One of the most mind-blowing pieces of information I learned in my early 20s was how
babies as young as six months old can notice racial differences in people. SIX MONTHS.
I've held onto that nugget for more than a decade and it is still one of the first things I like to bring up to people when I hear comments about how children “do not see color…” (Side eye). I didn’t have kids of my own at the time, but I did work directly with elementary-aged youth. I always found myself fumbling and word vomiting any time one of my students would mention race.
I did not grow up talking about race in any way. My parents never brought it up. I moved to the United States at 10 and at that point, American kids my age already knew not to bring up race and if you dared to, you were a “racist.” I did not have a lot of context as to why actions and words could be racist, but I knew to tiptoe around race-based conversations no matter what.
(Julia at about 6 months old)
I remember in middle school, sitting in my social studies class where we had to read our textbook chapters out loud (Side comment: Is that still a thing? Because a huge part of my anxiety now during public speaking stems from having to read out loud in a language that I felt fuzzy on).
We were reading about Africa and I happened upon a paragraph that talked about the country, Niger. Now I knew that there was a derogatory word aimed at Black Americans. I had never seen it written out, so imagine my shock at seeing what I thought was the word in my school textbook. I had thought that there was a country out there bearing the same offensive word. I swear my nearby classmates could hear the sound of my heart making its way up my throat.
My social studies teacher, Mrs. Ross, was a Black woman. When people ask about my favorite teacher of all time, I think of her. I remember panicking, afraid that she was going
to think I was using this term against her. I stared at the word Niger for what seemed forever until she gently said, “It’s okay. Go ahead.”
I read it, using a short “i” sound. Mrs. Ross gave a nod, corrected me, and used that opportunity to talk to the whole class about proper pronunciation and why the “n” word is offensive. And let me tell you, I never made that mistake ever again. She was firm, but not accusatory. The rest of the class was a blur but I remember being confused that I wasn’t in trouble. I was expecting it. I remember practicing saying Niger, the correct pronunciation, over and over in my head.
I think back now and imagine what she must have been thinking. As an adult engaging in difficult, emotionally-charged conversations, I talk about how white folks need to be mindful of not adding to the labor of folks of color -- to seek their own learning and not depend on folks of color, especially Black folks, to educate them on everything related to race.
What does this look like when adults are in conversation with kids? For those who teach, mentor, parent and work directly with young ones, what is our role in engaging their minds and hearts with these kinds of courageous conversations?
Unfortunately, prior to that workshop where I learned about babies’ racial biases at SIX MONTHS OLD, I only knew to uncomfortably look away when a child asked a question or made a comment about race. In fact, I made myself take that workshop after one of my white students made a blatantly racist comment about Muslim men. And all I could do was mumble “we don’t say things like that” and change the subject.
I can’t even imagine the damage I caused because of my silence. Do you have that kind of moment in time ingrained in memory? I do. That was my moment and I vowed to do better. I think about Mrs. Ross sometimes and I know she wouldn’t have let comments like that slide, even coming from children. She simultaneously encouraged us while cutting that nonsense out.
It hasn’t been easy for me to talk to kids about race, and you’ll get to hear my mistakes along the way. As an adult, parent, and Asian woman, I have the opportunity to encourage open and honest conversations about race with my girls and other young people in my life. And if I’m lucky, these kiddos will trust me enough to ask tough questions, fumble, and listen. Just like I did with Mrs. Ross.