Can Children Be Racist?

Can Children Be Racist?

I keep listening for the voices that will stand up for the children — especially the black and brown children. I know they are out there, but perhaps they cannot be heard above the current din of violence, hatred, and protest. We have so much to learn from our children — the trust, love, and hope that Jesus surely saw in them when he said, “Let the little children come to me.” And we also have so much to teach them. I pray that our children, who will become the next generation of adults, can be raised with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that embrace diversity.

Raising these children is not only the responsibility of those who are parents in this moment. It is the responsibility of all adults, especially those in the church.  As congregations, we make promises at a child’s baptism to raise that child up to know and love Jesus, to know and love their neighbor, to spread God’s love — to show them that each and every one of us is a beloved child of God — no matter the color of our skin.

Children are not born racially biased. It is natural that they notice the different colors that people come in, yet they won’t attach any value judgment to the different colors until they are taught to. As they grow, children learn racism by observing their parents, their environments, and those in their family’s social circles, which includes the church. During the preschool years, when socialization outside of the home begins in earnest, children begin to gravitate toward people like they see at home. If these children are only exposed to people and images that look like them, if they observe you clutching your handbag closer when you pass a black man on the sidewalk, if you insist that they “don’t see color” in someone’s skin when it is obvious that they do – behaviors such as these speak loud and clear and can promote racist behaviors in children as early as the age of five!

Many parents are asking, “How soon should I begin talking with my child about race?” Given how soon young children observe and react to racial differences, the answer is, “As early as possible!” Even babies in single-race households can be surrounded by pictures of people from various races. And there are multitudes of high quality children’s books and board books for babies and preschoolers that offer a variety of skin tones within their pages. (Look for children’s book lists online from libraries, teachers, and schools.)

Another way to expose young children to an array of races is to choose toys and media that include people/images of different races, cultures, ethnicities, and religions. As they grow, be sure that these children have experiences outside of their own culture. Provide opportunities for them to learn about black history, visit African American and multi-cultural museums, include ethnic restaurants in the choices of places to eat out, watch movies based on other cultures, to name a few ways.

Be an example for the children around you. Let them hear you talk about people of other races with respect. Let them know that you attend protests, give money to support anti-racist movements, write letters to your government officials, or whatever it is you do to counter racism. Engage older children to assist you in these practices. Most importantly, engage the children in conversation. If you are not used to talking with children or children of certain ages, ask them age-appropriate questions such as (for a preschooler), “What color would you use to draw a picture of yourself? Your family? Someone with a different color skin than yours?” Help them to wonder about the concepts that they bring up: “I wonder what color your friend would use.” This type of wondering will help both you and the child to move the conversation forward.

Many are now referring to the racism that has and continues to run rampant in our country as a virus. So let us “vaccinate” our children against the virus of racism. Let us invest in the future of humanity today by exposing our children to the rainbow of colors, experiences, and knowledge available to them. And let us take the time to expand our own life focuses and experiences as we build a new generation for peace and justice.

For resources to help households with children discuss racism, visit the Southern New England Conference website and locate “A Few Good Resources for Exploring Diversity and Anti-Racism.


debbie gline allen cropped.jpg
Debbie Gline Allen

Debbie Gline Allen serves as a Minister of Faith Formation on the Conference’s Faith Formation Ministry Team. She also serves as the administrator of the SNEUCC Faith Formation Leadership Program.  Her passion for ministry is with children and family...

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