Race, Ethnicity & Culture

Tidbit Tuesdays: Racist Edition (with a side-serving of bigotry)

I was sitting on the couch with my three year old son, cuddling him while watching TV. I was scrolling through the messages on my phone when my son suddenly perked up, looking at something across the room.

“I want chocolate,” he says. Focusing on something that’s making him think of chocolate.

“Chocolate? Where do you see chocolate?”

My son raises his finger and points to the black man on the TV screen.

Kids say the darndest things, right? Like the time I was super small and innocently asked an obese woman at the supermarket why she was so fat. (Boy, did my mother get an earful for that one…) Or the time I innocently asked why my friend’s adopted Asian cousin’s face “looked like plastic.” (I was never allowed at any of that friend’s birthday parties ever again after that, and was immediately expelled from that one.) I know I certainly had no natural born sensitivity or common sense, so I think a lot about my son and things he may say one day.

And it made me think that kids and racism would be a good topic for this week’s Tidbit. Except, it is a terrible topic for me. I’m notoriously evil, ignorant, and uneducated on the topic. So I will take the sneaky way out and provide you all with some links and leave the floor open to discussion.

A lot of us, I think, generally have something of a doublethink and largely incorrect notion about kids and racism. On one hand, you hear constantly that kids aren’t racist and that they learn to be racist. But then on the other hand, you hear xenophobia is something built into the human psyche, and it gets lumped into racism…………. and for someone just starting to get serious on the topic it can seem like a maze of definitions and distinctions and arguments.

As for how to teach your kids about it, well… mine is only three but here are my thoughts so far:

Step one, educate yourself. That’s my current work in progress. I need to be ready, myself. If anyone has some favorite resources, don’t be frightened to post in the comments section!

Step two, watch your own language and behavior. Even if you think you’re just making an “innocent” joke between friends, a kid doesn’t necessarily understand the context. I know a friend this happened with.

Step three, don’t panic. Your kid isn’t a racist just because they say something that seems awful. And if you have an older kid that definitely is being racist, take a breath and approach it with calmness and compassion. Communicate.

A parent panics as their child innocently asks if black people are made of chocolate.

On to the links:

Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race

Are Kids Racist? (Not) talking about race with your children

Talking to Our Children About Racism & Diversity

Ethnocentrism and Xenophobia: A Cross-Cultural Study

Honestly, just read a lot of cultural anthropology stuff, too. Unfortunately so much of what I learned in my undergraduate years studying anthropology has done that thing where it’s part of how I think without me being able to recall specific references or books. And unfortunately, not everything is on the Internet (yet). Much like other issues, we tend to oversimplify the human experience into a narrow band based on our own personal experience and our desire for simplicity and apply it across all times and cultures, when race issues and xenophobia can also be expressed very differently around the world and throughout history.

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J.G. Hovey

J.G. Hovey

A (casual) hunter, a (casual) fisher, a (casual) video gamer, a (casual) tabletop gamer, a librarian, a (former) machinist, a skeptic, an atheist, a pretty heavy reader, a writer, a parent, and a (casual) tinkerer of electronics.

Follow the author's other endeavors at: A Parent With Glass, and ALTsapiens, and G+.

9 Comments

  1. February 25, 2014 at 9:20 pm —

    I am part of a transracial adoptive family. My husband and I are white and our son was born in Ethiopia. We are very conscious of race, and to say children are blind to race is simply not true. They notice things like race in an innocent way (so and so is brown), without any value judgements, unless they have been taught them. My son, on his own around age 4 began calling himself Brown [name] and me Pink Mama. For some reason, my husband is Grey Daddy. I have noticed that often children are curious about my son, as we live in an area with several black families, but he is often the only black child in a park/school/play group. The parents of these curious kids act really weird sometimes, I think assuming that I consider their kids (and therefore them) racist for noticing my son is brown. We have a bit of an added wrinkle that my son has autism, and does not notice much of this attention, unless they try and touch his hair. I always try and assure parents that kids notice race of their class mates, like they would notice glasses or a kid in a wheelchair. Talking about it calmly, answering questions that they have (if they are not too personal) does a lot to defuse the situation.
    As my son gets older and might face racism from classmates who have learned the behaviour, it will be more work to educate the kids about appropriate language, bullying, etc. Fighting the idea of “colourblind” education policies will also be on the agenda. The Geek Dad blog has a good post about how to raise a racist child by “not seeing colour” and never discussing racism. Learning about it, like the author is, is the first step to having educated, racially aware children.
    Geek Dad blog link: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2010/02/how-to-raise-racist-kids/

    • February 25, 2014 at 10:19 pm —

      Thank goodness, I was hoping for some other perspective! That’s a great point about colorblind. I think a lot of people go for that because on the surface, it sounds like the right thing and it is simple and easy, right? But the whole implications are being missed and it is important for those to be addressed as the Geek Dad article mentions, and also identity erasure.

  2. February 26, 2014 at 2:08 am —

    Living in South Africa, racism is a massive part of our history and very difficult to get away from. In so many ways, racism is institutionalised here and the legacy of apartheid is still very very real.
    At age three, my daughter started calling all black women nannies, because all the child minders she sees are black women. I was horrified but can totally see how this happened. I’ve spent a lot of time since then pointing out to her all the black women who do other jobs and she is over that one now thank goodness.
    On the other end of the spectrum, at her new school she is a racial minority (she is “white”) and it is neither here nor there with her. At the moment at any rate, religious differences amongst her class mates are far more interesting.
    We try to talk about race and privilege and South Africa’s history – Nelson Mandela being an excellent launch point for these conversations – but there are no doubt going to be tonnes of instances where she picks up negative ideas and associations from the environment in which we live.

  3. February 26, 2014 at 3:18 am —

    Kids notice things and they try to make sense.
    And they naturally take their self as the default. Only that non-white children get taught early that they’re not.
    It broke my heart when one of my daughter’s bi-racial classmates drew herself as blonde and white. So much self-hate at age 5.
    What makes me angry are not the kids but the adults. In Germany educators still call apricot crayons “flesh”.

  4. February 26, 2014 at 9:31 am —

    My son has an aide to help him meet his fine motor and speech goals. She is about 20, and I am 42. When I looked at my son’s pencil crayons, I saw the apricot one labeled Apricot. I told our aide that when I was a kid that colour was called “flesh”. She was horrified and had never seen one labeled that. I think it is good progress for the next generation . This is especially relevant to me since my son was born in Africa and medium brown is more his “flesh tone”. Sad to hear that in Germany the crayon makers persist with this racist colour naming.

    • February 26, 2014 at 11:37 am —

      Not the crayon makers, but everybody else.
      My daughter had to correct her teacher (who has a brown kid in her class!) that “It’s called apricot!, Not all skins (actually, it’s literally “skincolour” in German) are the same colour!” Seriously, if my kid could understand that at 4, why can’t adults understand that?
      But at the moment it’s carnival season and NOBODY here understands that redface, blackface and yellowface are NOT OK.[/end personal rant]

  5. February 26, 2014 at 9:35 am —

    I also make a concerted effort to show my son black adults, especially men, in our community. Our doctor is Nigerian, and quite a few (for a Canadian city) black men and families in our area. He asked the other day when he would turn pink and be a grown up. Ummm, a bit more conversation needed I think!

  6. February 26, 2014 at 12:31 pm —

    Gillell, I would totally have a personal rant if I was among people in blackface, redface and yellowface! Hopefully as the next generation (like your daughter) comes to adulthood some of these things will finally change. However, kids of parents in blackface for carnival might have more of an uphill battle.
    My mother was born in Germany and her family came to Canada in the early 1950s. My grandparents were racist and not subtle about it. My mother would have none of it though, and we were encouraged to have friends of all races, not as tokenism, but because friends come in all colours. She did the same. Attitudes can broaden and change, even in one generation.

  7. February 26, 2014 at 12:38 pm —

    Another good source of integration is childrens books. If you can try to find library picture books that feature a wide array of protagonists so that your kids don’t get the idea that the main character has to be white. Trust me they’ll get enough of that nonsense from the rest of American culture.

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