When are the seeds of racism planted?
That’s a question a coach of mine — think Herman Boone from ‘Remember the Titans’ — from many years ago asked.
And it’s a question worth asking in Utah right now.
He had players of all colors on his team — white, black, brown and everything in-between — and he wanted us all to work and sweat and improve and play and win together.
But the more that team bonded, the more the question moving forward stayed with and vexed me.
Some 30 years ago, while writing a piece for the Los Angeles Times, researched by talking with four fistfuls of experts — psychologists, sociologists, educators, authors on race and child-development researchers — who had spent considerable time studying the subject, I sought more enlightenment. What they said has rattled around in my mind through the subsequent years and it remains just as valid now as it was then.
They found that children enter this world unadulterated, and that kids recognize differences between individuals of varying races and ethnicities early on, in some cases between the ages of 2 and 3. And from there, they try to understand those differences, one from another.
“Some children pick up on everything,” said one teacher, a member of a district multicultural committee. “They try to understand the world and their place in it. They are trying to make sense of their own individuality and the physical differences they observe between people.”
That educator recalled teaching a class one day, reading from the book, “The Gingerbread Man,” when a 9-year-old student asked him two questions:
“What color am I?” and “What color is my skin?”
The boy, who was Latino, knew his skin was brown, but he wanted to know the exact shade of brown.
Seven other students then raised their hands and wanted to know their exact colors.
Studies showed that youngsters do notice different characteristics — skin tone, hair texture, facial features. And as they do, they barrel down a road toward some level of racial awareness. And those observations can be accompanied by attitudes — aimed at themselves and others.
They notice the differences, but do not assign values, positive or negative, to them — until they are swayed by whoever or whatever influences them.
“Young children ask questions about [racial] differences,” he said, adding that adults should answer clearly, honestly and with sensitivity, without prejudice. “They pick up on the responses of adults and they pick up the values of those adults, including biases. They also are influenced by other kids and what they see on TV and in movies.”
Said another expert: “Hopefully, parents and teachers celebrate the differences. Hopefully, they’ll say, ‘Yes, we are all different, isn’t that wonderful.’”
The last sentence was more a statement than a question.
For some white children, their hurdle is tackling and overcoming lingering prejudice, some of it overt, some subtle, passed along from previous generations. In Utah, it may be that a number of kids do not experience other races and cultures the way they might in some regions.
Inexperience, though, is no excuse for ignorance.
For children of other races, their challenge can come from hurtful experiences that occur on account of the fact that they are seen as outside the norm. A professor of medical psychology said a child of color’s racial awareness “can be turbocharged by a negative incident.”
“Such an incident can be devastating,” she said. “I know of one nursery school [child] who was called a chocolate bar by one of his peers. He broke into tears. … Unfortunately, if a child is somehow different, there’s a connotation that he is deficient. It’s a sad way to start your self-concept, feeling there is something wrong with you.”
Children become aware at an early age of “power terms,” words that are hurtful, meant to provoke and belittle, making fun of another’s race or background. Experts said kids hear the words, remember them and repeat them. One said: “If parents don’t intervene, they go on using them. Between the ages of 9 and 11, we have budding racists. Children are a product of their world. Racism begins at home.”
Messages are sent and received.
It’s up to parents, then, and other influential adults to teach youngsters who they are, where they come from, what they can be, acknowledging their physical differences, but making the important point that all races are to be equally valued and respected, appreciated and, as the expert said, celebrated.
A curious and sad finding all those years ago was that in some cases, when preschool children were given the opportunity to play with an assortment of dolls, some white, some brown, some black, children of color often chose the white ones. When they were asked which dolls they’d prefer one day to be like, the fairer-skinned dolls were chosen.
Again, messages are sent and received.
In some studies, the results varied.
“From an early age, white children are often invited to join in prejudice and discrimination,” one of the experts said. And black kids suffer.
But there is hope.
“At 5 or 6, [children] can sense what is fair and what isn’t fair,” he said. “They can begin to be critical thinkers on cultural and racial issues.”
It’s more problematic if they are poisoned by intergenerational hate. But the more prevalent cases, the ones where white parents may at times awkwardly stumble over racial situations and issues, can be overcome by listening and via education and increased awareness.
It’s one of the reasons the Black Lives Matter movement is so important now.
One elementary school class, made up of 16 white children, four blacks, three Asians, and two Latinos, gave their teacher an idea for a book, noting differences and highlighting similarities between children of varying races.
Their lines in the book included: “We are all different. …. Some of us have darker skin, some of us have lighter skin. We are all alike. … We all have hearts and brains.”
“The kids compared themselves to snowflakes,” the teacher said, back before that characterization took on a more derogatory connotation. “They recognize that snowflakes all have six points, but none of them are exactly alike. They know they have their differences and that those differences make them unique. But they are the same, they are all people.”
There is hope, then, and if we listen and learn and understand and act, maybe even a brighter future ahead.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.