Talking to children about race

A fascinating article argues that talking to children– even very young children– about race turns out to be absolutely vital to fighting discriminatory attitudes. And it’s important to talk explicitly– “everyone’s equal” doesn’t mean much to a child who hasn’t quite grasped the abstract concept of equality but who has noticed differences in skin colour, that they seem to matter in some way, and also that *they’re not allowed* to talk about this. Well-meaning parents are, understandably, reluctant to talk about race– they don’t want their children to use these categories. But they’re mistaken to think that the children won’t acquire the categories– they’ll acquire them, scarily early, and not in a way that the well-meaning parents want them to.

6 thoughts on “Talking to children about race

  1. I think it is an important conversation to have with children, especially if they don’t live in a very diverse area.

  2. Yes, this is so important. Kids will mimic these attitudes without even knowing what the words mean. I remember learning a version of eenie-meenie-minie-mo to decide teams for some game I played when I was about four. The kid that taught me that version was probably only 5 or6. That version didn’t use “catch a piggie by the toe”. It used that nasty n-word instead. It was the first time I’d heard it, because nobody in my house or kindergarten class used it. To me, at the time, it was just a weird novelty word, like supercalafragalistic…

    Until Mom washed my mouth with soap. She explained that the word was BAD, but had to send me to Dad’s for the rest of my multi-culti summer education. He was really good at teaching young children. (Mom was better at dictating than explaining). That was one of the best things Mom ever did for me. Dad taught me about our Ojibwe ancestry and used stories from other cultures to teach us (me and sister Synaesthetik) how to read. I’d eat soap again for that summer. It was the best camping trip of my life.

    I tried to do the same thing for my daughter when she made her friend cry with the same nasty word. It’s a damaging pattern I see where I am, not quite like American racial slurs, with all the brutal history, but still horrible for the people on the receiving end. Kids play together in diverse groups, but use racial slurs rather than more direct criticisms to express annoyance at behaviours that don’t conform to the expectations of the group. I think that may be part of the reason for the disparities between light-skinned anglo/European descendants’ answers to the How racist are Canadians? survey question and the answers of visible minorities on the same surveys.

    So, my daughter’s friend was a little tricky, but SO charming. Remember the little guy in Disney’s Brother Bear? That was Tyson. Funniest 8 year old Ive ever met. But he liked to pick his friends’ pockets for a joke, just to see if they were paying attention. He gave the stuff back when they noticed, apparently. But he hated being ignored. So this little quirk caused him some problems with his friends, including my daughter and her other friend, who both started screaming racial slurs at him over this behaviour. I explained to her why this is no way to to teach somebody to respect your property, and gradually explained the ugly history of slavery, and pointed out the contradiction in using a word like that to try to tell a child to quit picking pockets. I invited him over whenever I could find things for the kids to do together, and he never tried to bug us by pinching our stuff.

    He’s always been happy to see us when we bump into each other, he seemed to get over the insults quickly. Unfortunately, I don’t know if his Mom ever did. I always got the impression that she only grudgingly let our kids play together, that she never really trusted us after that. And I don’t blame her.

    So again, it’s crucial to teach kids about diversity, because they WILL learn hate speech from outsiders if we don’t teach them courtesy first. And they WILL parrot this hate speech, possibly to the detriment of a fragile friendship, or a friend’s self-esteem. The ages between 3 and 10 are the worst to suffer a dehumanizing betrayal. In addition to our responsibility to protect our own children, we have a responsibility to protect others’ children from intentional and unintentional wounds our children may inflict on them for lack of knowledge. Names do hurt.

  3. I have learned from my (university) students how very, very young they actually learn about race and how this occurs. One very common story they’ve told over the years is being told that we are all equal and skin color doesn’t matter but noticing that when they drive through “ethnic” neighborhoods, their parents lock all the car doors. Multiple students told me this is how they learned. So, even our body language radiates our biases no matter what we say.

    One former student, white, learned to fear ethnic difference when in kindergarten he stroked the cheek of a little African American girl sitting next to him because her skin was so beautiful and soft. The teacher jerked him out of his seat by the nape of his neck, marched him into the hall and told him not to ever do anything like that again. He never forgot and was fearful until he was able to share this story in a philosophy of oppression class. Oh what we teach our children…

  4. When I was in kindergarten, the other children would point at me and taunt “Chinese! Chinese!”

    The ironies were twofold:

    1.) I’m white, and there’s not a non-white ancestor for as far back as the family tree can be traced. I do have small eyes, but nobody who has ever seen an east Asian would (should) make the mistake. I guess my last name also starts with an X, but I don’t think it factored into their taunts–just the comments I get now.

    2.) My best friend at the time WAS Chinese, and was never taunted at all.

    My point is just to confirm what’s been said: children are easily influenced by racist attitudes, and they just don’t realize they’re making idiotic and baseless claims.

  5. It appears significant that the families in the study are described as “white”. Maybe the prescriptions are particularly important for children whose families aren’t mixed ethnically.

    I would feel a little awkward sitting my Pakistani-Scandinavian daughter down to tell her that her Korean-Scandinavian cousin or her Pakistani cousins are, really, nice people. Of course they are! They speak different languages, so skyping can be a problem, but as long as they play with legos they are obviously alright. The same goes for the kids in her day care group – at least half have parents of visibly different ethnicities, so there’s really no “normal” to measure against as far as this group goes.

    The challenge here seems to be to prepare children for the attitudes of people who aren’t used to mixed company – whether they are of one ethnicity or another (being non-white doesn’t mean you don’t fall back on ethnic stereotypes, by the way!)


  6. Fascinating anecdotes, all. We ended up having discussions with Jender-Son about skin colour because he said he didn’t like one of his classmates “because she was brown”. We were horrified, and in addition to talking we went and bought lots of books with no-white protagonists for him (thanks to all of you for the suggestions!). Shortly thereafter, he had *lots* of non-white friends (actually, it looks like a preference). We thought it was the books. But the article linked to suggests that books like that don’t do it on their own– what’s most important is the conversations.

    Karen– interesting point. It does seem awkward to raise in a family like yours. But one can’t apparently depend on diversity to do the job on its own– diverse classrooms, according to the article, lead to *more* segregation. Perhaps the thing to do is to wait till children in your family start noticing and talking about differences between family members?

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