Can Babies Be Racist? How to Address Race with Toddlers

Daniel is at an age when his social awareness is at an all-time high. He loves to wave “hi”, “bye” and blow kisses towards anyone from his grandparents to polar bears at the zoo. When we go out to eat, he’ll stare and smile at nearby diners until they turn around to talk to him. Then he smiles and cocks his head to the side. He’s just a ham, an absolute ham.

So, when he met a really nice, friendly, older man and started hysterically crying, I found it a bit… odd. 

Nice man: Hi there, Daniel!  

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Nice man: How are you doing today, buddy?

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Nice man: Ok, I’ll just stay over here then. 

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And the kid just clings to my leg and hides behind large objects while I’m grasping for excuses to explain his behavior. “He’s normally so sweet…”, “Maybe he’s tired!” 

Then, I noticed this strange phenomenon happened more in public. Some people would approach him and he would instantly pout and often cry. Then they would leave and he would be fine. And I came to a realization that was difficult for my progressive, loving, inclusive heart to take… my baby hysterically cries around black people. 

My husband and I came across this realization at the same time. And it made for an awkward, “Uhhh, so what do we do?” This is not something that was discussed in any baby book. There was no chapter titled, “What to Except When Your Baby Exhibits Racist Tendencies”

The topic of that week’s episode of This American Life was “Bad Baby”, which featured both humorous and frightening stories of adorable, little bundles of joy being absolute hellions. I had a “Stop the tape!” moment when Ira Glass seemed to completely validate my weird suspicions. 

They want food. They want attention. They want comfort. And they do not care what anybody else wants. Also, research shows they’re nicer to people they know. They don’t give a damn about strangers. And they’re racist. Babies are racist. OK, not exactly racist. But they prefer whatever race of people they are used to seeing and being around. If they’re raised in a multiracial setting, they’re fine with all the different races that they’re used to.” –Ira Glass, Bad Baby

So, apparently this behavior is actually pretty normal. Then Google taught me that I wasn’t the first parent in the world to have this issue.

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Studies have shown that babies begin to recognize people of different races around nine months of age and they tend to show bias towards faces of their own race. For some kids, this means they simply recognize someone of a different race and for others, this means when they see someone of another race, they will start hysterically crying. 

My husband, myself and our baby are all white. But the small town we live in is also predominately white. I broke out demographic data from 2013 and made a cute little pie chart to show you just how white. 

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Sooooo, lots of white people. 

After further Googling, I found this Newsweek article.

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The article included a pretty fascinating study gauging children’s attitudes towards race. The study was conducted in a pretty liberal city with parents who embraced diversity and aimed to raise fellow multiculturalists. 

They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup’s first test of the kids revealed they weren’t colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, “Almost none.” Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, “Some,” or “A lot.” Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.– Bronson and Merryman, Newsweek

Many white parents, (especially those aiming to promote equality), simply avoid discussing race. A 2007 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that 75 percent of white parents never, or almost never discuss race. While nonwhite families are about three times more likely to discuss race. The idea behind not discussing race is that if the child isn’t taught the differences, they will grow up believing that everyone is equal and the same and discussing race is a racial construct itself. Plus discussing race makes them uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

But, the “colorblind” ideology doesn’t work. Imagine you’re walking through a crowd. Even if you’re not making judgment or exhibiting prejudice, you’re probably at least recognizing people by their physical appearance– White guy. Asian woman. Black guy. White woman. Little kid… You can be the most accepting, inclusive person in the world and still differentiate between races. Kids are no different. Psychology Today even describes colorblindness as “a half-measure that in the end operates as a form of racism.”

I scoured the web for resources on talking to children about race. Although this was my favorite and I found it the most comprehensive and informative, the advice from a variety of resources seemed to be the same and it’s pretty simple. 

It’s important to acknowledge our physical differences. Hyper-aware toddlers will likely ask questions related to race because toddlers ask questions about EVERYTHING. So, when it comes up, simply explain that some people have a skin color or appearance that is different than theirs. That’s generally enough of an explanation at such a young age, but it can also be a starting point for more conversations about race.  This encourages children to notice and appreciate differences and the many ways we are all the same. 

Talking about race may make you uncomfortable, but parenting is FULL of uncomfortable moments. So, it’s best to address this head-on to give your kid the best chance of… not screaming his head off every time he meets someone of another race. 

I personally feel the biggest contributing factor to our current issue is exposure, so that is going to be my focus as I think explaining physical differences can only get so far with a 17-month-old. And YES, I feel like an incredibly unworldly, sheltered white girl to be having this issue. But you saw that pie chart! White people everywhere. So for me, this starts with venturing out of the suburbs more, making sure people of different races are represented in the books we read and the media we consume, things like that. 

Babies are not actually racist, but it turns out they recognize race EARLY. So it’s important to consider how you’re going to address race and do it in the right way in order to raise an aware, inclusive, friendly child. 

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One thought on “Can Babies Be Racist? How to Address Race with Toddlers

  1. Sarah says:

    Great post and great blog. Came across your blog and glad I did! I’ve started following you on Bloglovin’.
    Nice work 🙂 Thanks for making my time spent looking for a neat, new blog to follow worthwhile.

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