Are My Children Racist?

February 24, 2013  |  

The idea of race is a figment of our imagination. Scientists recognize it as a social construction rather than a biological one, yet few people question its existence. Like chocolate, people range in hue from shades of dark chocolate, to milk chocolate, to white chocolate, but any chocolate lover appreciates them all. God set us in various parts of the world where the sun’s rays shine a little differently but are glorious nonetheless, and then he appropriated our skin tones to accommodate such. Race designations are merely a way to divide an otherwise undivided human race, so you can imagine my shock and disapproval when I found out my children are racist.

I’ve tried to raise my now 6 year old boys with the best intentions, teaching them not to judge, but if they must judge, judge others on their character and not their color. We read stories from different cultures and I surround them with people who look like them and people who look nothing like them. Their favorite celebrities: Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith. Their favorite story: Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches that teaches the nonsense of prejudice based solely on physical characteristics. When we go to the park, they play with just about any kid that crosses their path, black, white, or Asian. Even girls. I looked for signs or symptoms that they felt less than, or inferior because of their tone, or hair texture. I found none and so was confident that I was doing a good job. And then…

We were watching an episode of Family Feud and I saw my son pout when the Black family lost the game. “Why did you want that family to win? I asked him. Without skipping a beat, “Because they’re brown, and we’re brown,” he answered. Days later, over breakfast, I told the kids about the pending election. They recognize Obama well, but I introduced them to his opponent with a photo. “Mitt Romney,” I said pointing. “Who do you think we should vote for?” “Barack Obama!” the twins shouted in unison. When I asked them why, they couldn’t provide any reasonable explanation other than that they simply like him “better.”

One might argue that it is much too early to introduce politics to a child, and while I avoided any serious political talk, I was still curious how or why the children have come to identify so strongly with people of color. The history of African Americans in this country has been one of sustained oppression and discrimination, and like Jews, Hispanics, or any other minority, there tends to be a cohesiveness between members of a particular ethnic group. Historically, Black people have often identified strongly with their race, listing it as a characteristic as they would their occupation, gender, or family role. I am Black. I am a woman. I am a mother. But my children have been raised in an age where having a Black president is the norm, racial integration is common, and they are too young to have felt the effects of racial distinction. Or…maybe not.

Many people assume children only see race when it is pointed out, but Julie Parsons and Kimberly Ridley note in their paper Identity, Affinity, and Reality, that children as young as three years old notice physical differences like skin tone, and hair texture. But it is one thing to notice differences, and another thing entirely to demonstrate in-group preference. Parsons and Ridley write:

“Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.’ Bigler randomly gave four and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible”

Maybe it is my own naïveté that assumes the post racial society Dr. King dreamed of is within reach, one where individuals are truly colorblind and form conclusions about others with no respect to race. But when I think again, our diversity is what makes America so beautiful. What a boring place this would be if we all looked the same, and acted the same, and wore the same grey Prada suit.

To not see color, is a kind of offense. It’s dismissive of the culture and history imprinted in the skin. Race, the idea of it, is a figment of our imagination, yet so much of our identity has been tied to that very idea that it is hard, if not impossible to overcome it. The 2008 Presidential election saw voters who cast their ballots in favor of Obama simply to see a Black Man as Head of State, and likewise, many cast their ballots against him to avoid the same, regardless of political principles. The challenge is in finding a balance in promoting cultural pride in children while keeping sight of fairness and equality irrespective of race in their life decisions.

I would be a liar if I did not admit my preference for those who look like me in any competition, a Presidential election, or the Family Feud. It is an unspoken assumption that because they look like me, we think the same, we operate the same, and we’ve had the same experiences. All else being equal, I tend to side with color. But the key phrase is, all else being equal. If I can instill sound decision making in my children in heavy matters, their team of preference on family game shows does not make them racist. It simply makes them human.

Herina Ayot is a freelance writer in the New York Metropolitan area. She tweets @ReeExperience

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