Parenting Tips: "Racism", Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in Hawaii

Racism, Young Children, and Obama: Lessons Learned in HawaiiThere's been a lot of focus on Hawaii lately, since Barack Obama was raised here. It's been very exciting for our little outpost way out on the end of the country to see a native son go so far in the world. My own claim to fame was that, when I lived on Oahu, I attended the same school from which he graduated. When I went to college on the mainland, it was difficult to explain my sense of race, ethnicity, and diversity. In Hawaii, everyone is a minority. We co-exist in an intermarried hodgepodge of nationalities and ethnicities. Interestingly, being Caucasian has a slightly negative connotation; we're called "haole" here, meaning "outsider"; so much so that I grew up "passing" for being part-Japanese, even though there's not a drop of Asian blood in my woodpile. I aspired to be part-Japanese. I considered the other races of my friends...Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Korean, African-American...they were all "something". Part-Chinese. Part-Hawaiian. Part-something. Being a haole, in contrast, was not "something". It was.....boring. Nothing. So my view of racial and ethnic differences was formed in a place where variation and difference was exciting, challenging, and essential to the vibrant success of the community. The best of all worlds. If I may so humbly draw a parallel to the Senator's upbringing and my own, I am proud to say this is it.

Recently, a friend called to ask about his 5-year-old daughter. He was appalled that she had told her teacher that she doesn't like "brown-skinned people". This is from a family dedicated to acts of social justice, and fairness and equal opportunity for all. He was mystified (and mortified). Where did she come up with this hateful idea? And how could they turn around her thinking?

The issue of race is, of course, a hot-button topic that quickly raises all sorts of feelings, attitudes, and ideas. I'm going to make the assumption that people who read a site called BabyShrink are fairly progressively-minded, so I'm not aiming to convert anybody with racist leanings. I'm preaching to the choir on that account, folks, right? We're all hoping to raise kids with the ability to comfortably live in an ever-increasingly cosmopolitan world; kids who appreciate others (and themselves) for their unique individuality and differences, and who seek to learn from others with a different background or skin color -- not to negatively judge them. So instead of getting into a dissertation on race-relations, let's focus on the parenting issues involved.

Is it possible for a young child to be "racist"?

OK, that's my first question. For some answers, let's look at the developmental issues. We know that babies have an innate preference for faces that look like the faces they usually see. In other words, babies with fair-skinned parents and siblings prefer to look at strangers with fair skin. The same holds true no matter what the family's skin color. A reasonable explanation for this has to do with our innate drive to survive. Something in us, probably genetic, tells us "People who take care of me look like this.......Those people help me to survive, and I want to be part of that group. Therefore, I prefer people who look like those of my group." If that means a young child from a fair-skinned family prefers fair-skinned faces, is that child a racist? Of course not. That's just evolutionary protection aimed at keeping families and kin together, for the protection of the group. And it's hard-wired at a pre-verbal, pre-thinking stage.

How can I make sure my child does not develop racist ideas and attitudes?

Of course, there comes a point in the child's development where rational thinking then becomes possible. It's at that time that automatic, hard-wired assumptions can be challenged by thoughtful discussions and actions. That cognitive ability doesn't really kick in until about the age of 7. But even as early as 12-18 months, children start to imitate us, and soak in our examples by osmosis. So you can start early by modeling the behavior and attitudes you wish your child to have. As they get older, you can begin to talk about the issues more abstractly.

Live a life of diversity

So the bottom line here is that, as families, it's important to surround our kids with examples of diversity in day-to-day life, just as a matter of course. Even a very young child will take in the modeling you show when you interact in a comfortable, relaxed way with people who look different from those she's used to seeing. But don't start making abstract statements about race, color, religion or other topics of difference until a bit later. When she's in first grade or so, she'll begin to understand it when you start talking about differences. Esoteric, abstract concepts will bounce off a 5-year-old's mind. "We're all people inside, even though we look different on the outside", and "What makes you different is what makes you special" are all great things to say, but really can't be understood by a young child. So wait on the discussions until first grade or so. But make it a priority to appreciate differences of all kinds; different hair color, clothing styles, body types, differing physical abilities, all of it, and make a comfortable environment where the acceptance of differences is fostered and encouraged.

"How would you feel if someone said that about you?"

You can also start to talk about manners and feelings, and have your child look at it from an empathic point of view. "How would you feel if someone did not like you for the way you looked? How would you feel if someone said something mean about you, and they didn't even know you?" Talk about how others might feel for being negatively judged. Let them practice putting themselves in others' shoes. This will help them to consider the impact of their words on others.

So I don't think that my friend's child is becoming a little racist. Far from it; she's looking for differences where they do exist, but she doesn't yet have the analytic capacity to apply abstract concepts to those differences.

How do you handle differences, when it comes to your young children?