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.”