How Do Children See Race? (page 2)
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.
I have heard of Latino and Asian children for whom "race" became an emotional issue when they were subjected to teasing and other mean behavior because of their accents, their limited fluency in English, their different types of dress or the lunches they bring to school. Fortunately, however, most early grade-schoolers, regardless of race, do not seem to have stereotypes of themselves or of people who are different colors. Like preschoolers, they are inclined to see people as individuals rather than as members of a group--color, racial or otherwise. Because of this developmental advantage, these early years are an optimum time for children of different races to get to know each other, before they become aware of the stereotypes that in time will rob them of their racial innocence.
I suspect that children in other countries with a history of racial discrimination develop race awareness in ways similar to American children. Several years ago, I met a lovely white six-year-old at the home of friends of friends while visiting Australia. From the start, she seemed very comfortable with me, unlike a few of the adults, all gracious people, who it seemed to me were trying a little too hard to appear at ease with a black person. Circumstances led to my spending much of the afternoon talking and playing games with her. It wasn't until much time had passed and we rejoined the adults' conversation that she began to ask me about myself.
First, she asked questions about my skin color (like "How did your skin color become brown?" and "Will it change back?"). Next, she asked me about my full lips. Her parents understandably were discomfited by her questions and took turns trying to dissuade her from asking me anything else. Actually, it was quite amusing. The parents were growing increasingly tense trying not to offend me, while their daughter, oblivious to their discomfort, became increasingly more persistent in her questioning. To make matters worse, their guest was not being very cooperative with the parents' efforts to restrain their daughter.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand
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