How Children Learn Who’s In and Who’s Out

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Racism. Racial languages. Systemic injustices and our kids.

When I was a girl growing up in South Carolina, my young sister and I had several friends we would play with at school, through our extra-curricular activities, on our sports teams, and even in our home. Even though we grew up in a predominately African American culture, we were exposed to different people groups. We were taught to love and welcome everybody, so we were not shy about reaching out to folks who were different.

There was an elderly couple who lived in the house behind us, and they had a grandchild who visited regularly. Occasionally, we would play with their granddaughter in their backyard. She was white. We were black. A teenager started lingering around the yard and would sporadically speak to the little girl.

One day, we went into our neighbor’s yard to play with their granddaughter. We noticed the teenager was standing beside her. She was older than all of us, so I didn’t think she would be someone who wanted to play house and make mud pies. But when we entered the yard, the granddaughter looked up at us and said, “We don’t allow niggers to play in our yard.” That was shocking, because we had played in her yard so many times before then. It was shocking because that’s the first, and only time, I had been called the N-word. It was also shocking because I didn’t know how to respond. I just took my sister’s hand, and we returned home to tell our parents this bad news.

All we wanted to do was play. I don’t recall ever meeting the granddaughter’s parents. The grandparents seemed to enjoy the fact that their granddaughter had company to play with when she visited their home. This new behavior and this new language were communicated and learned from the teenager. I don’t think the grandparents or parents knew anything about.

This is the challenge adults face when considering racialized issues and whether or not to discuss them with children. Like sex, the topic of “race” has become taboo in some homes. Adults incorrectly assume that because they are not talking to children about ethnic differences or racial injustices, no one else is either. That is simply not the case. We also fail to realize how much children are picking up from our behavior and personal relationships.

What Research Shows  

In 2013, CNN debuted a special report where they scientifically studied kids and race. The report titled,“Kids on Race the Hidden Picture,” was featured on Anderson Cooper’s show with the focus: “A Look at Race Relations through a Child’s Eyes.” For this report, they tested 145 kids (some majority white, some majority African American, and some racially diverse) at six schools across three states. This was a project they researched for nearly a year. They interviewed African American and white kids ages 6 and 13 years old. Their study confirmed what I already know:

Kids notice things, and learn from us—through lessons that we teach, by our example, and subconsciously through their own observations (what they see and don’t see). The subconscious work is what is referred to as implicit biases. “Implicit bias is the bias the judgment and/or behaviors that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control.” These behaviors and judgments are the easiest to pick up, and the hardest to identify or correct once they have taken root in our hearts.

The CNN report stated that children are being introduced and are learning racist thought processes in their homes when they are as young as six years old. Kids as young as five started to notice the racial attitudes of those around them.

The report revealed:

Young white children were far more negative about interactions between the races than young black children.

These children also reported that “making friends with kids of other races is hard, and only gets harder as they grow up.” This is what happens when too many well-meaning white people, Christians in particular, claim color blindness. From my research in racial reconciliation studies, I am also aware that most white people do not have friends of different racial or ethnic compositions.

In 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that the majority of white Americans did not have non-white friends, or what I would refer to as intimate relationships with non-white people with whom they had important conversations or considered trustworthy. It should not be surprising that children do not have friends from diverse people groups when, by-in-large, their parents do not have friends from diverse people groups.

What We Teach Children about Race

What was evident from the interviews of the kids displayed on the screen was fear. There is a fear of relating to children who come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, and there was a fear of how their mothers would respond if they interacted with kids from different races. These teachings of who is acceptable, who is in and who is out, are not consistent across cultures.

One child in particular, an African American girl, was so vocal about race that Anderson spent extra time interviewing her. Concerning black culture and the of rearing children, Dr. Melanie Killen, University of Maryland for Children Relationships and Culture, reported that African American children generally maintain positive attitudes about race and different people because their parents intentionally teach them about race from an early age.

As an African American child, my mother taught me about race. She didn’t teach me so I would hate the other. She taught me so I would be informed, so I could better understand history and attempt to process why someone might think differently, and so I would have examples of what was and is a righteous response to hateful people. From her teaching and example, I learned my responsibility to educate myself and to advocate on behalf of others. As an African American parent of an African American daughter, this is part of the teaching and training that takes place in my home. Education about racial injustices is a necessity for her survival, and it was a necessity for mine. That’s why my mother taught me, that’s why I teach my daughter, and why I don’t want her to be colorblind.

In addition to teaching and engaging our children on this topic, we need to have a biblical worldview, sound theology, and language to accompany our personal convictions and cultural conversations. The idea of “race” is a social phenomenon or human structure that is defined and categorized for the sole purpose of dividing people, determining hierarchy, and naming what types of people have the right to power or the right to exercise their dominion on this earth. Racism is not something that is unique to America. Throughout history and across cultures, we have witnessed people who have learned how to hate others based on their outward appearance. Much of America’s racism has been communicated and shaped by the long history of injustices against black people through the abuse of power by white people.

The Bible does not share the sinful motivation of segregating people based on their skin color or outward appearances. The Bible first communicates that all humans are created in the image of God. Although, God chose to have a covenantal relationship with the Israelites—it was not because they were special, and they certainly were not obedient or “good people.” God’s choice was simply that, his sovereign choice. Then God decided that all people groups would be blessed through this one people group. This was the covenant (promise or agreement) he made with the head of their clan, Abraham. This promise was fulfilled through Christ Jesus. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29 NIV).

Christ changes everything. He makes it possible for everyone to have a personal relationship with God, and he makes it possible for us to have right relationships with other people. God does not outwardly define people by race as we have been conditioned to. He defines people by ethnē or “ethnicity,” which reflects our diverse cultural distinctions, which are gifts from God worthy of celebration.

What We Can Do

Whenever people explore the idea of racial prejudices and biases, especially in the church, the first solution people have is “get a friend from a different ethnic background.” I agree that having a diverse group of friends (plural) is an important step; however, we cannot stop there. The sin of racism has a very long history which has led to various systemic injustices. This type of sin does not cease or slow down just because we are making friends. We need to get to the root of this problem. We need better theological reflection on the topic.

We need people to listen well, and advocate at numerous levels of broken systems to ensure all people have basic rights to fresh food, health care, housing, and quality education. We need to fight to ensure that children are not getting charged as adults, or are not thrown into jail for long periods of time for minor offenses.

We need to hear and learn more stories about people of color, and we need to teach them to our own children in our homes, in the church, and in the classroom. We need to read and listen to the voices and stories of people of color. We need to know their history because their history is indeed part of the great American story. We need to provide positive images of people of color to kids, so they know there is nothing to fear. This positive imaging needs to include teachers, mentors, coaches, tutors, and other professionals that we put in front of them as influencers and role models, and this also includes the movies and shows we introduce to them.

Invite diverse people into your home, and take the risk of joining them in their home for meals and fellowship. Get engaged. Find out what is going on in our country and how those shifting realities impact diverse people groups differently. Go to where diverse people are and sit under their leadership. There are culture events happening throughout the year at public libraries and museums. Most of the time, these events are free and open to the public. Take time to go and invite a kid. In this way, we will all learn how to see each other differently.

2 thoughts on “How Children Learn Who’s In and Who’s Out

  1. Natasha, this enrages me and breaks my heart, all at the same time. No child is racist until someone teaches them to be.
    I thank God that my parents did their best to point out this evil mindset and how it is in opposition to God’s Word.

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