Promoting Cross-Racial Friendships Among Children

Encouraging our children to initiate and maintain cross-racial friendships benefits not only the individuals involved, but society as a whole. According to a study by Hallinan and William (1990), greater interracial friendliness is associated with higher educational aspirations and outcomes. Benefits extend beyond the sphere of academics to social domains. Hunter and Elias (1999) found that high proportions of cross-race friendships lead to greater social competence and increased minority acceptance. (Yes, we’ve known this for a looooong time.)

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as making our classrooms diverse (although we have to do that too - see #2) and letting friendships happen. Researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development recently looked at data from the Early Adolescent Development Study and found that over the course of one school year, cross-race friendships diminish while same-race friendships increase. There are things, however, that we as caring adults (parents, teachers, support staff, and administrators) can do to keep cross-racial friendships going. I’ve included several ideas from the study, as well as some of my own.

1)Warm, friendly teacher and classroom environment: Good news! All the work you’ve done to make your classroom a welcoming place for all has the added benefit of helping students maintain cross-racial friendships. For real! The NYU study found that classrooms characterized by an atmosphere of trust and respect, along with positive perceptions about the teacher’s level of warmth and responsiveness, had lower increases in same-race friendships. Collaborative, as opposed to competitive, learning activities promote supportive interactions among students and allow them to get to know each other across differences. You make a difference in how students make and keep friends by how you run your classroom and even by your very affect, so keep on keeping on!

2)End de facto segregation: This is a structural shift, so we need the support of administration (but don’t underestimate the power of vocal parents and teachers). In our secondary schools, this means putting a stop to tracking. Some Seattle high schools are trying “honors-for-all” English and social studies classes in an attempt to tackle what’s known as the opportunity gap. To address racial separation, Washington Middle School has decided to mix its Spectrum program for the gifted (almost entirely white and Asian) with mainstream classes (mostly children of color). Research indicates improved academic achievement for all in this type of model. In the elementary environment, we need to look at special programs. Consider what Leschi Elementary in Seattle has done. Leschi, a historically Black school, has decided to alter the Montessori program that drew many white families. Parents and teachers worried about the racial imbalance and worked to develop blended Montessori and contemporary classrooms throughout the school.

3)Read-alouds: My go-to strategy! There are dozens of books that model cross-racial friendships for children. Reading books that feature friendships across differences shows that you as the teacher or parent value them, and that’s important. It’s supported by research, too!  Inclusion of cross-group images has been found to encourage cross-group play. Here are a few of my favorites:

·         The Sandwich Swap by Kelly DiPucchio and Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan: Salma and Lily are best friends. They do everything together, including eat lunch. One day, Lily, enjoying her peanut butter and jelly, tells Salma her hummus sandwich looks yucky and a full on food fight breaks out. In the end, Salma and Lily put their differences aside, try each other’s food, and learn important lessons about friendship and tolerance.

·         The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson: Clover, an African American girl, lives beside a fence that segregates her town. One day, she notices a lonely-looking white girl on the other side. Since neither is allowed to cross the fence, they decide to sit on it together, a powerful example of how children can overcome the prejudices of adults.

·         Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco: This is a story about a Russian American girl and her friends, two African American brothers. To thank the boys’ grandma for her wonderful chicken dinners, the children decide to work together to buy her a beautiful Easter hat. When the friends are mistaken for vandals by the milliner Mr. Kodinsky, they seek to prove their innocence and present him with hand-dyed eggs in the Russian tradition. They win him over with this remembrance of his homeland. It’s a beautiful story about the bonds of friendship and family awash in gorgeous images and details from the characters’ cultural traditions.

4)Model: You knew this was coming, didn’t you? We can’t expect our children to make and keep cross-racial friendships if we’re not doing so ourselves. I recently watched an interview on C-SPAN in which a white, self-proclaimed “prejudiced” man called in to ask Black activist Heather McGhee how to stop being racist. It’s beautiful to watch his honesty and desire to be a “better American” and her respectful, gracious response. Her advice? Get to know Black families. Turn off the news at night. Join a church that is interracial. Foster relationships. She says, “We as Americans are always surprised when we build relationships across race.” It’s good advice for all of us. And it’s good for our kids.

This is the right thing to do. By promoting cross-racial friendships, we prepare children to live and work in the real world and also make headway in ensuring that that world is a better place for everyone.