How not to raise a little racist.
At what age did you learn to be a bigot? When did you first describe a person by their disability, their religious beliefs, their sexual preference or their ancestry? Which will you feel, pride or shame, when you hear your child utter their first racial slur? Because unless you take some important steps and precautions, your children will end up with all of these delightful features, and more.
I am a henna artist, so I get to hang with all kinds of interesting people from many different cultures. When Carmen was three years old, a Muslim woman, in full burqa, visited my home studio to learn about how to do henna. Carmen bounced into the living room, looked at the woman, and exclaimed “You’re pretty!” Then she asked if she wanted to play hide and seek, much to the delight of the woman and her husband (though she politely declined). After Carmen bounced back out of the room, they both explained to me that they weren’t used to be treated that way in the U.S…. that most kids were afraid of them and most adults either ignored them or treated them with open hostility. Hearing their stories hurt my heart, but it was lifted again when the woman told me that she had hope now that she’s met a non-Muslim family with a child that treated them as friends.
This couple was sweet, open, and very human. Why shouldn’t my family treat them like friends? “Because they are different. Because they are Muslim. Because they dress weird and talk funny.” That’s not gonna fly in this family, which already has enough diversity to fill several inappropriate joke books. We’ve had lesbian moms, a Polish dad, an ancient Asian mother in law, an uncle who dated a transsexual woman, some rabid Christian Aunties of Malay descent, and many family members with various mental illnesses and addictions. Then there’s our friends — gays/bisexuals galore, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Hindus, wheelchaired, and every color, from translucent to nearly black. Some are even – *GASP* – Republican!
We were not born with prejudices and bigotry. Children have to be taught to hate other people based on their appearance, abilities, or religious preferences. As parents, we are their biggest role models and teachers, so if they are going to learn intolerance, they are probably going to learn it from us. This is why we have to be SO careful when we’re around our children… we could be cracking a joke, or using words that aren’t very appropriate, and though we think it’s all in innocence, the real innocents are listening, and learning. This is why it’s not funny when you say “That’s gay,” or “How retarded.” Think before you speak.
Even if we do our damnedest to teach children tolerance, we’re going to end up fighting against other influences. School, camp, friends and even family members will be influencing their impressionable minds.
My Mom took me out to a grocery store when I was three years old. I pointed to a woman of African descent and asked Mom if she was a “nigger.” Loudly. Mom, who is one of the most tolerant and sensitive people who ever walked the Earth, apparently turned ashen and rushed me out of the store, after apologizing repeatedly to the lady. When we got to the parking lot, she drilled me on where I had heard that word. It turns out that my babysitter had made some comments while flipping through a magazine with me, and I picked it right up, as toddlers often do. Thank goodness, Mom was able to undo the damage and I still can’t say that word, nor hear it without a sick feeling in my stomach. Not surprisingly, that babysitter never came back.
Here are some things that you can practice to help your kids remain open-minded and fight bigotry.
- Watch your words. We don’t even say “Black,” “Asian,” or “Mexican” in our household… seriously! … and we certainly don’t say “faggots” (unless we’re talking about bassoons). Labels, even if accurate, beget prejudice too easily. We explain that people come in all shades of colors, and that each are beautiful. Our kids will describe people as having darker skin, and with different color hair and eyes. Also, I’m not white, I have pink skin (it’s certainly more accurate). When the kids hear other languages being spoken, we will let them know what they are — “It sounds like they are speaking Japanese; maybe they are from Japan.”
- If a child slips up, correct them gently. If they slipped up in front of a person who could be offended, make sure that the offended party is apologized to… by you, at the very least, and with your child paying attention. They will learn with this experience.
- When your child asks why Uncle Dave lives with Uncle William, or why those two ladies are holding hands, explain in simple language. They are in love, just like Mommy and Daddy. That’s all a little kid needs to know. If they are older, they still don’t need to know much else, but if they ask questions, answer them with honesty and openness.
- If you don’t know the answer to a cultural question, such as “Why is that man wearing a little round thing on his head?,” look it up with your child, or just ask the person about it.
- Expose your kids to all different kinds of people. Volunteer in a special needs camp or class with your kids, or participate in something like Meals on Wheels. Watch movies from foreign countries showing their customs. When you see someone dressed differently, like in a sari, turban, or habit, comment positively on it and talk about why they might be wearing that clothing.
- Be a great role model. Be friendly and open to everyone you meet. Cut back on the inappropriate comments and jokes, even when your kids aren’t listening… habits are hard to break. Conversely, if you have a friend or family member who constantly spews bigoted remarks, either ask them to cut it out, or stop hanging around them. Definitely don’t leave your children with them, alone, for any amount of time.
- If you hear someone making an inappropriate comment, in public or private, call them out on it. If that’s not possible, at least talk to your kids about what they heard and why it was wrong.
- When you meet a person who is disabled in some way, encourage your child to ask questions if they are at all curious. Ninety nine percent of differently-abled people would prefer to be asked rather than being pointed at, whispered about, stared at, or laughed at.
- Remind your children, as often as possible, that all people are different and that they all deserve love and respect. Make it a mantra. Another mantra: “Different does not mean wrong.”
- Talk to your kids about intolerance. Let them know that they might hear other adults or kids talk rudely about different kinds of people. Empower them to stand up for the person being picked on.
- It’s ok to discuss religions with your kids. We tell our kids that every body sees the world in a different way, and has differences in praying, explaining how nature works, and giving thanks.
- Whatever you do, don’t laugh if they say or do something inappropriate, and, it should go without saying, never encourage it.
Our culture is changing, and you can help. Don’t forget that, just fifty years ago, my pink self would not have been allowed to marry my yellow husband. Thank goodness we had enough tolerant and outspoken people who were able to change the laws. We’re still working on changing the minds of people around us… in our backwoods area, we still get looks, but at least no one is getting lynched. Raising the next generation to be even more open minded, and less bigoted, can only make the world a better place.
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- Tagged: advice, bigot, bigotry, Carmen, children, disability, diversity, family, fear, gay, hate, henna artist, humanism, innocence, intolerance, jokes, labels, language, learning, lesbian, love, open minded, politics, prejudice, psychology, racism, racist, religion, sexual preference, strangers, teaching, toddlers, tolerance