When Stephen was 3, we took him to see Body Worlds, a museum exhibit that displays different parts of human anatomy. In one display, they showed a pair of healthy lungs contrasted with a pair of smoker’s lungs. Of course, I took the opportunity as a learning moment.
“See the difference, Stephen? That’s how your lungs are supposed to look, nice and pink and healthy. But if you smoke, your lungs get all yucky and black and dirty.”
“Oh, wow,” he said. Then he looked up from the case and saw a black man standing across from him. “Look, Mommy,” he said, “That man is all black and dirty!”
“No…no…shhh,” I said, nervously whispering, “Not people! God made people all different colors, and that’s ok….”
“No!” He interrupted loudly, pointing markedly at the man, “Look at him! He IS black and yucky like that!”
Eric, in desperation, grabbed Stephen and ran off with him to a corner to explain how God made people of different colors.
Many rounds of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”* later, Stephen was enrolled in soccer. He was telling me how much he liked soccer and asked to do it again. “Who will my coach be, Mommy?”
“I’m not sure. Who did you like better, Mr. X or Mr. Y, because sometimes you get to pick.”
“Well, I guess Mr. Y.”
“Oh really? I thought you liked Mr. X.”
“Well, I liked him, but I like white people better.”
I wiped the look of horror off my face and explained, yet again, that God made people different colors, and He loves them all the same and it’s ok to be different colors.
Of course, I learned about inborn racial bias in Social Psychology 101, but it has been an interesting experience to see it expressed in my children. As a parent, I obviously don’t teach my children discrimination explicitly, but it is interesting to see how they process differences in people and to think about what we may be implicitly teaching.
I think a lot of the story is my kids simply don’t have much exposure to non-white people, so they are still processing how to understand people who look different from them. Of course, I also have to explain why some people are in wheelchairs, and how the little person is an adult even though she’s the same size as Stephen (and stop staring at her!)
Most recently, the twins and I were waiting at Jiffy Lube when a bearded, long haired man wearing black walked in. Will immediately pointed at him and said, “Bad guy! Bad guy!”
Reid whipped around to look where Will was pointing and chimed in. “Bad guy! Bad guy!” He agreed.
(Is it racist that I felt less mortified because he was white?)
The other interesting thing is that they didn’t say “bad guy” in any kind of alarmist or frightened tone. They said it in the same cute, sing-songy voice they use to point out butterflies and puppies. “Bad guy, bad guy,” sung very happily with smiles on their faces.(Incidentally, one of my friends said her 2 year old called the bearded statue of Jesus in our church lobby “bad guy” for a long time)
It’s amazing that 23 month olds have already picked up our social stereotypes about what a “bad guy” looks like.
It made me realize yet again that our prejudices start very early and we as adults need to be aware of our subconscious biases and make conscious choices to treat people equally; we are all precious in God’s sight.
*For those of you not familiar with the song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world / Red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world”