is my son racist?
July 21, 2006 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Is my son racist?

His teacher's version (from my husband): yesterday when he and his classmates were sitting around the table at preschool, my five year old son pointed to each of the (ten) white kids and said "You're 'O', and you're in." He then pointed to the (two) black kids (one boy, one girl) and said "You're 'X' and you're out."

My son's version (from what he could tell us): he learned the whole "X" and "O" game from Jimmy, one of his (white) classmates. He claims that he only picked Mike to "X" out because "If Mike is coming [to my house], then Jimmy can't come." He said that he did not "X" out Amy. He said that it had nothing to do with the color of the kids' skin, that he didn't think he was better than them or anything like that.

We're not racists. We're just not. This is the first time our son's acted like this, and he's known these kids since he was 3 months old. The way he hugs and kisses Amy when he sees her outside school, I jokingly call her my son's girlfriend. (He says he's not going to marry her though, as she's two months older than he.)

I want to think that it was an innocent game mixed with a really bad coincidence, but I also don't want to be the mom that blindly buries her head in the sand when warning flags pop up in her child's life.

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posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It would be very difficult for your son to be overtly racist at 5 years of age. Other than humans innate tendancy to be suspiscious of those who look different, racist behaviour has to be learned somewhere, and at his age he has learned more from you than from his peer group. All that will change in a few years, of course, but for now I wouldn't be too worried that your son is racists. That said, it wouldn't hurt to use this incident as an opportunity to explain to him that it is wrong to categorize/judge/behave differently towards people just because of their appearance and to be careful what words you use to describe others.
posted by TedW at 10:06 AM on July 21, 2006

It's probably nothing. (Though I do think you can pick up bad habits from being in a school so undiverse.)
posted by chunking express at 10:08 AM on July 21, 2006

My son, 8, is/has gone through a period of figuring out what race means. Some kids definitely have bad attitudes about it that they presumably get from home, but I don't think it's unusualy for a kid that age to experiment with different social behaviours. Some kids experiment with lying, some go with parental maniuplation, some racism, etc, etc. I don't think it's inherently dangerous unless you reinforce it. I'd suggest gently reminding him that it's not nice to discriminate based on skin colour and then move on. He'll be on to something else that drives you crazy soon enough.

The fact that you're worrying about it shows that you're a concerned parent who monitors your child's behaviour. That is, IMO, the main thing and you're doing the right thing. The real danger is people who let their kids do whatever with no feedback or consequences whatsoever so they end up permanently adopting behaviours that become socially unacceptables as they get older.
posted by GuyZero at 10:10 AM on July 21, 2006

He said that it had nothing to do with the color of the kids' skin, that he didn't think he was better than them or anything like that.

This sounds like the answer.

You might ask why Jimmy can't come if Mike is coming (do Jimmy's parents have problems?). You might clarify with the teacher whether or not your son actually picked Amy (your husband said the teacher said your son did, your son said he didn't).

But in the absence of any other warning signs whatsoever, and with evidence that's conflicting and anecdotal, and with the outright denial from your son, I definitely wouldn't stress about this.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2006

Might he have genuinely fought with those kids earlier in the day? One day while in preschool, my caucasian nephew claimed he didn't want to work with a classmate "because he was brown." Evidently, the two had fought at recess and my nephew didn't want to tell the teacher and thought the skin color excuse might work.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:12 AM on July 21, 2006

Kids pick up a lot of things. I don't think you should be worried as long as, in the overall scheme of things, you guys aren't racist and continue to demonstrate the values that you want him to have.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2006

Your kid is too young to draw conclusions based on this one incident. Most of all I would urge you not to get distraught this early in the game.
posted by OmieWise at 10:15 AM on July 21, 2006

I agree. I wouldn't be worried about it at this age. Noticing "differences" starts to kick in, from my experience, around the 1st grade. It was at that point my children started to talk about others at school comparing religions, skin color, etc.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 10:20 AM on July 21, 2006

My view is that this incident is not racist. First, nobody really knows what happens and your son's version is entitled ot the benefit of the doubt. I would not make this a larger issue. That being said, five year olds are becoming acute to differences whether it be gender, the size of another kid's house/apartment or ethnicity. I am sure that you will continue to be sensitive to his development and help him develop a good moral compass.
posted by greedo at 10:25 AM on July 21, 2006

Small children say all manner of odd things without really meaning them, or for reasons that adults would find hard to comprehend. For example, I can remember at about that age telling my dad that men have no purpose, since women have the babies. It wasn't that, at the age of four, I had become a radical feminist...I was just trying out some different thoughts, and phrased them in a way that disturbed grownups. Do not freak out.
posted by Wavelet at 10:29 AM on July 21, 2006

It seems that the consensus is that your son's not racist, but it can't hurt to talk to him about the issues raised.
posted by maxreax at 10:39 AM on July 21, 2006

I was just trying out some different thoughts, and phrased them in a way that disturbed grownups

Exactly. Do not overreact. If it turns out he does have some sort of misconception about race, it will be very clear and there will be plenty of time to sort it out.
posted by trevyn at 10:42 AM on July 21, 2006

You do realize if you admonish him for being racist and then fill his head with ideas of race so young he will rebel when he's older and find racist jokes ironically cool? Seriously, if a 5-year old tells a girl she's gross and has cooties it doesn't mean he's misogynist.
posted by geoff. at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2006

I disagree with the other posters slightly. I do think that it's possible for a kid this young to have racist feelings. Not in a "I think African Americans are intellectually inferior" way, but in a "People who are different from me are bad" way.

That said, while I don't completely understand the incident (did he say "X" and "Y," or were there words there?) I don't that it's overwhelmingly troubling, especially if it's an isolated event.

But it definitely couldn't hurt to make sure that you're reinforcing your family's pluralistic beliefs. Maybe read him storybooks with multicultural characters and make sure he has some Black/ Asian/ Latino G.I. Joes (or whatever kids play with these days). Also, ( has a kids' page designed to help kids think through racial differences.
posted by chickletworks at 10:49 AM on July 21, 2006

An easy way to illustrate to a 5 year old that skin color does not matter is to do this simple comparison.

Take a green apple and a red apple. Have your son help you compare the two. They're both apples. Maybe one is taller than the other. Maybe one is fatter. Maybe one has spots or a stem or a bruise. Find all the ways in which they are different Then, go into an area where he can not see you. Peel and slice the apples. Make sure you get all traces of peel off. Bring the pieces back to him. Compare them again. Are they the same color now that you see just the inside? Do they both have seeds? Ask him which came from the red or the green apple. Chances are good that he'll not be able to tell the slices apart.

This gives you an opportunity to simply say that the same is true of people. We all have things that make us different like height, weight and color. However, we're all the same inside and all want to be treated nicely.

Then have a snack. This little lesson is so easy for kids to understand and it can really stick. Mom did that with each of us kids and we still abide by it. BTW, I was 5 and clearly remember her doing this.
posted by onhazier at 10:54 AM on July 21, 2006 [18 favorites]

Second onhazier. At age 4, I (a white girl) ran around in a shopping mall with a black boy my age while my mom waited in a checkout line, and never noticed his different skin color. But in kindergarten at age 5, I was sitting under a table with 2 other white girls when a black girl tried to join us, and one of the other girls said to her, "You can't sit under here because you're black and we're white." I've never been certain whether her comment came from racist attitudes she had learned at home, or whether it was the simple childhood cruelty of, "You're different than us, and being different makes you undesirable," but by then I understood both that the black girl looked different than us, and that saying she couldn't join us because she was black was very wrong. (So wrong that 22 years later, I still recall the incident and my shame completely. And no, I didn't speak up, but the other girl with us did, and told her, "You shouldn't say things like that." But the damage was done.) 5 is not too young to notice these things; do the apple lesson, or something similar, because it couldn't hurt. I don't think your son is a racist, but in a class where black kids are a minority (10 vs. 2) it's probably wishful thinking to believe your son doesn't notice at age 5.
posted by junkbox at 11:17 AM on July 21, 2006

That's a beautiful, elegant solution onhazier.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 11:23 AM on July 21, 2006

Is my son racist?

No. He may be aware of differences (which is probably just a demonstration of his perception and curiosity). But without a knowledge of history or stereotypes -- the baggage we adults bring to the table -- he'd be highly unlikely to attach any significance to those differences beyond mere skin color.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:30 AM on July 21, 2006

By the way, I'm more interested in the fact that the school apparently thought enough of the situation to mention it.

And ...

(Though I do think you can pick up bad habits from being in a school so undiverse.)

2 out of 12 is 16.67%. The 2000 U.S. census put the African-American population at 12.3%. For what it's worth, the school* is more diverse than the U.S. as a whole.

*actually, the particular class. We don't know the demographic makeup of the school
posted by pardonyou? at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2006

you need to counsel him. in my elementary school, i've noticed that kids are extremely aware - even at the ages of 5 and 6 - of racial differences. white mefiers might not notice it because i've found that good hearted white people are often blind to it. my wife is white and it wasnt until she moved here to SC with me that she started to see things.

i'm not saying that your child is racist. i'm saying that children learn more outside the home than in. he may be picking up on social cues that you dont see because youre a good person. but i remember the first time i was called a racial epithet, it was in the 5th grade by a kid who'd heard an uncle say it. i watch my students and i hear them say things like 'i cant dance cuz i'm white' or 'dont ask her she's from the NE (which is a poor part of the district).' dont fool yourselves, children hear everything we say or do. they pick up on things theyre friends say. they even pick up on things from television.

even if your child isnt racist - and again, i'm not saying he is - this is an opportunity to speak with him.

and it goes both ways. my black children segregate themselves from the white children. the more affluent the school (like mine) the worst the problem.

but its hard for the teachers, too. i spent my first year teaching as a defense attorney. the white teachers - not purposely , theyre good people - treated the black and white children extremely different. the children picked up on that. i could list a dozen different examples where teachers at my school allowed their personal issues with poor people or blacks or females, ect to get in the way of their instruction. a school with maybe 7% black, 80% of the IEP and disciple referrals were for black children. what i'd found was that some of the kids KNEW that certain teachers would ALWAYS side with them in any instance.

i went to bat fore every child i thought was being wronged, but our principle was ridiculous. she started suspending kids for wearing certain colors, calling them gang wear. wearing a red shirt and red shoe laces would get the black males suspended, but the white females got compliments on their fashion sense. i know all about gangs. i also know that suspending 4th graders will not solve the problem luckily, that principal is up in VA now. you can prolly guess why.

talk with him. make sure one of the kids he's playing with isnt teaching him the wrong thing.
posted by Davaal at 11:51 AM on July 21, 2006 [2 favorites]

Maybe you can explain how his game hurts other people's feelings and ask him how he would feel if some girl or boy pointed out all the ways in which he looks different and wouldn't be nice to him because of it. Or called attention to it.
posted by onepapertiger at 12:04 PM on July 21, 2006

Other than humans innate tendency to be suspicious of those who look different,

In the second chapter of Wilson's Sociobiology, as I recall (can't lay my hands on a copy right now, sorry), the claim is made that many predators have evolved (independently, of course) a strategy of concentrating on any prey animal in a group of potential prey which stands out in any way, even if that individual is outstandingly big and strong, and therefore presumably harder to catch and bring down.

Now, we are most vulnerable, in a state of nature, to predation when we are children, and I do not think it is too much of a stretch to wonder whether there could be an instinct in human children which manifests itself in groups, and which gives rise to a tendency to ostracize any individual who is strikingly different, simply because any behavior which tends to reduce your chances of standing next to the child with a target for predators painted on their back will be strongly selected for.

So I am inclined to think your son is not a racist, but I do think the suggestions made here to work to prevent him from developing racist ideas are very wise.
posted by jamjam at 12:53 PM on July 21, 2006

Have you talked to him about racial issues before? Maybe he just hasn't heard anything either way about people of different races at home, so he doesn't have anything to counter what he may hear outside the home. I don't have kids, but I imagine that racism isn't on the radar of most people (including me) when it comes to things to teach your kids about until something happens. A clear message from you guys (and it sounds like he's getting that) will probably set him straight.
posted by concrete at 1:25 PM on July 21, 2006

When I was 5 and my family took a trip down to Missisippi to visit some family, I met a colored child in the hotel parking lot and played with him for hours and when I went back in I informed my mom that I had spent the afternoon playing with an alien child.
I don't think I was racist as I had never met anyone of color before. I don't hold these beliefs any more either. I would talk to him gently about it, ask him to apologise, and leave it at that barring any more behaviour.
posted by JonnyRotten at 1:29 PM on July 21, 2006

Not a problem. Reinforce that you have all kinds of friends, including friends of differnent races, religions, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and that you expect him to be nice also. It could be something your child picked up from a friend who may be mimicing parents, if it is worse case. Otherwise, kids this age, unless mimicing parents or wanting to hurt another child, usually don't say these kinds of things in a way of being racist. A reminder from you that you would be disappointed in him if it happened again is probably enough to prevent it from happening again. You may also want to use teachable moments (PBS kid shows are good) to ask if he knows anyone who tries to exclude other children and see if he knows why they are being excluded.

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 4:47 PM on July 21, 2006

When my daughter was six, she made a comment, no doubt influenced by a kid living next door:

"I don't like black people."

My response was instantaneous and from the gut: "That's a stupid attitude to have."

We did not talk about it further. She never expressed any similar comment since that time. Today she is 19 and appears to be able to get along with all of her compatriots, of all colors and beliefs.

I have no idea whether I nipped something in the bud, whether I should have said more about it, etc.
posted by megatherium at 5:14 PM on July 21, 2006

Kids at that age have just mastered their sorting skills (remember "One of these things is not like the other..." from Sesame Street?) and your son may just be sorting his classmates based on a rather obvious difference. Now, it is a learning opportunity to mention that it is not appropriate to sort people based solely on color, but I wouldn't be too worried about racism at this point.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:04 PM on July 21, 2006

Your kid is fine, but I'd be looking sideways at Jimmy's parents.
posted by flabdablet at 7:49 PM on July 21, 2006

I like onepapertiger's and Rock Steady's answers: just explain that it's not nice to discriminate based on differences, whether it be skin color, color of their shirt, or so forth. If you try to 'punish' your son, I don't think he's going to understand what he did wrong.

(And, in an abstract sense, by making it a racial issue, you're calling more attention to racial divides.)

(And I wonder about the demographics in your son's school. Growing up in a very rural area, before I knew any better, people with dark skin were something to be gawked at: I wondered how their skin got that way, and if it was bad, and if it hurt. Perhaps a comparison to something innoculous like hair color could help if race was even involved.)

Despite what some have said, I think that, to a pre-schooler, what his mother thinks is of paramount importance to him. If his mother thinks it's no big deal if some people are black, he'll probably come to see the same. (I'm half-inclined to suggest that you see if you can't make a lesson out of it, with you inviting a black friend and a white friend over at the same time. A little child's mother can do no wrong. But I'm also a bit worried that it could end badly, with both of them feeling that they were only there as props based on their skin color.)
posted by fogster at 10:17 PM on July 21, 2006

By the sound of it, I'd be more worried about Jimmy than your son - I might be misunderstanding, but could the "If Mike is coming [to my house], then Jimmy can't come." part of the story mean that Jimmy won't come because Mike is black? (ie is Jimmy from a racist family?)

I'd also be wary of making this too big an issue, though - your message could easily be confused by such a small child, who, going by his friendship with Amy, hasn't given the matter any thought up until now.
posted by jack_mo at 6:49 AM on July 22, 2006

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