Are Parents to Blame for a Child’s Racism?

After Sean Penn's son went on a racist rant, we asked experts to weigh in on who's responsible.

Sean Penn (Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images); Hopper Penn (TMZ video)

While saying it is unfair to place “the blame squarely on the parents,” Costello did say that when it comes to racist language, “The first place they learn it is at home. If you’re looking at children under the age of 6, then usually they learn it at home.” But as they get older, it gets more complicated as a child’s network of influence begins to expand beyond Mom and Dad to include friends, classmates and then the larger world beyond home and school.

Costello referenced “code switching,” a term for when different language and language cadences are adapted by one party depending on the audience. For instance, a rapper may speak one way with his friends and another way in a meeting with the president. Similarly, when I mentioned rappers who claim that while they may swear in their lyrics, they never do in front of their mothers or grandmothers, Costello replied, “And where did that rapper learn that distinction? His mother or grandmother taught him.”

Costello said her point is that as someone gets older, it becomes less about the example Mom and Dad set growing up and more about what Mom and Dad have explicitly explained that they expect from their son or daughter as a member of that family.

“Let’s say you have parents who don’t use certain language, but if they don’t specifically condemn it, then that is a real missed opportunity for them to make their values clear.” Costello gave an example from her own childhood, explaining that her white friends used the n-word because they heard it from their parents.

Though her family never used it, Costello once quoted to her parents a friend who said it. Her father made it clear that under no circumstances was she ever to use that word anywhere again. She didn’t. But she explained that many parents don’t initiate the conversation her father did about why they don’t use certain words and why they are harmful, offensive and inappropriate.

In some ways, Costello’s explanation invokes parallels to sex education. Just as some parents avoid comprehensive conversations with their children about sex, either because of discomfort or the belief that their children will learn the necessary information elsewhere, or the belief that he or she is a “good kid” who doesn’t need such a conversation, some parents avoid discussing racial sensitivity or other forms of tolerance. In both instances, however, a lack of information can cause troubling results.

Costello reiterated, “You have to be very explicit about your values.”

Gardere concluded, “It is not fair to blame parents all the time. However, parents must take responsibility for their children’s behavior. They have raised them.”

Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

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