Learning Their Colors

Rachel points to an interesting article about a study that claims children learn racism by the time they’re three years old.

Jane Lane, a co-author of the article and an early-years equality adviser whose publications are recommended by the Government’s Sure Start scheme, said conventional wisdom that toddlers were “colour blind” was wrong.

“There is a view that children do not learn their attitudes until they are about five,” she said. “But people in the early years know that children at a very early age – at the age of three – are categorising people. I am not talking about white children; I am talking about all children. Many, many are racially prejudiced, for all sorts of historical reasons.”

Margaret Morrissey, the spokesman for the National Confederation of Parent Teachers Associations, said, however, that children did not generally notice colour until at least the age of six and that “artificial” attempts to force the issue could be detrimental.

I’m not sure I buy it.

Of course, I’m not basing this on a scientific study, but just my own observations of my own kid. Parker’s an African American boy, growing up with two dads who happen to be an interracial couple. If any kid should have a head start with picking up on differences, he should. He should at least notice that daddy and papa are different colors, that he’s a different color from his papa, and that his parents are different from other kids parents.

The study reminded me of a previous post about Parker and kids seem to jump right over labels and differences that regularly trip up adults.

Maybe I’m making too much of this, but it occurred to me that our kids were able to meet each other and be with each on a level that we adults can’t always access because we have to jump over hurdles like race, gender, orientation, etc., whereas our kids seem to run right around them as if they’re not there. And who knows? Maybe they aren’t there, but we’re so used to seeing them there or being told they’re there that we think we have to jump over them, or that there’s no room to run around them. But as we followed them through the park that evening, even though we were right there in the park with our kids, it seemed like they were playing in a whole other place that we could see but not reach.

The more I think about it, the more I think the idea that kids are “racist” by the time they’re three years old is pretty ludicrous. Everything I’ve seen tells me that kids do notice differences. They figure out that kids look different from each other. One has a different color skin, another has different hair, while another has a family that’s different from everyone else. But that doesn’t make them racist, any more than it makes a kid who can distinguish between boys and girls a sexist.

Noticing differences isn’t where bigotry comes from. Anyone who can see and/or hear can notice differences between individuals and simply catalog them in their mind. Ascribing those differences with significance or making value judgments about someone’s character based on those differences is where racism and all the other isms have their origin. And that’s not something inborn. It’s taught, either by parents or by society at large, but it’s not some innate to kids. At least not as far as I can see.

If kids are racist (or sexist, or homophobic, etc.) at any age, it’s not because that’s a natural part of their development. It’s because they learned it from someone, most likely from adults.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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5 Responses to Learning Their Colors

  1. trey says:

    amen, these (yours) are exactly my experiences. Emma recognizes differences, but she doesn’t seem to ‘categorize’ based on skin color at all, and shes 4.. I’d say most of the kids in her class are the same way..

    this is food for thought…

  2. Rachel S says:

    My personal sense is that kids start to assign those values judgements somewhere between 4-6.

    My mother had a first grader at the age of 6 who would not sit by a Black classmate because “Black people were mean and dirty.” She obviously picked this up from some where.

    I do however, think three is more of an age of noticing differences, but not assigning adult-like values to them.

  3. Tim Who? says:

    Learning about life and who you are (not school book learning) is heavily weighted to the early years and in general terms you can say.

    80% by 5
    90% by 8
    and 100% by 14

    Meaning who you are and your attitudes on life are fully formed by puberty. There’s little or no change in personality after that. Bullies at 14 will stay bullies the rest of their lives. Liers and cheats at 14 will always be liers and cheats.

    (nothing in life is 100% but these are very good general guidlines)

    Given that the bulk is before 5 it becomes easy to see why the first 5 years are so important. Children learn from the parents and if the parents are bigoted the children will pick it up very early in life, even before they are able to understand their own actions or express their own opinions.

  4. Houston says:

    Okay, now this is a true story. My friend Stacy was stopped at an intersection in Oakland, California a few years ago, when this late model SUV pulls up next to her and sitting in the passenger side was a beautiful little blond girl, about five. Stacy looks over at this lovely child and says, “My, aren’t you a beautiful young girl.” To which the child answers, “My mommy says I’m not supposed to talk to n—-rs.” Stacy says she was so stunned she sat through a light.

    Yeah, we learn that shit early. Or don’t. I didn’t grow up with it. I grew up knowing that groups were different. There ain’t nothing wrong with that. Groups are different. I was taught to pay attention to the details and don’t pay as much attention to the race. But then, I grew up special. When it came to identity, I had several groups to choose from.

  5. Jack Yan says:

    While I noticed people were different and that I was a minority, I didn’t even know racist taunts like the N word till I was 11. I knew racist words others used about my race, probably from very early on, but as to words to describe others’ races, that didn’t come till 11. Even then they had no meaning. I probably formed racist opinions from around 13, but not from adults—but from my peers at high school. I would say before I left high school I was becoming aware of how stupid that was, and rid myself of my own prejudices.

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