I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World
reviewed by S. Maxwell Hines - 2002
Title: I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World
Author(s): Marguerite A. Wright
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787952346, Pages: 290, Year: 2000
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When I was asked to review, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World, by Marguerite A. Wright (2000), I welcomed the challenge. As an African American mother of two boys and a science teacher educator, I know first hand that there are precious few resources that speak to the unique needs of these children.
Wright describes herself as, "a [black] licensed psychologist who specializes in the developmental and psychosocial issues of low income and minority children," (p. 281) in her practice at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, CA. She is also the mother of four children. Her approach to writing this book was to combine elements of theory-driven research, case studies, and her own personal history to illustrate her perspectives on this topic. The book is targeted to parents, teachers, and others who work with black and biracial children. This becomes an extremely important issue when considering how effectively the book speaks to its target audience.
The book is divided into three sections that investigate children’s racial understandings during the preschool, early, and middle childhood & adolescence school years. Clearly, writing about childhood development is Wright’s forté. She writes like one who has a deep understanding of the inner workings of a child’s mind. Her writing is friendly, accessible and free from the excessive uses of jargon and psychobabble characteristic in this type of volume.
The first section of the book investigates children’s understandings of race during the preschool years. This section seems to be the one that Wright was most comfortable writing. Her writing is full and descriptive and thoughtfully examines how adult understandings of the concept of race are quite different from those of preschool aged children. By the time she begins to write suggestions for parents, I began to question for whom the book was actually written. Many of the suggestions written to parents (i.e. ‘Carefully select your child’s preschool or day-care center,’) seemed condescending at times. After all, doesn’t the average parent carefully select their child’s preschool or day-care center? I began to believe she was writing to the parents of the children she saw in her clinical practice. Based on the descriptions she offers about these parents, I question how many of them would choose to read this book and follow its suggestions. If the book was written for other parents, suggestions such as, ‘Focus on developing your child’s character and talents,’ seem elemental and simplistic. The suggestions offered for teachers were universally good ones that she made specific to the issues of race. However, anyone familiar with teacher preparation and professional development knows that these suggestions are considered best practice for teaching all students, not just black or biracial students. I found the parents’ quiz at the end of the section particularly troublesome. The quiz uses a response-cluster system based on the responses to 13 multiple choice items to determine how much parents’ attitudes about race affect their children’s healthy development. The explanations used to guide the evaluation are unsophisticated and begin to read like horoscopes. No evidence is offered indicating whether this quiz has been validated or is reliable.
Section two considers children’s racial concept formation in the context of their experiences in school. Wright notes that it is during this time that children understand the permanence of skin color and that difference in skin color matters. The majority of this section deals with the ills of spanking, which Wright believes is inappropriate in any circumstance. The ardor with which she examines multiple parent responses to the question of the appropriateness of spanking leaves the reader feeling that the average black or biracial child being is beaten to within an inch of their lives. Her descriptions of the psychological damage that children suffer as a result of spanking are stark and go far beyond what would be considered typical. Again, I wondered for whom was this book was written. The parents that she uses as her exemplars seem abusive and are atypical. Nothing written in this section would convince a normal parent who employs corporal punishment as one of a myriad of discipline strategies, not to use it when necessary. She suggests other strategies for disciplining children that are quite useful but she admits that most parents use these strategies in addition to spanking. She mentions that her perspective is informed by the noted psychiatrists James P. Comer and Alvin F. Poussaint, but in their book, Raising Black Children (1992), Comer and Poussaint state their case quite differently. They posit, "Children who were spanked by thoughtful, loving parents rarely have problems as a result of spanking." (p.49) Their approach is to convince the reader that spanking isn’t necessary for all children and if it isn’t necessary for a particular child, why do it? While they offer a thoughtful critique on the unintended consequences of spanking, they do not decry the deep psychological damage caused to children as Wright does. She then informs the reader that while talking to a child is the preferred disciplinary method, doing so incorrectly can also damage the psyché of children. The section ends with a series of questions a parent should ask before sending their child to a predominately white, Afrocentric, or integrated school. I found it problematic that Wright continuously used the word ‘integrated,’ when she clearly meant ‘desegregated.’ Those with an understanding of the foundations of American education know that the majority of American public schools simply desegregated and never integrated, as evidenced by the data on school tracking and the race data on special education and advance placement class membership. The curricular suggestions offered to teachers are elemental and not unique to addressing the needs of black and biracial children specifically. The imprecise use of educational terminology throughout the volume indicates Wright’s layperson status when writing on issues other than child development.
Section three follows the same format as the first two but considers children’s conception of race during the middle school and adolescent years. It seemed the most difficult section for Wright to write. It is more condescending. Its language is even more imprecise, and the least thoughtful in its critique.
Although it is Wright’s intention to target this book to parents, teachers, and others who work with black and biracial children, she would be much better served if she limited the scope of the work to the early developmental psychology of black and biracial children and target the book to parents. She writes about this topic wonderfully well in a style that is quite appealing to parents. She runs into trouble however, when she strays into areas with which she is less familiar. Broad and sweeping suggestions, especially in the area of teacher education tend to dilute the effectiveness of the book and are not thoughtfully examined or critiqued. For a better treatment of issues concerning black children, lay people would be better served by Comer and Poussaint’s work. Those who know and understand black and biracial children extremely well are better equipped to read Wright’s work. They will be able to deconstruct and contextualize her assertions when her descriptions become nebulous.
Comer, James P. & Alvin F. Poussaint. (1992). Raising Black Children: Two Leading Psychologists Confront the Educational, Social, and Emotional Problems Facing Black Children. New York: Plume.