I remember the first time I was called a racist. It was something like 15-20 years ago–when I was roughly 10-years-old.
That’s right. Ten.
And, just in case there’s someone out there who needs to hear the details before deciding whether a 10-year-old child might have actually been a “racist,” I’ll share the whole story with you.
Once upon a time, a girl my age showed up in my yard, out of nowhere, and asked if I wanted to play. That was actually pretty common–since the rental units in our area had high rates of tenant turnover. New friends often appeared like magic and then disappeared the same way.
Anyway, this girl introduced herself as Ava or Olive or something like that..and the two of us spent a couple hours swinging and acting out fictional stories and messing with my Gigapet. You remember these, right?
Gigapets were majorly hot commodities when I was a kid. So, I felt pretty big and proud when Ava/Olive said, “This is really cool! I want to show it to my mom!” I let her run across the street with my precious digital kitten, and then I waited for her return…
After what felt like an eternity (to a concerned Digi-Mama), Ava/Olive came skipping out of her house without my Gigapet. Naturally, my first question was, “Hey, what did you do with my toy?” And my new friend stammered a few half-answers.
“…um, my mom just wanted to see it a little longer…and…uh…my sister wants to see it, too…and maybe I can borrow it and give it back next week?”
I replied: “I didn’t say you could keep it. Give it back now.”
At this point, Ava/Olive pulled an old beat up, knock-off digital pet from her pocket and said, “Let’s trade! You can have this one.”
So, I said more loudly, “I want MINE.” Hoping to convey my seriousness, I pulled out the big guns. “I’ll tell my mom you took my GigaPet and won’t give it back!”
Now, anyone who knows children will tell you the entire conversation to this point hasn’t been remarkable. It’s standard, schoolyard squabbles kind of stuff. Sometimes kids try to take things from each other. Sometimes they try to find manipulative ways to get away with it. And there’s almost ALWAYS a point where one or both of them threatens to “tell.”
The only reason this story stands out in my memory at all is because of what Ava/Olive yelled next, while retreating back to her house to get my cat.
“Fine! But I’m going to tell MY mom that you don’t like me because I’m black!”
Y’all, where does that come from?
Does anybody want to make the case that a 10-year-old girl will draw lines and form black/white teams all on her own? Because there’s not a doubt in my mind that she was told by an influential adult in her life that people would hate her “because she’s black,” and she took it to heart.
I have no way to know whether that same influential person ALSO explained to Ava/Olive that people wouldn’t like her if she tried to steal their toys. Who knows if that was considered an important life lesson? I also can’t say whether she was taught responsibility and respect for others at some point after this story took place…
But I DO know this young, black girl was given the race card before she even hit puberty–and, like any intelligent child would, she tried to use it the first chance she got…
I believe the adult who fed her the “because you’re black” line ought to be ashamed. It’s entirely possible that my friend and I could have gone our whole lives playing and fighting and working-it-out, without skin ever being mentioned…except someone in that little girl’s life told her to watch out for racism.
So racism became an issue for her.
Unfortunately, the most common forms of racism are being planted and grown in otherwise-naive children, thanks to misguided lessons by jaded family members. Examples of prejudice and favoritism are rampant…but it’s not just the bigoted white folks who are responsible.
There’s a great example under this video, of the way adults teach children to obsess about skin color. The video is supposed to showcase a couple dozen young children, “reading” a book by Brandon Stanton (called “Little Humans”), and it’s totally adorable…until you read a comment like Claire’s:
“I enjoyed; but it would have been better if it had been more proportionally representative of the human race. There were so few [children] of color that I felt they might only have been added as an afterthought.”
Claire wants to see darker children!
Folks, that’s racism, plain and simple. Being disappointed with a video because the subjects weren’t the ideal colors? No…I can’t excuse that kind of ignorance. I’m doing what I can to leave a less-racist world for my children.
So, I called Claire out with this:
“You know, kids think of themselves and their friends as ‘people.’ JUST a bunch of small people….until an adult shows up and teaches them to count how many are ‘of color.’ Each one of these babies was probably excited to show off and appear in a video–and they weren’t at all concerned with the shade of the child next to them. Why would you want to shatter that? (It sure would be a shame to cut 2 or 3 of the little humans from this project, just because they don’t look the way YOU think they should.) All of these kids are enthusiastic and energetic and, most importantly, innocent of the way adults obsess about color. Please stop taking that away by passing your racism on to them. Thanks.”
As I expected, the conversation didn’t end there. We were quickly joined by someone called “Q Watson.”
Q: Amanda, I think your stance is a bit extreme. It is a delightful video and the children are precious. However, as a child of color you notice when there is no one that looks like you and then wonder, is there something wrong with me?…
Wait, what? “Colored” kids notice when no one looks like them?
Readers, I’ve literally NEVER found someone who looks like me! Not one. In fact, when I was a kid, it was really popular to send away to the American Girls factory and try to build-a-doll with your skin/hair/eye color, to be your mini twin. But there STILL wasn’t a doll that looked EXACTLY like me.
There’s no one who looks exactly like you in the entire world.
And that’s precisely what parents need to tell their children, if they ever feel self-conscious about how “different” they are. “Yes! You’re different! And I am, too! Just like snowflakes. That’s pretty cool, huh?”
How could anyone look at a child in that moment and say, “You’re right, Sweetie. Skin color is very, very, very important. Look around, and if you don’t see more than 4 or 5 dark-skinned people, then you should speak up. I mean, on TV you might see a light tan hue or a burnt sienna, if you’re lucky. But that’s not enough! We need to see MORE people whose skin is your shade–or at least closer to your shade than white, because you are very different from white people. And again, skin color is very, very, very important.”
Folks, the things that well-meaning parents are teaching their kids (to combat racism) is–in itself–RACISM.
Telling kids to expect white people to dislike them is a racist lesson. Showing kids how to count the number of black/white/red kids in a simple video, and then requesting to see more of your preferred color, also is racist.
If you really want to see an end to racial tensions, let’s just allow children to grow up alongside one another–and put ZERO focus on their hues at all.
Tell them it’s a non-issue. Kind of like my parents put ZERO emphasis on the fact that I was the only one in my family with blue eyes. (Can you just imagine what would have happened, if they sat me down and told me I might be treated differently because of that difference? How many sibling arguments would have included, “You just hate me because of my eyes!”)
Our children do not have to obsess over the same things that we do. We can let them get to know each other with blank slates–without coaching them about all the things our skin supposedly says about us.
Can we let the grow up together, without planting racist ideas in their heads? Pleeeeeeease?