How Do Children See Race?
by Dr. Marguerite A. Wright
Printed with permission from Dr. Marguerite A. Wright’s book I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla, available here.
Note: This section, titled “Do White Children See Race Differently?” concludes the first section of Dr. Wright’s book, in which she outlines the developmental steps in which young children first perceive skin color and race, and the meanings they attach to these attributes. Dr. Wright has outlined her advice on how to raise black and biracial children (and indeed, all children) with as little racial bias as possible in our race-conscious world, and ends her section on preschoolers with this passage. We highly recommend the book to parents of every ethnic background.
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.
In spite of my assurances that I didn’t mind answering the questions, the parents continued to try various strategies to silence their daughter, all the while doing their utmost not to appear anxious. Eventually, they found some pretext to escort her from the room. She had never seen, much less talked to, a black person before, and her curiosity was perfectly normal. I knew that to her, skin color and lip shape were just physical attributes, not the hot potatoes they were to her parents. When we said good-bye later that day, I felt a tinge of sadness; I wondered if I visited her again several years in the future whether she would see my color more than she would see me.
Even at this stage of development, children who have not been exposed to the racial prejudices of their family and society retain the remarkable gift of obliviousness to the social baggage attached to race. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, author and nationally syndicated talk show host, once told a marvelous story on her show about a childhood incident that illustrates this point. When she was a girl, she had a piano teacher named Charlie. Whenever he came to her home to give her piano lessons, he greeted her younger sister by hoisting her on his shoulders. One day, about a year after Laura had been taking lessons, Charlie did not hoist her sister on his shoulders. Instead, he bent down and gave her a candy. Her sister said, “Charlie, your hands are black!” This was the first time her sister had noticed Charlie’s skin color despite all the time they has known each other. Although she had been oblivious to his different skin color when she was younger, as she grew older, she was developmentally able to see the difference. Dr. Schlessinger concluded: “Racism is not congenital; it has to be learned.”