How Do Children See Race?
Johnny Lee, a white man who was a former imperial wizard and a founder and recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan Youth Corps, vividly remembers his experience when he was five and saw a black man for the first time. Johnny said to his father, "Look, Daddy, there's a chocolate-covered man." Daddy replied, "No, son, that's a nigger." Lee said that it was at that moment that "the seeds of hatred" were planted that resulted in his life in the Klan, a life he later repudiated.
Unlike young Johnny, white children who have not been sensitized to race ascribe little importance to skin color.
Relatively few studies have been done on how children of other races, including whites, become aware of racial differences. Those available suggest that skin color is not as salient an issue for white children at the early grade-school stage of development as it is for blacks. It is understandable that young white children do not tend to regard skin color as important, since racial prejudice is generally not a factor in their lives.
I am impressed by how little race seems to matter to many of the white young grade-schoolers I encounter. Most of them, from families of friends and acquaintances, attend integrated schools or live in mixed-race communities. Their answers to my question about race are similar to Ian's, a six-year-old white youngster. Ian described the colors of the white and black people as, respectively, "whitish" and "brownish"; he can identify the "Chinese" people and says that he has friends who speak Spanish, although he doesn't have a special name for them. Like black children who do not come from racially obsessed families, Ian did not spontaneously describe or categorize people by skin color or race. Despite my repeated promptings, Ian could not think of a single way, other than skin color, in which blacks and whites differed. Although his level of understanding about how people get their color and his awareness of the existence of different racial groups was similar to that of black children, skin color did not seem as emotional an issue for him as it was for some blacks.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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