Several years ago I was at the park with one of my children. This child was at the pre-language, toddler stage, enjoying the newly acquired skill of ambulation. I closed my eyes to the warm sun for a moment, only to be jolted by a shriek from the kid. Alarmed, I looked around. All was well, except for an African American walking towards us, also enjoying the beautiful summer day. As the child continued to wail, I was mortified and dismayed to realize that it was this man’s presence that was the cause of my child’s distress. Was my child born racist?
The results of a new CNN pilot study on children’s attitudes on race echo my sad realization from all those years ago. It seems children, whether white or black (or brown) have an overwhelming bias towards white. As the 5-year old white girl from Georgia in the study unhesitatingly pointed to the picture of the white girl as being the smarter one and the picture of the black girl as being the meaner one, her mother wept.
An old Indian tale goes that when the gods were trying to create the perfect human, they took their first attempt out of the oven too early, thus creating the white race. They left in the next batch too long, resulting in our darker-skinned brethren. The last batch was perfectly done, and we brown-skinned Asians are the descendants of that first perfect human. The story was supposed to inspire a sense of pride during our colonial past; nevertheless, as a culture, we still value fair skin and go to extreme lengths to achieve it, whether by the use of bleaching products or selective marriages. For all our vaunted respect for education, we rarely shine a light inwards, into the darkness of our prejudices, to learn and teach about what it means to be equal.
The mother in that CNN study had never had a discussion about race with her daughter; many of us don’t either, trusting that our children’s innocence and objectivity will be preserved by default.
But the truth is that children do come with inbuilt notions and preferences. If we never have that important conversation about race with them, their prejudices will continue to persist into adulthood, and our children will be those drivers on the road yelling ethnic slurs at the slow car ahead of them; they will be those bigoted voters convinced that the poor and needy are predominantly of one race, deserving of not sympathy but scorn; they will be the ones pointing to race and color as a marker of intelligence, of aptitude, of worthiness.