Critical Essay

Teaching children about racism

Anyone who cries “it’s not fair!” is old enough to learn about racial inequality.

Can children be racists? The answer depends on how we define racism. When I witness a four-year-old shouting racial slurs and taunts on a playground, I attribute his behavior to what he has heard in his home. Preschoolers, grade schoolers, and even high schoolers are rarely willfully malicious; they are still growing and making mistakes. We give grace to young people in their errors.

But according to critical race theory, racism isn’t color-consciousness, nor is it a personal prejudice against people of color. Drew Hart describes it as “a radicalized systemic and structural system that organizes” the society. When we use the term systemic racism, we are referring to the way an entire society is structured to benefit the dominant cultural group at the expense of another. Looking beyond individual and personal interactions, we observe the larger patterns at work in a racialized society.

Therefore any children born with white skin into white families participate in a system that affords them opportunities at the expense of people of color. Scholars argue that children can develop implicit biases against people of different skin color without being explicitly taught to do so. Young children’s immature cognitive capabilities predispose them to categorize others in stereotypical fashion. Children also pick up on social and environmental factors. When their parents live self-segregated lives—in which their communities, networks, bookshelves, and music collections all represent a single racial category—children will assume (without ever having been taught) that people of a different skin color are to be avoided or feared.