth Donovan, M.A., is a psychotherapist and writer. Her work has appeared in magazines including BabyTalk, Parents, and Parenting.

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