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  • Nicole Doyley

When Do Kids Start Being Racists?

Updated: Mar 13

My son went to his first birthday party when he was three. We knew he’d probably be the only Black kid because the party guests were all from his preschool class, which was all white – except him. Ten minutes into the party, the host gathered the wiggly three-year-olds into a circle and explained the rules of Duck, Duck, Goose. The birthday girl went first and as she worked her way around the circle, tapping heads, I noticed that each time she arrived at my son’s head, she passed her hand over it, never touching it. She tapped the next kid’s head and the next and finally jubilantly shouted GOOSE! She took off around the circle, gleefully chased by the new kid up, and then breathlessly slid into the open spot, triumphant for having made it around. When this next child got to my son’s head, he too passed over it, refusing to touch it. Kid after kid did the same thing. Nine out of ten kids got to be Goose that day, all except my son.

I’ve seen so many memes to the effect, “Kids aren’t born racist; they are taught to be so.” I disagree. I am sure no parent sat their squirmy three-year-old down and said, “Now Johnny, don’t touch that little brown boy’s head!” Rather, these kids saw that my son was different, and they all subconsciously decided to avoid touching different. He was invited to the party but never fully included.

My friend has a similar story of her Black son hitting home-run after home-run on his mostly white baseball team, cheered on at the games, but never invited to the team parties.

Since then, my guy has been called monkey, dirty, and muddy countless times. He’s been told that his skin resembled poop, and that he looked like a gang member when he showed up with a scratch on his cheek from having fallen off his bike. At camp kids queried if he were from the inner-city, or perhaps from another country all together. It has been so evident that these kids live highly segregated lives and were never before in the company of Black peers.

Racism is like smog in the air and the three-year-olds at that first party and the kids through the years have all inhaled it. Our culture is so rife with it, that kids will likely pick up racist ideas unless they are intentionally taught otherwise. Did these kids have any books on their shelves with pictures of happy Black and brown children? Did they ever see any people of color at their parents’ barbecues? Did their moms ever arrange playdates with brown kids from school? When my son was first called monkey, we reported it because it happened at school, and when the mom found out, she was horrified and ashamed that her son would use such a word. And yet, where did he hear it? From his favorite uncle, perhaps? If so, did mom ever tell that uncle to refrain from using that word in her home, or did she pick up and leave when he used it in his home? Did her son witness any kind of disapproval from his mom, or just an apathetic resignation, Well, your uncle has a great heart, but he’s just set in his ways. How intolerant are mom and dad of racist jargon?

About a year ago my other son had gotten into watching a police drama. One night, I sat down to watch it with him, and we continued to view it together for the next few weeks. After about six or seven episodes, I asked him,

Hey, what color are the bad guys – usually?

He responded, Um, Black or brown.

Yes, and what crime are they usually committing?

Um, they’re usually drug dealers.

When I told him that Black and white people use and sell drugs at the same rate, he looked at me in astonishment. Really?! Without even knowing it, he had inhaled that smog and believed that people who looked like him were mostly responsible for the drug problems in America.

For reasons like these, so many Black people find oases for their kids, places where they can be Goose. Next year, we hope to send one son to a music camp specifically for Black and brown kids. We’re happy that the other has found refuge at his school’s Black Student Union, and both eagerly attend our Black church’s youth group.

Are kids born racist? Yes and no. Kids instinctively perceive different and if they are not taught that different is equally beautiful and good, many will fear different and push different away. Similarly, if our kids passively ingest the biases so prevalent in the media and Hollywood, they will likely pick up racist views without even knowing it. All parents have to be intentional about debunking these biases through books, movies and relationships.

Here's a list of suggested resources.


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