El Retardo Chino: Kids and Racism

Yesterday at his school, a 7 year-old girl called our 11 year-old son “el retardo chino.” The Chinese retard.

Wow, there’s a lot going on in that little phrase, so many implications to unpack I don’t even know where to begin. There’s racism, of course, and derision of people with intellectual disabilities. There’s also casual cruelty, implications about the girl’s parents, social commentary, and a whole lot else.

First of all, let me make something clear. I’m a lily-white guy from northern New England. (My wife is Korean-American.) Growing up in a white parsonage in a good neighborhood in New Hampshire, the Greek family down the street was pretty much as exotic as it got. I’ve never been the victim of racism – if anything, I’ve been the perpetrator. As kids we made fun of Asian people, even if the only Asian we’d actually seen was the adopted Korean daughter of some family friends. We were, despite having parents who taught us better, quietly racist.

This isn’t the first time our son has encountered this kind of thing. At his former school, the other kids would ask him if he was Chinese. Repeatedly, even after he had patiently explained his genetic composition to them. Outlined Mendelian inheritance, shown them Venn diagrams.

Now, we have some very good friends who are intelligent, well-educated, open-minded. When my wife mentioned to them that she’d seen a fair share of racism in Spain, they were quick to say no, no, it’s just that people are genuinely curious, not racist, not at all. Sorry, but if you’re curious about someone’s racial background you ask them once, find out, and that’s that. You don’t ask them day after day if they are “Chinese.”

So I told them of another recent example. When my wife’s parents were here, we passed by a group of boys who pointed at my mother-in-law, laughed, and made what we as kids would have called ‘chinky eyes.’ I didn’t see it – but my son did. When I recounted this little story to our friends they were seemingly uncomfortable. This clearly couldn’t be attributed to “curiosity,” it was outwardly, conspicuously racist, and this was something they didn’t really want to contemplate.

Which, I think, is how most white parents deal with issues of race and racism – they ignore them because it’s an uncomfortable subject. (I’m focusing on white parents because research has shown that minority parents do talk about race and ethnicity on a regular basis.) But the head-in-the-sand approach simply doesn’t work, because kids recognize racial and ethnic differences and learn stereotypes at a very early age. As much as you’d like to believe it to be the case, I can tell you right now your kids are not “colorblind.”

“A recent study of young white children in a preschool setting found that even three-to-four-year-olds interact with children of other racial groups using clear and often sophisticated understandings of racist ideas and epithets,” writes sociologist Dr. Joe Feagin.

Debra Van Ausdale, co-author with Feagin of “The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism”, has found that “well before they can speak clearly, children are exposed to racial and ethnic ideas through their immersion in and observation of the large social world. Since racism exists at all levels of society and is interwoven in all aspects of…social life, it is virtually impossible for alert young children either to miss or ignore it. Far from being oblivious to racial group and racism, children are inundated with it from the moment they enter society.”

So your kids recognize race, and are probably forming ideas about race and ethnicity from very early on. Talking about it with them will not make them (or you) racist. Avoiding talking about it might. But how do you do it?

Well, it might come up naturally at times. “Daddy, why is his skin so dark?” Kids are naturally – sometimes embarrassingly – curious. If they bring up the topic don’t shush them, talk openly with them about the various aspects of race.

Kids’ books can also be useful tools for examining race with your family. Here’s a list of 14 children’s books to help you talk about race with your kids.

If your kids do say something dodgy about race or ethnicity, don’t freak out. It doesn’t mean they’re going to shave their heads, start writing for Breitbart, or become Attorney General of the United States. Just sit down and have an honest conversation about it.

Look for and take your children to multicultural/multiracial events. Or better yet, take them some place – a Korean church for example – where they will be a minority, then talk about how they felt in that situation.

And perhaps most importantly, be a positive role model. Your kids definitely pay attention to who is around them and who you spend time with.  A University of Texas study showed that “the 4-5 year old children of parents who have more diverse friends show less racial bias than the children of parents who have less diverse friends.”

Obviously I’m not saying you need to run out and somehow assemble a group of friends that looks like a Benetton ad. But by being aware of who you choose to surround yourself with you might make more of an effort to have a more inclusive social circle.

In fact, let me take a moment and think about our circle of friends. A quick mental survey comes up with folks from Italy, Germany, Hungary, Argentina, Colombia, England, India, Slovakia, South Africa, Poland, Spain, Romania –  a truly international group that spans the color spectrum from chalky white to, hmm, uhhhm, beige. Oh God, all of our friends are white people. Yes, Raj, even you are essentially a white person. I see white people all the time.

Ah well, you do what you can with what you’ve got. Anyway, my point is that it’s not only okay to talk to your kids about race – it’s essential. As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

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14 thoughts on “El Retardo Chino: Kids and Racism

  1. Overall, I really enjoyed your article, and it is so well-written. And clever.

    However–and this is a huge however–people of Indian descent are not white. No more than Korean people are. Unless you’re basing whiteness on census designations. Which has problems for obvious reasons. East Asian people are not the only non-white Asian people/Asian people who experience racism outside of their ancestral countries. The concept of white people telling us as non-white people what we are and what we aren’t got old a very long time ago. I’m sure you can understand, given that the premise of this article is learning about and unlearning racism–which you hopefully don’t think stops at childhood.

    A West Asian woman living in the US post-9/11


  2. I grew up in an overwhelmingly white part of the world. Kindergarten through 12th grade had maybe five non-white kids at any given time. In middle school I moved to a school that had a white minority and was on the receiving end of racism for the first time.
    When I had my first child, we were looking to move into a bigger house. We purposefully picked an area that was more diverse specifically so our children would have diversity as their normal.
    Our neighbors across the street are immigrants from Lebanon. A few houses down is a family from Iran. A few houses the other way is a older couple of Asian descent who don’t speak enough English to venture much beyond “hello.” This is in addition to black, white, and brown families and just within a stone’s throw from our front door.
    Our daughter’s daycare is mostly non-white (also Montessori) with teachers who are from Greece and Mexico and placed in between.
    We haven’t had many talks yet, but our oldest is only three. Mostly we’re talking through how it’s not only girls who replace bathroom faucets and it’s not only boys who do dishes. (Non standard gender roles are pretty entrenched in my relationship with my husband.)
    I never had race talks growing up, so I haven’t had those modeled for me. I hope to learn to have them through practice and trial and error. I’ll check out that book list. Thank you for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that’s great that you specifically searched out a diverse neighborhood in which to live. I believe that’s very important for kids, and from a very young age. Sounds like a great place to live. Thanks for reading and sharing your own experiences, plumdirt!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My kids are lucky enough to go to a very multicultural school. And you’re right, there are racial stereotypes, but it’s interesting how kids can be both racially prejudiced AND colour blind at the same time! One of my boys is very pale, and his best friends at school are all Polynesian. The other day, they were talking about the palagi (European person or stranger) playing over there and how they wouldn’t want to play with them. My boy looked at them and said “but I’M palagi”. Apparently they looked at him in complete astonishment, and said “nah bro, you’re one of us”. I often get up and dance with the Pasifika parents and one of the older women one day took me by the hand and said “you and I, we understand that our blood is the same colour”. That’s really stuck with me! Interesting post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really interesting. Our boys’ school is fairly racially (and culturally) diverse, and since it’s a Montessori school the parents are pretty much all liberal-minded (and many are pretty hippy-dippy), so I would expect the kids to be open and accepting. But, as you know, kids pick up everything from the world around them, and if they world around them is racist (and I think it is), they’re going to absorb that. Anyway, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts, FMNZ!


  4. Kids can be so mean and parents are sometimes oblivious to it. I think media also plays a big role in this. The other day my daughter came to me and said she wished she was blonde and had lighter skin. Its hard to be different these days.


    • My daughter is blonde and very pale. She refuses to let anyone put her hair in braids or ponytails because they won’t look howshe wanted them to look. We looked at pictures together of little girls’ hair styles to see how she wanted them. She wanted her hair to be black, thick, and curly. I tried explaining that I couldn’t make her hair black, thick, or curly. She was distraught. (She’s just turned three.)
      I’m only sharing this story in case it helps your daughter somehow to know that a light-skinned blonde girl wishes she were darker.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes I definitely agree that some Spanish people are racist. I’m sorry to hear that comment about your son, and that he has such ill-educated kids in his school. One kid told my son that Romanians spread infectious diseases!! Por dios. When my husband had a Moroccan guy working with him here in Seville, some people refused to speak directly to him, instead referring to him as “el Moro” – the moor. We talk to our kids lots about race – my daughter’s best friend’s mother is from Colombia, of
    African descent, so she is kind of our reference point. They understand that Trump is racist against Mexicans, and that lots of British people are racist, with feelings more upfront since the Brexit vote. They understand (I hope) that it’s out of prejudice and ignorance. There are some very narroq mindsets here, same as everywhere unfortunately 😦


    • For me the point isn’t that some Spanish people are racist, it’s more that the world around us is inherently racist (ourselves included if we care to dig deeply and honestly enough), and kids pick up on that. That’s awful about el Moro. Even if you feel that way, can you imagine believing that it’s socially acceptable to voice your ignorance and prejudice? Yikes. Believe me, I don’t think this little girl is bad in any way, and I even think that her parents would be astonished and embarrassed by her behaviour. I’m considering having a talk with D’s teachers, not to rat the little girl out, but to use this as a teaching moment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you mmtread, as I am spaniard. I hope you could excuse my bad english, I’ll do my best here.
        It is curious that Fiona puts everyone on the same hole. Isnt that racism? Only people is racist, not the nationalities.
        For you, England, Spain, and USA is plenty of racist. I would think carefully about that.


        • Hey Toni, thanks for leaving your comments. I don’t think Fiona is putting “everyone in the same hole,” I think she’s just relating some of her experiences here. She says that “some Spanish people are racist,” which is of course true, just as some American, Canadian, Japanese, Romanian – whatever nationality you care to mention – people are racist. As I wrote in my reply, it’s not that some people are racist, it’s that “the world around us in inherently racist,” which is something that needs working on. Again, thanks for visiting and leaving your thoughts.


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