Posted on October 23, 2009

Is My 4-Year-Old Racist?

Monique Fields, The Root, October 9, 2009

“Brown people,” my daughter told me, “drive old cars.” I looked at Ken with a raised eyebrow; he was not surprised because Simone, our 4-year-old, had shared her sudden insight with him a few weeks earlier. When he told me about the exchange, it stoked one of my biggest fears–that some day Simone will identify herself as white and cast aside her black heritage.

Her observation isn’t necessarily a negative one. {snip} But what if this observation about brown people and old cars also leads to her stereotyping in other more potentially harmful ways, i.e. white people are successful and black people are unsuccessful?


As her brown mother, I drive an old car, or at least it is older than her white father’s car. {snip}

Simone, meanwhile, has noticed her father’s car has a few features my car does not have, and she has asked why. My response: His car is newer; my car is older. I should note that Simone describes me as brown, her father as beige, and herself as tan.

Until now, I have followed a long-held theory. Young children don’t understand the complexities of race; prejudice is learned. What we as parents should do–regardless of the race of our children–is expose them to children of different races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, and then let nature take its course.

Now after observing my own child and reading more than a few articles about the matter, I’m not so sure that is the best approach. {snip}

{snip} It turns out Simone is not out of the ordinary. Children as young as 6-months-old judge others based on the color of their skin.

Such revelations, especially those about race, run contrary to what I have been taught for decades. I credit my attitudes about race to playing with children of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds as a child. {snip} The authors of NurtureShock, though, say I may be setting up myself for parenting failure.


A quick summary on how we think about race and children has changed:

Then: We assumed children didn’t notice race until we pointed it out to them.

Now: Evidence shows children identify racial differences much like they see the differences between pink and baby blue–two colors often used to distinguish girls from boys.

Then: Like me, many parents figured children would get the “diversity” point after we exposed them to different races and cultures.

Now: Researchers have found the more diverse the environment, the more likely children are to self-segregate.

Then: Children often told about discrimination were less likely to see the relationship between working hard and achieving goals.

Now: Black children who repeatedly hear messages of black pride are more interested in school and more likely to connect their success to their hard work and persistence.

What are parents of biracial children to do in this drama? I have decided to teach more, a lot more. Sure, I told Simone it may appear to her that brown people only drive older cars but that plenty of them drive new cars. {snip} I am learning, though, she is going to force Ken and me to talk about race more than we previously thought or had planned. {snip}