Powell: Kids don’t start racist

While shopping last year, a white child about 4 years old pointed at me and asked his mother, “Is that a n—er?” The mother took the child’s hand, looked at me and quickly disappeared. I wasn’t expecting that question. I thought every child had seen a black person. Why use the “N” word? It was obvious the child had heard someone using it. Was hatred being instilled in this child so young?

John Powell

A white fifth-grader in an upscale school in Washington, D.C., hurled racist slurs recently at three black children during an encounter. When confronted by school officials, he said, “I don’t care if I’m racist.”

Problems have increased without much intervention by parents or other adults. Ropes have formed as hanging nooses, and “colored” signs have been discovered at school water fountains.

Where do these things begin and end?

Children’s attitudes and values start with us. We are the most influential role models. Values are imparted at an early age. Parents need to teach children to value everyone as sacred members of the human family.

Racist words don’t have to be spoken. Children develop responses to race from observing what’s happening around them. Decisions parents make about where to live and send their children to school deeply influence a child’s attitudes. Interacting with peers and adults in social venues also influences how the child views people of other races.

White families seldom talk with their children about race. According to a national survey of parents by Sesame Workshop at the University of Chicago, only one-fourth of white parents talked about race with children. Most remained silent about racial disparity and stereotypes. Their silence reinforces racial attitudes in their children.

Racial hatred can be unlearned just as it has been learned. Parents must actively teach and demonstrate that no race is superior to others. Not addressing children’s negative responses to racist ideas and practices is child abuse with lifelong consequences.

Proverbs says, “Point your kids in the right direction — when they’re old they won’t be lost” (22:6, The Message). This is excellent counsel for everyone.

Parents are the key to overcoming racial intolerance and hatred in our children. The coronavirus shelter-in-place mandate gives parents space and time to work with children on racial attitudes.

Let me suggest what this might look like as you help children unlearn bigotry and hatred:

— Examine your own feelings and behavior and take corrective actions.

— Talk with your child about unfairness and racial intolerance. You may make mistakes, but that’s all right. It’s a learning experience for you, too.

— Correct your children when they demonstrate racist attitudes or behavior.

— Model antiracist behavior. If friends and family members demonstrate racist tendencies, challenge them.

A line in the poem “Your Children” by Kahlil Gibran says it all for me: “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. . . . You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

The future belongs to our children, and each of us holds the key. Be the key that puts a lock on bigotry and hatred.

John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has worked as a pastor, preacher and teacher in Mennonite churches and institutions.

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