January 29, 2007

Racism in the very young

There are certain statements out there that you hear again and again, so often that they sort of take on the status of truth. You never examine them for veracity, they just linger in the brush growth section of your mind and form part of the framework of your beliefs. For instance, fish is good for you. Or, racism is not ingrained but rather learned at home from the parents. I believed both of these things. Until now.

I no longer believe racism is learned at home and is not ingrained. That is too damn simple. My new theory is that racism springs from a childís dislike of looking or being different. At some very early point, kids donít like the idea of standing out. They donít like different. If something looks different or is outside of their little group norm-think, they have a tendency to shun it. Thatís my root cause explanation for why the Girl Child told me that she did not want to engage a particular baby sitter because that baby sitter was dark skinned. To be clear, there is no possible way that my children picked up negative attitudes about darker skinned people from me or my wife. We donít have them (as far as I know), we donít talk about attitudes like that, and we do our level best not to judge on appearance. We are particularly careful about what messages we transmit, overtly or quietly, to our children.

I took my little peanut aside after she confessed this and I told her that it was wrong for her to dislike the baby sitter because of the color of her skin. I told her that she didnít even know the baby sitter and it was unacceptable for her to dislike her without knowing her. I told her that there were plenty of people in the world who I disliked but I disliked them for reasons wholly unrelated to their appearance and she too was allowed to dislike people, just not because of they way they looked. I reminder her of how unhappy she was when someone in her class called her the grinch because she did not celebrate Christmas and I told her that the situation there was identical to the situation here Ė someone judged her for reasons having nothing to do with who she was as a person. I then reminded her of an old exercise she did in her last pre-school where she made a list of all the things about her that people could not tell about her just by looking at her (which I blogged about in January 2005). I told her that the point of that was just to look below the surface and not judge based on the appearance. It is completely ok to judge other people, I told her, but it has to be done on a valid basis and the color of anotherís skin is not a valid basis.

She seemed to take it all in. She also assured me that no one had been telling her that darker skinned people were bad. I wanted to rule out comments from classmates.

My wife and I were mystified by this turn of events and what could have given rise to it. So, I am sure it is just because of her becoming more and more aware of the world around her.

I didnít tell her, to my wifeís relief, that the world is primarily populated by ass-hats and color is simply not a good predictor of another personís ass-hat level. Politics, on the other hand. . .

By the way, I still basically think fish is good for you, all that shite about mercury to one side. Although, I do note that with all the fish I have eaten, I am better at predicting the ambient room temperature. So maybe it is the mercury.

Seriously, I hope I handled that one ok. I never saw it coming.

Posted by Random Penseur at January 29, 2007 02:42 PM | TrackBack

Yes it's a great shock when you realize that a child's environment isn't nearly as important as we were taught in class, isn't it?

I still remember being completely shocked when my little girl wanted to act, well...like a little girl. I was so careful about making sure all things were equal when it came to gender issues. Really, I was quite the militant feminist back then, at least compared to how I am now. I didn't want any gender prejudices to affect her in any way. And when the boy came along, same thing; I was shocked to discover that despite being so very careful about anything violent never reaching him, I had full care of him, he was not allowed to watch TV unless I supervised and trust me, it was only Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, both kids were extremely protected at all times and yet, they both still made all kinds of decisions that simply shocked me. The girl wanted to dress up and play with dolls and have a play-kitchen set and the boy was rough and tumble and had a penchant for bopping other toddlers in the head with a toy if he felt provoked.

I finally caved in and gave up on my cherished idea that a child raised in a certain way will behave that way because they wouldn't know anything different, right?

Wrong. There is instinct, genetics, and tribal-behavior.

It's not just environment, this idea we were taught (well, I was taught but college was a long time ago, perhaps it's different today) that babies were mostly soft clay waiting to be molded is *wrong*. Environment simply does not have the kind of impact we were taught it has. I've seen kids from horrible family situations grow up to be calm, decent, wonderful human beings and I've watched kids grow up in a family filled with love and nothing but opportunity into mean-spirited little monsters.

I think we parents are scared to death of this idea because it takes away what we think is absolute control over our child's destiny. But that is a lie; we do not have that kind of control, we never did. We are merely caretakers until they are grown. We do the best we can but they are still individuals with their own unique way of looking at the world.

This is why kids can be so damn cruel growing up. And some kids never outgrow that. I like to tell myself that my two grown "kids" are good people because their dad and I raised them so well but although that is part of it, it's also simply luck of the draw. They came pre-programmed to a certain extent; probably because genetically their dad and I are that way and most of their ancestors are as well. Most of us are nice people with good work ethics who try to do the right thing by our fellow man.

Though not all, not by a long shot. Quite a few bad apples here and there in our combined family trees. And that's why genetics scares the hell out of people; we'd much MUCH rather say that it's all due to environment. What parent wants to believe that sometimes despite your best efforts, there is nothing you can do in some cases? Nobody wants to believe that.

Anyway, sorry to ramble. Sounds like you did the DadJob perfectly, Random. As always. :) And don't worry; your little ones sound awesome. Good genes, I'd say. *grins*

Posted by: Amber at January 30, 2007 02:11 PM

I think the best thing is that you told her it's ok to dislike someone. No, really, I think that's a great thing. I'm sick of all this "you gotta love everyone" BS because it's just not possible. There are people in this world I can't stand and nothing is going to make me like them. Nothing. Therefore, I think telling GC that she doesn't have to like everyone is a good thing.

However, like you said, not liking them because of their skin color isn't a good reason.

Posted by: Howard at January 31, 2007 03:29 PM

You handled it, as always, with grace and aplomb.

I'm in total agreement with Howard, too, for the record.

Posted by: Margi at February 3, 2007 11:49 PM

Excellent job, RP. And get used to being blindsided. This is just the beginning of of lifetime of 'not seeing that coming.' ;)

My son came home from day school many years ago when he was in JK and announced that he "wasn't going to play with Jason." When I asked him why I was totally floored when he replied,"because he has a black face." Well no, he didn't...he was the product of a marriage between a lovely Japanese mother and a Jewish father, but that wasn't the point.

I remember thinking - where is this coming from? We certainly haven't taught him to think this way. And we finally had to come to the conclusion that he'd decided all by himself that this boy's face made him feel uncomfortable because it was different from his own or any that he saw on a regular basis. Of course, within a month they became 'best' friends, because four year olds are like that. And I think six year olds are, too once they get over their initial shock that their comfort zone has been challenged.

Posted by: Jocelyn at February 4, 2007 01:34 AM

Songs re hatred:

So interesting. I guess it gives the lie to the South Pacific song: You've Got to be Taught:

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Instead, I believe with you that you have to be taught to be tolerant, all the old saws about judging a book by its cover.

There's a song written for children, shortly after WW II by Hy Zaret who died this week at the age of 99.
As I remember it goes like this:

You can get good milk from a brown-skin cow,
The color of its skin doesn't matter nohow.
Ha ha ho, can't you see
The color of her skin doesn't matter to me!
This type of song plus stories in the same vein would seem to be necessary to raise open-hearted children.

Posted by: Fortunella at August 5, 2007 07:00 PM