My Racist 3-Year-Old

Zach Rosenberg tries to figure out how to explain race to his son, without teaching him to identify people as “others”.

Nothing illustrates our insecure feelings about race like a child.

When children learn about diversity, there’s an incredible potential to “get them early” and send them down a pathway that promotes judging people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. There are a couple of ways you can achieve this—and ignoring race isn’t one of them.

My family is white. And aside from our son’s African American godfather and a handful of friends of color, my son doesn’t encounter too many people that look different from him.

We don’t want to treat people as if they’re colorless, that method doesn’t celebrate people’s wonderful differences. But we don’t want to lay it on so thick that our son gets the impression that we should point racial differences out all willy-nilly.

Children’s television does a fair job at introducing diversity; with shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “Ni Hao Kai Lan,” kids are introduced to the concept of different languages and skin colors. But then again, television also teaches kids that dogs talk and purple dinosaurs get all huggy when you share.

Nevertheless, shows like “Dora” and “Kai Lan” open up candid conversations about race, and that’s important. But sometimes, those conversations come back up at the worst times.

Case in point: my wife and I took our son to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. “Do I like the Chinese, Daddy?” my son asked.

“Chinese food…yes.” I nervously replied.

He continued: “Do the Chinese have water, daddy?”

Now things were getting weird.

“Is that Chinese painting?” he asked, pointing to the art on the wall.

“Is that Chinese music?” His voice is getting louder. My shushing and uncomfortable nodding is not tipping him off. I mean, he’s three.

“Is that man Chinese?” He stands up and points to a man walking to the bathroom. No, I answer through my teeth. I didn’t mention that he was most likely Latino, because that would just complicate everything.

Days later, my wife had our son in a store. An African American employee helped my wife find an item, and in the process, sneezed. After he had walked away, my son mentioned that he got “black sneeze” on him. My wife was mortified even though no one (probably) heard.

Even the President isn’t out of range; during the elections, my son saw President Obama on the news and said “that’s the President.”

“It IS,” my wife and I proudly exclaimed.

“He has a black face,” my son added. My proudly-pumped fist turned into a hiding spot for my face as my wife groaned “we don’t say that about people.”

But, he must have thought, it’s true, right?

It is. But how do you explain to a child the right times and ways to identify race? As a father, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the right ways of saying “people are all different.” I once even took a knee next to him with a map and attempted to explain that people come from different places and those places all make different looking people. I haven’t yet figured out how to stop my son from needlessly identifying race, however. Because to me it’s not important, but to him, race is an identifier, and he’s not aware of the multitude of ways throughout history that race, color and culture have been used as a weapon or a means to hurt others.

Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe I’m just supposed to keep teaching my son about racial differences, but take public embarrassment in stride, reminding him that you just don’t point out race when you don’t need to. But still, when do you need to? Never? Only when it’s about something good? Only during the United States Government-approved so-and-so-history-months? That doesn’t seem right.

I guess my son and I will learn it together.

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About Zach Rosenberg

Zach Rosenberg is a husband and father living in Southern California. He is co-founder of
fatherhood news site 8BitDad.com, and a contributor to HLNtv.com. You can also find him on Twitter @zjrosenberg.

Comments

  1. Avoid it until they’re older, refer to people as man or woman vs white man/woman, black man/woman, etc.

    • I completely disagree. I am white and my daughter is black. She was born in Africa. We should never “hush” our children when they refer to someone as black or white. It is a perfectly normal identifier. If we don’t talk about race even when our children are young, we are teaching them its bad to call someone black, Chinese, Indian, etc. It’s OK!

  2. How did the black man respond to him saying that?

  3. I don’t think this makes your son racist. At this age he is madly trying to classify things. He is probably doing a lot of counting, putting things in colour groupings, pointing out trees and dogs and cars that are similar or different. He is doing the same thing with people and it should be handled in the same way.
    ‘Yes, that man has darker skin than you. There are lots of different people in the world, just like there are lots of different fruits, vegetables, cars and animals.’ You can then have a rudimentary discussion about genetics ie: you have brown eyes because both of your parents have brown eyes, people often look like their parents etc etc. This can be difficult in a public place as other people can construe his remarks as racist and will be listening for your response. I remember one of my children pointing out a very overweight woman and another pointing out a man with only one leg. My initial reaction was embarrassment but I soon realised that my child was not passing judgement, merely drawing my attention to something he had just noticed for the first time.
    The danger comes when we censor our responses. Regardless of what we are telling our child, our squeamishness tells them there is something negative, wrong or shameful. If we help the child classify the differences between men and women (as suggested by Archy) but not race, we are suggesting race is something underground that can’t be talked about – something wrong or shameful.
    So, by all means, say to your son, ‘Yes, he has a black face. People are amazing in that no two people look exactly the same. They may be different heights, different hair colour, different skin colour and they might get crinkles on their faces in different places when they laugh. Humans are incredible!’

  4. I plan to just be like, “Yes, you’re right” or something to that affect. “People come in all different colors.” It is a very charged issues, and I hope to raise kids that are very open to everyone.

  5. I agree that you can’t act like you don’t see the color; a 3-year old can spot a lie a mile a way. Plus this might cause him to raise his voice to tell you that person was different. In my experience (a white woman raising african-american children), at age three we refered to people as shades of brown, peach and pink. We wondered about all the amazinig shades of skin. When my daughter heard the word black, I’d say that was silly because no one’s skin is truely black – just dark brown. And no one is truely white like a sheet of paper. Now that she is in Kindergarten, I have explained that the term black is used to identify people who have ancestors from Africa and white are people who have ancestors from Europe (a map helps). This also helps with questions of why a “black” person can be lighter toned than a “white” person.
    I do admire that you are even considering approaching this topic; many white families do not talk about it. The parents seem to uncomfortably avoid the topic until the kid figures things out through school or friends. Also, as a mixed race family, it does not bother me or my kids when other kids point out our differences. Kids will be kids, it’s the adult response that maters.

    • When I see people I don’t refer to black, white, etc unless there is a damn good reason. I see men, I see women. I’ve met too many people of mixed race to really describe them with a simple label, hell I know a woman who is half aboriginal and is very very very pale white.

      Being overweight I’ve had a young kid call me fat before, at first it pissed me off a lot but then I thought maybe they haven’t got a clue of the negativity of it?

      • John Smith says:

        In that case, what dose being a man or a woman have to do with it? Unless you are buying clothes, pointing them to public toilets or hitting on them, what difference dose there sex make? No more than there race, disability, or any other difference.

        Kids notice people are difference, and we should be teaching them why those differences exist, and that they are not a negative thing, and to pretend otherwise is teaching them that differences are bad. I have a disability, and kids have pointed it out, I’m not offended, they are just curious. And unlike being fat you normally can’t change your disability, or race, or gender. Laugh, smile, wave, and as long as there parents are not the type to encourage that kind of behavior they will soon get over the novelty and learn to accept that we are all different and this is not a bad thing.

  6. It sounds like you’re worrying way too much. It also sounds like you’re a first time parent. Your kid isn’t even racist, he’s just curious. That was an attention grabbing headline to your article if ever there was one. Chill. He’ll grow out of it.

  7. I have totally been there with my kid. He’s loved pho since he could talk, but when he was nervous he’d say things to cause the adults to all freak out, so on one visit to a Vietnamese restaurant he announced regarding the menu, loudly, that he “couldn’t read this gobbledygook.” Horrified faces all around. This wasn’t the only time he did something like your three year old: pointing out loudly what he’s noticing and wanting others to put into a context for him. He doesn’t know how to ask for that. So I explained when he asked whether it was okay to say someone was fat that it was, but that a lot of people who are fat have gotten teased for being fat, so when you bring it up, they might think you’re making fun of them. This is the historical context for fatphobia I could muster on the fly in a grocery store. I still remember the look of comprehension that dawned when we finally had the conversation where he learned that you call people who look a certain way “black” and other people who look another way “white.” He’d noticed the difference but not registered how important it was to our culture. I was glad for the lag because it gave him a chance to make friendships that were color-blind, but I also knew it couldn’t last forever. Someone was going to teach my kid about racism and I wanted to make sure it was done so that he didn’t learn the wrong lessons about it. It exists; it hurts people; we shouldn’t perpetuate it.

  8. wellokaythen says:

    At that age, he may not have a “theory of the mind” yet, where he can put himself in other people’s position.

    But, maybe this is a question of the difference between “nice” and “mean.” It’s mean to single out other people because they’re different, or at least it can remind those people of times when other people were mean to them. It’s nice to be kind to everyone no matter what they look like. You don’t have to go into the whole history of racism. In the short term the question is how he should treat people and how he should talk about people.

    (Sounds like he’s still learning the difference between loud voice and soft voice, so it’s hard to imagine he’s up for a history of racism.)

    Besides, most reasonable people will bear in mind that the boy’s only three years old. They won’t judge you as parents because he asks an inappropriate but curious question. If anyone is going to judge you, it’s on how you respond to the question.

    Perhaps he’s watching the wrong TV. Many of our political leaders seem to suggest that “we” should fear “the Chinese,” so he’s not exactly out of touch….

  9. Bay Area Guy says:

    The way I see it, talk to your kids about race,

    When you’re a white kid like me who grew up in the racially mixed Bay Area, you’re bound to learn about racial differences anyway, regardless of how “colorblind” your parents try to be.

    Ironically, constantly being around people of different races (I’m almost always a white minority wherever I am) has made me less colorblind and less inclined to see people are mere individuals, and instead has made me more racially conscious and prejudicial.

    I feel like trying to teach kids to be “colorblind,” while admirable in theory, has the same effect as teaching young boys that girls like nice guys, don’t care that much about looks, are less shallow than guys, etc.

    When those kids grow up, and realize that things don’t really work that way in real life, they’re bound to become cynical.

    I think the best approach is recognize racial differences on a group level, but also judge individuals you encounter, regardless of race, by their merits. Macro versus micro.

  10. There are too many social references pointing children to find patterns and differences in items and people for your child to not learn this behaviour. I am caucasian (mostly), and my child’s biological father is an obama mix (1/2 black, 1/2 white), but the man who raised her and married me, is of hispanic origin. You must talk to your child about the diversity in families, not just racial backgrounds. My poor daughter had a child in her class try to tell her that I am not her mother because we are different colours. With the diversity in today’s families including adopted children, single parents, same sex parents, split parents…ect, kids need to know that you feel all of these situations are ok for them to be ok with it.
    I have had my kid forced to draw herself with a brown crayon at school, even though she is lighter skinned than jessica alba. We need to stop forcing people to ‘identify’ their race.

  11. I think with kids that age books are great and some of my faves are The Color of Us by Karen Katz and It’s Ok to be Different by Todd Parr. Ultimately kids are going to say what comes to mind, and all we can do is hellp frame it for them. I agree with other commenters that at three he is too young to fully get the idea that what he says might hurt others feelings especially when he is stating what he believes to be a fact. The last thing you want to do is avoid a topic that he is bringing up because the lesson he will learn is that it is taboo or dad can’t handle talking about xyz.

    As a woman of color I have heard the “I don’t see color” comment my entire life, and to me that means that you then don’t see all of me. Being a woman, a sister, a mother, from the south, college educated, all shape the person who I am just as much as being of color. To choose to remove one of those labels because it makes someone feel better or more PC is to say that it isn’t important. To me being a woman of color is important, I am just as proud of my skin color as I am of all the other labels which encompass me. I do say to you kudos for thinking about this and kudos for talking to your child (even at 3).

    • Well of course I see colour, but I don’t want it to define the person. I see different cultures, but I don’t want that to define them either, everyone is a blank slate when I meet them and my mind builds up a profile of who they are based on their actions more than their looks. Being someone with an anxiety disorder my mind spends more time deciding if they’re a threat vs bothering about skin colour, I pay attention to their tone of voice, how they walk, how they carry themselves, if they’re showing signs of anger. I see colour, I just don’t care enough about it to think of people as defined by that trait, I also find it too little info to go on especially in mixed race areas as I know people who are half aboriginal yet are paler than I am. It doesn’t really tell me much.

      I live in an area with a lot of racism which I acknowledge exists and that’s probably part of why I choose to notice skin colour less, when I was growing up I had racist views until I grew a brain basically n realized we all bleed red and there’s no point judging colour.

    • Actually books are a great idea. I had a sociology class where we had to dissect children’s books that showed racial “issues”. I can’t for the life of me remember the one I read, but it showed a girl who was mixed race who was attempting to understand why the difference between her black intercity grandparents and her country white grandparents. So it deals with race and locational differences.

      Zach, a three year old will do exactly what you’re saying. It’s normal. And it sounds to me like you’re explaining it well. :)

  12. Your son isn’t racist. He is a child and is only saying what he sees. Instead of cringing, or changing the subject, take the time to listen to what he is thinking and to explain that we are all the same on the inside even though we have different physical attributes. That way he won’t become racist . Otherwise if nothing is explained to him, he just might grow up thinking there must be something wrong with people who don’t look like him.

  13. I was just turned on to this report from 60 Minutes by a friend, and although it doesn’t deal with race directly, it investigates our innate tribalism and preference for likeness as babies. The report also hints that as children get older they tend to become generous and tolerant despite those instincts.

    http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50135408n

  14. OMG! People that dont identify as anything. White people. Oh well at least the black kids can identify as black. Teaching your kids they have no heritage is destroying their self confidence. Evil white people just destroy all through time. Sickening!

  15. What a great piece. We live in Sydney, so are completely surrounded by diversity, my daughter was one of a handful of white children at her preschool. So we never really had conversations about race because she was so surrounded by children and adults of different nationalities, it never came up. Until one day when we were waiting for a bus, and the doors opened and she screamed in delight. “Look mummy its a Genie!” I looked up and the bus driver was a Sikh, wearing a light blue turban to match his uniform and sporting a black beard. I was mortified to say the least….. but thankfully he found it amusing. I think that most people would be able to tell the difference between a child’s curiosity and wonderment, in opposition to a racist parent or guardians influence (which is the only way a child of 3 would be a racist or making racist comments). And hopefully the people these comments are directed towards are as understanding and amused as that lovely bus driver was.

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  1. [...] then it’s OK…right?  Right?!? Someone tell me I’m right!” This is the second article within a week posted at GMP by a father who was scared that he’s raising a racist kid.  In [...]

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