by Lindsay Mitchell
“I hate black people.”– Four-year-old white girl.
These are words you never wish to hear spoken at all, let alone to hear them coming from your own daughter. But they did. I remember we were driving in the car. I don’t remember where we were driving to or from, only that we were together in the vehicle when she made her statement. I believe she might have seen a person of colour in the car next to us, and then: “Mommy, I hate black people.” Wait. What??
Blink. Say something, but don’t say something that will make it worse. Where did this come from? How did this happen? (Insert suitable silent swear word here). My daughter is racist?!
To say I was shocked is an understatement, particularly as I consider myself to be relatively aware of racial issues and at times even actively engaged in them. My university years were spent full of debates around white privilege and systemic societal issues. I have confronted my own white privilege at numerous points in my life. A big moment was while I was working in Ghana alongside smart and courageous people of colour who seemed to think of me as someone who had all the answers and power. They were far more capable than me in many ways, particularly with regards to the situational dynamics in Ghana. I really struggled with this undeserved power that came from the colour of my skin and its associated western world experience. I also led a non-profit that was directly trying to shift systemic challenges for indigenous youth and young adults here on these lands of the Blackfoot, Stoney Nakoda and Tsuu T’ina people. I have close friends of colour, I read books from diverse authors, we have books featuring kids of colour to read with the girls, we even made sure that our daughter’s first doll was a doll of colour and not a white doll. Now, I am not trying to paint this picture of me as a perfect ally or anti-racist, as I am far from those things. I have much more to learn, and have much work to do before I would claim those titles for myself. But I do know that racism was a conscious thought in my life, so to be confronted by racist comments from my daughter was sheer horror.
Back in the car that day, as I was trying to sort through an appropriate response, I realized I had a few options.
A. Confront directly: “That’s wrong; don’t say that. I don’t want to hear those words ever again.”
B. Blissfully ignore. Assume that if I don’t make a big deal of it then it will just go away.
C. Discuss openly. Seek to understand where that was coming from and why.
While I was aiming for C, I definitely did include a bit of A because I wanted her to know how hurtful it could be. And so began my journey of helping my daughter understand racism, and my own job as a parent to ensure that I raise children who, not only don’t contribute to the problem, but are part of the solution.
Here are a few things I learned while trying to understand how my daughter came to make the statement she did that day.
Kids test language. One of the ways I notice kids learning is through testing words. They hear a new word somewhere and then test it in various contexts to see if it works or what type of response it will generate. At the time of her statement, ‘hate’ was one of those words she was exploring – so I am not even certain she fully understood what she was saying, but she certainly used it in a context worth paying attention to. How do I know she was exploring the word? Because she was experimenting with it in various ways at various times, and when I asked her directly what it meant she didn’t know. Around the same time, she told me she hated mushrooms – which she doesn’t, she eats them all the time – but she does have a ‘sometimes she wants them, sometimes she doesn’t’ type vibe towards mushrooms. At the moment she said “I hate mushrooms,” it was more likely an attempt to try out a new word to see if it worked in the context of “I don’t want mushrooms right now.”
Kids see colour. It’s easy to assume that kids don’t see skin colour difference unless it’s pointed out to them, and therefore assume that if we don’t make a big deal of skin colour they won’t notice it. But they do. Children are wired to spot differences in the world around them; it’s part of their pattern-searching learning mechanism. For that reason, skin colour is noticed, and it is noticed early on. Around the same time, her younger sister started pointing out people of colour everywhere we went. Once it is noticed, something that is different can either be interesting, leading to curious examination, or scary, leading to an avoidance response.
First Encounters. First-hand exposure for kids to people of colour is extremely important. While my daughter may have seen black people in passing, she didn’t have a lot of black people in her immediate social sphere. Other people of colour yes, but not black. And here comes the heart of her statement – it turns out she had a bad encounter with a childcare provider at a gym daycare I dropped the girls off at – a childcare provider who happened to be black, and who happened to be her first black care provider. She has had issues with other care providers along the way – not wanting to get dropped off or go back – so it was not abnormal to me that she didn’t want to go back to that particular gym daycare and I just chalked it up to her fear of being left somewhere without mom. What I didn’t realize at the time, was the fact that this particular incident was contributing to a narrative in her head about black people.
While it may seem a stretch to some, I came to understand her words not as “I hate black people”, but rather “Mommy, I am scared of black people and I don’t want you to leave me with one again.” What she said was extremely racist, what she meant was she needed some help understanding the difference she saw and the impact of what she felt.
So here are a few examples of what we tried to do to help reshape the narrative she was developing that black people are mean.
Skin colour. I am still not entirely sure why I did this, but it became important to me to help her understand why skin colour differences exist in the first place. We started talking about melanin and different places in the world where that is helpful for humans who live there because it helps protect against the sun. And we talked about our ancestors living in the northern parts of the world needing less melanin in order to get enough vitamin D where there is less sunlight. It may seem like too much, yet it was important to start shaping the narrative around skin colour differences having a physical function. We also tried to talk about other differences that you can be born with: hair colour, eye colour, physical abilities, etc., and pointed out that it is not something you have control over. Does she have control over her white skin and blue eyes? And we talked about these things on repeat – not just once, but regularly as the opportunity arose. Putting on sunscreen? Talk about skin colour. See a person of colour? Comment on how beautiful their skin is and how wonderful various levels of melanin can be.
The word hate. I definitely tackled the word hate, and helped her to understand that what she was saying was very hurtful. Hurtful to people of colour, but also to me as I have close friends who are people of colour. I showed her pictures of me with my friends in Ghana and I told her stories of my experience. I tried my best to help her understand what hate meant, and that it was a very, very powerful word. I also asked her how the hate felt to her in her own body as a way of exploring the idea that hate can also be hurtful to the person doing the hating.
Judgment of differences. We tried to help her question the quality of the judgement she was making, and how it wasn’t entirely fair to be fearful of all black people because of one particular incident. We gave examples of other care providers she was scared of and asked about their skin colour. We gave examples of other people of colour she knows and asked if she was scared of them. We asked if she would like people to say they hate her because of her eye colour, hair colour, or skin colour. We brought the ability to make judgements based on differences into the centre of the conversation, and how hurtful inaccurate judgements can be.
Told her the truth. And then we told her the truth. The reason mommy is so upset about what you said is because that perspective exists in the world, and I don’t think it’s fair. There are people of colour, black people as you pointed out that are being hurt, or put in jail, or told they can’t do certain things because of their skin colour. We read and reread books about Rosa Parks, and Viola Desmond, and other stories of people of colour and felt so grateful for the work that has gone into making these kinds of resources for kids available. We continue to point out privilege when it makes sense – you know there are kids who can’t go to school like you do simply because they are black? You know if we had black skin we might not have been able to buy the house we live in because the bank wouldn’t loan us the money simply because we were black? Sure. It may seem extreme, but imagine the extreme conversations in the households of black kids.
And so, at the end of it all, despite my complete shock to hear those initial words, I am now so grateful that it happened because it forced me to acknowledge that passive introduction of racism was not enough. Having books with kids of colour, or stories of people of colour, or even a black doll was not enough. Despite all of that, my 4 year old daughter made a judgement of something new and different to her, a judgment that has the same roots as the judgments that led to residential schools, Nazi Germany, genocide, and the ongoing oppression that has led to the need for the Black Lives Matter movement today. Again, it may seem extreme, but even Barbara Coloroso in her book Extraordinary Evil, points to the similarity in patterns between genocide and schoolyard bullying. We become scared of something different or new to us, something that we don’t understand, and then we try to protect ourselves from it in very harmful and maladaptive ways. And so it was a much needed wake up call for me. It told me I needed to be actively engaged in the conversation of race and racism from a very early age, to be helping our children see the stories that exist in our systems that will show up in bullying in the schoolyard, or when we are out and about in the world, and to let them know both by voice and role modelling that it is not okay. Because it’s not.
That four-year-old girl is now six and in kindergarten.
When introduced to indigenous ways of living through some of her school activities she came home in tears. “Mom, I just love the way the indigenous people lived and it must have been so hard for them to lose their land. It’s not fair Mom. It’s so not fair.” No sweetheart it’s not.
In the past few weeks we have been talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, and the protests and watched the CNN/Sesame Street townhall. “But mom, aren’t the police supposed to protect everyone?” Yes they are. “Mom, that’s not fair.” No sweetheart it’s not.
And then from the same mouth that a few years earlier had said “I hate black people,” came “Mom, when I grow up, I am going to make sure the police take care of everyone, and that black people don’t have to go to jail just because they are black.” I take this as a sign of progress knowing we still need to keep going.
If there is something you take away from my story, please let it be that passive action around race and racism for kids creates ignorance and misunderstanding. Please do not be afraid to bring the truth of what is happening in the world to children of all ages. They see it, they feel it, and it’s our responsibility as adults to understand it ourselves, and then help them make sense of what is happening in the world in a helpful constructive way.
If you are an alumni of Human Venture Leadership, we will continue to explore this and other current events during our Community Calls each Friday at noon.
In the meantime, here are some resources we recommend to help you start the conversation.
And until next time, keep going.
Selecting Books & Resources for Kids
There are many thoughtful lists going around so I encourage you to check them out and source a few to try out with the children in your life. Note: if you are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of options, just pick a few to start. Find ones that captivate your child and then use them as talking points for discussion. What works for one kid might not work for another. Something else you can do is to start to be more deliberate about the way you select children’s books. A guide for selecting Anti-Bias Children’s books will help you think carefully about anti-bias book selection, and consider the implicit and explicit messages coming through the stories. Here is a good starting list that includes books for different ages – Books that Talk about Racism.
The ones I mentioned that we read over and over were the Little People Big Dream Series, She Persisted Around the World, Hair Love for which there is also a new short animated film, and This is How we Do it. I am also really excited about Let’s Talk About Race which we watched read on YouTube, and A Kids Book about Racism.
Watch and discuss the CNN & Sesame Street Town Hall which works for kids 5+, and was informative for me as an adult too.
Have a listen to this kids’ podcast But Why Live – A discussion about Race & Racism, it answered a lot of my six-year-old’s questions.
Making Sense of Racism Yourself as an Adult
Similarly there are many lists going around for adult books and resources. I found this scaffolded anti-racist resource to be incredibly useful in sorting through books, videos, podcasts, and supporting productive reflection. The content is primarily American, so some additional resources for the Canadian context include:
- The Skin We Are In by Desmond Cole
- Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga
- Until We are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter Canada, Editors: Rodney Diverlus and Sandy Hudson
- Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard
- 21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph
- The History of Immigration and Racism in Canada: Essential Readings by Barrington Walker*
- Colour-Coded: A Legal History of Racism in Canada, 1900-1950 by Constance Backhouse*
*These ones are more academic (and more expensive), but they come highly recommended by people working in this space.
Lastly, if books are harder to get through these days check out these Film Lists, 10 Docs about race, 29 Docs about Racial Injustice, 12 Docs about Police Brutality. I have also been loving listening to podcasts like The Breakdown with Shaun King, and Code Switch.
Lindsay is a Human Venture Associate and Human Venture Leadership Board Member. She is also a life learner, nature explorer, and mother of two who strives to build systemic understanding through her consulting work.