Guess Taboo? Children’s Discussions of Race and Ethnic Prejudice

guesswhoIn a recent study, Cameron, Brady, and Abbott (2013) tested a group of children using a version of the children’s game, ‘Guess Who?’. The game was contrived, so that asking about the race of your opponent’s character would enable winning more quickly than not asking about it. Yet, rarely would children ask this question – and they were even less likely to do so in ethnically diverse classrooms. In other words, children would rather lose a game, than mention the category “race”. Why is it that ‘race’ is taboo for children?

I was reminded of these findings earlier this week at a talk I attended by Darren Chetty, @rapclassroom, from the IoE in London. In speaking to his 2014 paper, he argued that two books, Elmer’s Special Day and Tusk Tusk, both by David McKee, and both recommended by Philosophy for Children practitioners as starting points for philosophical enquiry into racism, multiculturalism and diversity, do not truly allow for an open discussion on race. Rather, he argues, ‘animal stories’ separate racism from its temporal and spatial context, limiting opportunities for engaging philosophically with the topic – and maybe even contributing, paradoxically, to the taboo.


Elmer, the patchwork elephant


To briefly review the texts, Elmer  is a patchwork elephant, who really wants to be like other grey elephants, who are happy. But he  is nothing like them. To resolve this, the other elephants have an Elmer day each year, where they paint themselves in a vast array of different pretty patterns, like Elmer’s patchwork. Elmer paints himself grey. Tusk Tusk  tells the tale of the black elephants and the white elephants. They don’t like each other. So, some of them fight and die. The ones that don’t fight, go to the jungle, and emerge years later as grey elephants. The book ends with the big-eared elephants giving funny looks to the little-eared elephants. I listened to Chetty’s analysis of these stories, with a social identity theorist hat on, and found myself, sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing with the points that were made.  Before going further it is worth noting that McKee states he never intended the books to be about colour or race. Nevertheless, what follows is my take on the two ‘elephant stories’, given Philosophy for Children’s recommendation.

Elmer is a patchwork elephant. But, If there are no other patchwork elephants, there is no opportunity to talk about group differences. Since ethnicity is a group categorization, this does seem at odds with a pathway into discussing ethnic prejudice. It might open up talking about exclusion, and exclusion can be on the grounds of race, so we could discuss the immorality of excluding someone on the grounds of race, on this basis – but it would be hard to cast this as a group-based exclusion – which ethnic prejudice arguably is – because there are no other patchwork elephants. The felt exclusion is of one  individual, and ethnic prejudice is more than that.

Tusk Tusk  has the group element that Elmer lacks. So, as a social identity theorist, this would make for better material. There are two groups, who dislike each other, and fight. This is resolved by all the elephants becoming grey over time. End of group differences, or not, as the text hints. So, we can open discussion about groups that dislike each other. There is no reason given in the texts about why the groups dislike each other – which Chetty argues is undesirable. Whilst I  agree that the lack of power dynamic isn’t helpful – ethnic prejudice is about a majority group’s treatment of the minority – the lack of explanation would, on the other hand, allow a competent, confident teacher to talk about the possible reasons for the intergroup hatred, and even to introduce the notion of power. …

One philiosophy for tackling ethnic prejudice is colour-blindness. This argues that everyone should be treated equally, and attempts at differential treatment  by race should be disregarded and dismantled. Perhaps this hints at the ontology for the taboo above. Maybe, if teachers use this strategy, they are implicitly telling children not to talk about race.  An alternative philosophy to colour-blindness is multiculturalism (for a discussion of these ideologies and their respective benefits, see Plaut, Thomas, & Goren, 2009). Multiculturalism acknowledges the differences between races, and in social identity terms, is about  acknowledging and celebrating group differences, because not to do so undermines the cultural heritage of non-white individuals, and, is thus detrimental to the well being of ethnic minorities. Multiculturalism doesn’t enter the picture in Tusk Tusk.  Group differences lead to hatred. The elephants are content to the extent that they all see themselves as similar. But there is celebration of difference in Elmer and I see whispers of multiculturalism here. Again though, Elmer  isn’t so much a culture, as an individual…if only there were other patchwork elephants…..


And what of the historical context of ethnic prejudice? Neither text addresses the inequalities or tensions between different elephants. And reflecting on the social identity research with children and race (and ethnic prejudice) I realize that  not much of it addresses this element either. Drew Nesdale and colleagues (e.g., Griffiths & Nesdale, 2006) and Killen and colleagues (e.g., Brenick & Killen, 2014) research real-life ethnic minority / majority affect- but only take implicit account of the group histories. These studies show consistently, when conflict is current and historical, that children have an ingroup-bias for their own ethnicity. It would be worth, I realize, from Chetty’s talk (with thanks due to him), looking at children’s understanding of the reason for group’s prejudices towards each other, and how groups should treat one another in light of these histories.  Might we then see a more positive attitude towards the outgroup than the ingroup – in stark contrast to the findings of the papers cited in this paragraph above?

In sum, Elmer  and Tusk Tusk  are each decidedly lacking in some of the elements that would be useful for direct discussion of the stories’ in relation to the topic of racism and inter-group prejudice. A competent teacher might well still be able to use them as the basis for discussion, particularly for Elmer  in terms of social exclusion, and Tusk Tusk  in terms of intergroup hatred. There is reason not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when this is borne in mind. In light of  the taboo around race, which might lie in the colour-blind ideology, there is also good reason, given that we know children display ethnic ingroup bias, to (a) look at children’s reasoning about multiculturalism, and (b) to put ethnic prejudice  into its historical context, in our social identity research. The results could be revealing.


4 thoughts on “Guess Taboo? Children’s Discussions of Race and Ethnic Prejudice

  1. Many thanks for sharing this Siân, I found it very interesting indeed. I will follow up the articles you mention in due course. Two quick points I’d like to make:

    As I mentioned in the paper which you’ve kindly linked to, I’m discussing the books in the context of their use by Philosophy for Children (P4C) practitioners. So whilst I am open to your suggestion that “a competent, confident teacher” could “talk about the possible reasons for the intergroup hatred, and even to introduce the notion of power”, doing so would go against much of the advice from P4Cers on how one should facilitate a philosophical enquiry with children. They would most likely argue that the ideas and concepts discussed should come from the children and their engagement with the stimulus/starting point, in this case the books. This is why I think it important to consider which concepts and ideas are present and absent within a story used for P4C.

    More of a side issue – In the paper, I don’t focus on authorial intent. I focus on how the books appear to be understood by P4Cers who advocate their use and by children with whom I have shared them. You’ve linked to an article where McKee says the books are not about colour or race but difference. I think it worth noting though that that difference is expressed through colour. Whilst I argue that ‘race’ is not reallly depicted in the books, I offer some cases where the books are read as being allegories of racism. However, and more as a point of curiosity, I’d like to share this article which appeared after I had written the paper in which McKee appears to link his motivation for writing Elmer to racism. See what you make of it:

    All the best,

  2. Thanks, Darren: I hadn’t realized that P4C was a “bottom-up” approach to philosophical enquiry: in which case, the omissions in the text gain considerable weight (as you argued).

    Hmmm…McKee seem to have changed his mind in between the BBC and Guardian articles….!


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