Is My 4-Year-Old Racist?

She is already making observations based on skin color. The question is how to keep those observations from turning into prejudice.

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Carrie Pratt

“Brown people,” my daughter told me, “drive old cars.” I looked at Ken with a raised eyebrow; he was not surprised because Simone, our 4-year-old, had shared her sudden insight with him a few weeks earlier. When he told me about the exchange, it stoked one of my biggest fears—that some day Simone will identify herself as white and cast aside her black heritage.

Her observation isn’t necessarily a negative one. People choose their cars based on many factors, including style, comfort and cost. As she comes to more conclusions, I would not, for example, like for Simone to equate brown people with having less, doing less, being less. But what if this observation about brown people and old cars also leads to her stereotyping in other more potentially harmful ways, i.e. white people are successful and black people are unsuccessful?

Simone takes good notes. Old cars are square; new cars are round. She has peered into cars and noticed most of the older ones are driven by brown people. She has made no mention about who drives the newer cars.

As her brown mother, I drive an old car, or at least it is older than her white father's car. His car is about a year old. When we purchased it, we decided he would drive it. His commute is much shorter than mine, and we wanted to put all of the miles on my then 3-year-old car. Besides, I love my car and all her dings and dents.

Simone, meanwhile, has noticed her father's car has a few features my car does not have, and she has asked why. My response: His car is newer; my car is older. I should note that Simone describes me as brown, her father as beige, and herself as tan.

Until now, I have followed a long-held theory. Young children don't understand the complexities of race; prejudice is learned. What we as parents should do—regardless of the race of our children—is expose them to children of different races, ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds, and then let nature take its course.

Now after observing my own child and reading more than a few articles about the matter, I'm not so sure that is the best approach. A recent Newsweek cover story speaks directly to what we have noticed in Simone. She has been making lists and trying to make sense of them. That's what kids do; that's how they learn. We teach them their colors, their numbers, their shapes. We teach them to make distinctions.

So why wouldn't they make distinctions about themselves and others? The Newsweek article is an excerpt of the new book NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It turns out Simone is not out of the ordinary. Children as young as 6-months-old judge others based on the color of their skin.

Such revelations, especially those about race, run contrary to what I have been taught for decades. I credit my attitudes about race to playing with children of different races and socioeconomic backgrounds as a child. I grew up on military bases and moved a lot. I count among my friends a varied lot of men and women of different races and a wide swath of socioeconomic backgrounds. Naturally, I would like my biracial children to experience something similar, to be colorblind. The authors of NurtureShock, though, say I may be setting up myself for parenting failure.

It turns out Simone—and her observation about people and the cars they drive—is common. Race is so complex that even when researchers have found willing participants to discuss race with their children, many didn’t follow through and dropped out of the research.

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