Photo courtesy of Leslie Cross
When I was in preschool, I was left with two lasting impressions of race in the United States. We were taught, with no hesitation on the part of our teachers, that race exists and that racism exists. These simple facts made three-year-old Prithi and her fellow classmates incredibly aware of race and racial discrimination. We began to see one another as the race they were, Black, white and Asian, but refused to treat each other any better or worse because of what we saw.
Not two years later, when the story of Martin Luther King Jr. was first introduced to me and my classmates, I noticed that they visibly paled at the premise of being Black. They clearly understood the injustices of segregation and discrimination, but the word “Black” left a bitter taste on their tongues.
No one is born racist or anti-racist; these sentiments are cultivated from one's upbringing and the values that they learn from others.
When I was 14, I got my first job at a tutoring facility for young children. I sat down to greet my first student, prepared for a pleasant introduction, but the first words that left their mouth were, “You’re not American.” They had crossed their arms and looked away from me, in what I could only presume was a rejection of my tutelage. His mother grimaced but didn’t say anything, and I pretended that nothing had happened.
But all three of these reactions were only natural results of the environments they emerged from. No one is born racist or anti-racist; these sentiments are cultivated from one’s upbringing and the values that they learn from others. This is why children need to be made aware of race early on in their lives.
Differences in skin color or physical features are simply facts of life. The more children are taught not to notice or comment on these differences, the more they are kept away from understanding these differences, the more race begins to appear like a taboo. Referring to someone as “Black” or “brown” is no longer seen as a statement of the obvious but as something inherently negative, and there it begins.
However, if children are taught that differences in skin color is all that race really measures, they will be able to understand that there is nothing inherently good or bad about different physical features. Beyond this, if children are introduced to the concept of racism alongside the concept of race — slowly, starting with gentle introductions like a brief history of the Civil Rights Movement — then they will be able to recognize truly how unjust racism is. They will become more conscious of their own perceptions of race, first among peers and family, then later, within media, literature, politics — the list goes on and on.
Differences in skin color and physical features are simply facts of life.
Introducing children to both race and racism in a thoughtful, sensitive manner during their early education is necessary, not only to cultivate open-minded children but also to nurture self-acceptance among children. Race and racism do not just pop into existence when someone turns 18. Children all too often receive the privileges or disadvantages of their racial identity. If children are taught that race is no defining measure of their quality, they will be able to take pride in their racial identity, rather than feel shame.
Race and racism are two twin concepts that guide how people treat each other. If racial education is introduced to children at a young age, they will grow to become more open-minded and more conscious of the two concepts, which is necessary to develop individuals who accept each other and who accept themselves.