jews of color · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

Are Your Children Racist?

The Newsweek cover did exactly what it intended. It shocked me. “Is your baby racist?” No, it couldn’t be, I thought. Babies?! Racist?!

But according to the article, an excerpt from “NutureShock: New Thinking About Children”, kids as young as six months old judge others based on skin color. So what’s a parent to do? The answer, the article argues, is teaching your kids explicitly about racism.

A telling quote from the article tells us this story:

“A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, ‘Remember, everybody’s equal.’

She thought she was getting the message across.

Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, ‘Mommy, what’s ‘equal’ mean?'”

When I sent this piece out to people, I got amazing responses from Jewish women (and mothers) of all colors in response to this story. Here are theirs.

Here are two stories from Courtenay in Bakersfield, California who like her twin sister is a light-skinned biracial (black/white) woman who says “Preschoolers don’t understand race. They are very concrete thinkers on color.”

I was driving and I saw a car with a license plate frame indicating another driver was a member of my college sorority, one of the historically black ones founded during segregation.

I honked my horn, waved and gave her a unique hand signal that allows us to recognize one another as sorority sisters. The driver smiled at me and signaled back before driving away.

My daughter, Kenya, 6 years old at the time, said, “Who was that?”

I told her I didn’t know the woman, but we were in the same sorority so I wanted to say hello. My daughter, who had never heard the word “sorority,” asked what the organization was, so I told her it was a club for black girls in college.

“It’s for black people?” my daughter said.

“Mine is,” I said. “There are different kinds of them.”

“They let you in?”

Amused? Here is Courtnay’s next story:

My sister overheard this exchange with a classmate when one of my nieces, Amina, was in kindergarten.

Friend: “Is your mommy black?”

Amina: “No, but she thinks she is. It hurts her feelings when people say she’s white so I just don’t say anything.”

Gloria, an Afro-Dominican woman in New York City, wrote:

“A very interesting article.

Your quote reminded me of something my friend’s three-year-old little girl said to me once. I had just walked into the apartment and she turned to me, “Your shirt is purple, your cup is orange and your skin is brown.” So perfectly innocent and not offensive.

I think it is ridiculous when people say that we should all be colorblind. By all means, please see my color… I am a great shade of cafe-au-lait that should not be ignored…. If you could also see that I am Dominican, it would make me SUPER excited but do not automatically see some negative stereotype when you see the color of my skin. What we need is to be more willing to openly discuss race without getting all offended or self-conscious. Easier said than done, of course.”

And Rishona, an African-American woman in Pittsburgh, PA, wrote:

“In the Orthodox community, babies stare at me but will smile when I smile and don’t hesitate to play with me. Around age 3 or so, there is a change. Around age 5…you can forget it.

I think the most toxic attitude among frum children is that just because you have brown skin, you are a goy. I have heard young frum children run away from a playground that had black children playing in it and saying “the goyim are here now.” They may do it, but I have not heard them say this when other white children (who are just as goyishe) come.

There is one little girl in the community who is 3 whose parents are from Boro Park (father even speaks Yiddish). She will scream out my name in glee a mile away when she sees me. I think it’s so amazing…because who knows if she would get this type of exposure in Boro Park.

IY”H, if I ever have children, one of my main goals will be to teach them that you cannot tell who is a Jew by looks; in addition to teaching them that non-Jews are not inferior to Jews and they should not be feared any more or any less than Jews are.”

Beth, a white woman in Surprise (no really!), AZ, said this:

“My daughter, Z., is 8 months old and we’ve found she’s terrified of adults with light blond hair holding her. I feel it’s because she feels brunette and red haired adults could be family. It is important that infants identify these differences, babies are xenophobes-they need to identify their caregivers.

[This article], though, opened my eyes. When I didn’t discuss race with my girls, I THOUGHT I was doing what was right: teaching them to be colorblind, etc. It’s scary bringing up the topic if you don’t know what to say. I didn’t think it was the easy way, but I learned it was. Exploring and learning about other cultures they encounter I now know would be what others would want me to teach my girls. Yet, that’s not what I was taught in school. I was taught equal, friends, colorblind. I passed it on.”

Two other mothers also noted the way their babies responded to differences in skin color:

When my daughter was a baby and a toddler, she was petrified of dark skinned people (even though she is multiracial herself). You can imagine waht family gatherings were like. But there was nothing we could do. She would see a dark-skinned relative and scream on top of her lungs. Everybody thought she was just scared of strangers.

–Sabina, a white mother of multiracial children, in Stroudsburg, PA

When my daughter was small, she was scared of light skinned women. She had been cared for by asians, dominicans, and black women as a baby before she reached the age of 5.

She got over her phobia once she entered kindergarten and her teacher was a blue eyed blonde. She got used to seeing long blonde hair.

–Stella, a biracial (Asian/white) mother of a multiracial child, in Seattle, WA

And these last two stories reflect the issues that arise when raising children who do not see models like themselves in the media:

When my Deana was little, she came up with wearing the hood of a bright yellow rain poncho on her head, with the rest of the poncho tied back in a “ponytail” behind her like a golden-haired Rapunzel. I wish we’d had the Dolls Like Me website then.
–Chaia in Youngstown, OH

M. in Washington D.C. added this about talking to her adopted African/Hispanic daughter:

“Great article. Makes me feel good about many of the choices we’ve made, the conversations we’ve had with our daughter, Sara, and occasionally with her young friends.”

Here’s one conversation M. relates having with her daughter about about Disney princesses, with four-and-half-year-old Sara:

Sara: I want a Princess birthday, with cupcakes with princesses
Mom: Mmm.
Sara: You don’t like princesses.
Mom: No, not much, not the ones you’re talking about.
Sara: Why?
Mom: Well, first of all, in all the stories, a boy comes to saves them, and that’s just not how it works.
Sara (smiling): Okay, what else?
Mom: Well, I also don’t like that they all look alike.
Sara (touching the skin on my arm, sweetly, and smiling): They look like you.
Mom: But do any of them look like you?
Sara: No
Mom: That’s why I don’t like them.
Sara: (Smiles)
Mom: But I heard there’s a new princess story coming out that is about a black princess, and she’s from New Orleans, like Anita’s family. So that’s better.
Sara: Yeah.
Mom: We can watch that movie when it comes out.
Sara (smiling): Okay, and she can be on my cupcakes.
Mom: Okay, maybe, sure.
Sara: You still don’t like princesses?
Mom: We’ll see….

5 thoughts on “Are Your Children Racist?

  1. as I said on your other thread, last week we were in Friendly's (our Rabbi hold that we can eat ice cream from in the restaurant), my 5 year old son says, in a loud voice “brown people can be Jewish too” I dont think he is “racist” per say, just learning about the world around him.
    As a child, I was taught in school and at home that the 'big bad southerners were mean to black people, and they were wrong. We aren't like that' Yet I cannot think of one person of color who my parents were friends with or that lived in our neighborhood. At our synagogue we had that biracial family that just was there to prove we weren't racist. Besides that, the only people of color we saw were the negative or slapstick portrayals on tv/movies.
    Sometimes I think that this upbringing made me too sensitive to race. I seek out the minorities (JOC, converts, etc), who to be honest are not quite a minority in this community compared to others> I want to be their friends to prove i am not racist. I want my son to be friendly with them so that he doesn't grow up racist. Does this make me a racist??? (Don't worry, thats rhetorical)
    I wanted to write more but I had to pause for 5 pacifier insertions while writing (my baby has me well trained). In any case…..I don't mind if my son notices the color of peoples skin…I just hope he is able to be kept away from the subconscious judgmental attitude that comes even in many 'unlighted' communities.



  2. We are explicit about skin color. As a intercultural/interracial family, we have always been up front about the fact that Dev's cousins and tias and aunts and uncles come in shades from very fair to the loveliest dark brown.

    How can we pretend that these differences don't exist, when you see then around our home in family photos, at parties, etc? We just acknowledge these differences as normal, and not as invisible.

    Being colorblind is an example of white privelidge. POC don't get to ignore skin color.


  3. I am a typical American (pale) Jewish woman. I was trying to raise my children to be “colorblind” and was quite successful, but this article reminded me of a funny incident that happened.

    My oldest two children were 4 and 6 (or thereabouts) and our next door neighbors were an African American single mom and her son. One day my children were out on the porch talking to the neighbor boy who was on his porch. The boy made some reference to himself as black, to which my son said, “you are not black, you are brown, we are all just different shade of brown. You are a darker brown and I am a very light brown, but there's no one who is actually black or white – we are all the same.”

    The neighbor got really angry at my son and my son just couldn't figure out why. The boy didn't hear anything beyond, “you are not black” and took it as a slam. Of course, this incident sparked a long series of discussions about ethnic and cultural identity.


  4. Growing up as a Black American, part of the barrier between us (and other “colored” minorities) and White people is the fact that we do see the world differently. Also instead of White people embracing our view (or at least try to understand), they stick by the “colorblind” thing.

    Penina I am not saying what you are doing is outright wrong. But that mother got upset probably because she is working hard to prepare her children for life. Walking down the street, the vast majority of people do not gaze around and see “different shades of brown”; they see a Black man, a Korean woman, or Hispanic kids. While a colorblind world would be nice, that is not the reality. Since were are on the defensive, it is not fair for a Black parent to teach their child otherwise. That is like training police officers to think that everyone will be compliant and submissive when you go to arrest them. It is ugly and shameful…but it is just how the world is at this point in time.

    This is why it is a slap in the face to hear White people say they are “colorblind”; because then they usually think that they have no issues with race…but very rarely is this true. I know of so many White parents in my hometown…where they were fine when their children were younger and had Black friends. But whenever they got older and starting dating or having children with these Black people they flipped out. I had a woman in a professional setting ask me how I learned to speak English so well; she really believed that I grew up speaking Ebonics. Oh and also people getting angry at me because I know how to read/write Hebrew because “Black people shouldn't know that stuff”. Luckily I realize that I will constantly be superficially judged because of my skin color. If I didn't know this, then I would have all sorts of complexes being that I am suppossed to be the same/equal to everyone else (this may be the case in G-d's eyes…but not man's!).


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