Unpopular opinion time!
You know how it’s only adults who are racist, and how when you hear a kid say something racist, it’s because they’ve heard an adult say it?
Yeah, that’s made up. Kids are totally racist. Sorry.
While yes, racism is socially conditioned, kids in our culture are thoroughly programmed for it at a very early age. It doesn’t take long for kids to learn who’s considered “good” and “beautiful” in their world. And the prejudices that contribute to racism occur even earlier, possibly immediately. (Did you know, for example, that our physical brains have different empathetic responses to seeing people hurt, depending on their race?)
Kids are prejudiced, because like all of us, their little brains are operating on dozens and dozens of documented cognitive and emotional biases. For example, it’s natural to prefer people you see as being similar to you in some way over people who aren’t, because of something called “in group bias.” That’s not some people, that’s all people, unless we put that bias in check. Kids don’t yet know to put their biases in check. Add to that the fact that they’re constantly exposed to a culture that affirms the superiority of one race over others, and what you’ve got are some racist little kids.
The ones we like to post about on social media who seem to be free from racism are the exception, not the rule. That’s why we notice them and share those images and videos. They’re exceptional.
Okay, okay, you’re thinking. So maybe it’s not true that kids aren’t racist, but it’s still a sweet thought! What’s the harm in saying it?
Here’s one problem: When we say that it’s children who are the least racist among us, that makes racism something you can grow out of. It makes the absence of racism in a person seem cute, naive, involuntary. Yes, we romanticize childhood, telling the story as if children are so wise and enlightened. But in reality, try and think of any other topic that you honestly wish you had a child’s understanding of. I’ll give you a minute.
Kids in our culture don’t transcend racism by some natural, God given reflex. Adults (some but not many adults) in our culture transcend racism through self-reflection, by working honestly with their prejudices and by standing up to the racist conditioning they grew up with. By choice.
Really, racism is a perfectly childish trait in a person. It’s an immature, uneducated, unenlightened response to their natural prejudices and to living in a world where they are granted privilege over the people who trigger those prejudices. Racism is something you grow out of (with work, if you’re conscious about it), not something you grow into. Like temper tantrums and bed wetting and thinking your parents are magic, racism is a thing we should all aspire to move past as we grow up.
And here’s another problem with the trope of the racism-proof child: If we believe that children are immune to racism unless we actively teach them to be racist, we think our job is done. We think we can raise non-racist children just by censoring the N word and smiling and waving at our neighbors of color. But that’s not happening, because racism is so embedded in every aspect of our culture and so eagerly received by our basal prejudices, we can’t just not be racist. Not without work. It takes honesty and struggle and bravery and humility. Redemption’s not free. And the work doesn’t stop, because we’re continuously re-conditioned to it our whole lives.
We must look at our children with open eyes, with compassion and clarity. We have to meet them where they are, and meet ourselves where we are, and then we can begin to heal and grow and unlearn all that bullshit. There’s too much work to do to go around pretending it will do itself.