Monday Musings: Do Kids Know Their Ethnicity?

Monday, January 5, 2009

The other day, as I was picking up my son D from preschool, one of his teachers approached me with a furrowed brow and a solemn look on her face.

Uh-oh, I thought. D has obviously hit another child. Or peed in the birdcage. Again. Game face game face.

"Hi!" I said, with so much eagerness I sounded like I was trying out for the cheerleading squad.

"Hi," Miss M. said, as she put her hand on my shoulder with concern that was palpable.

"How are you?" I shrieked.

"I'm good," she replied, all hushed-tones. "D told us what's going on, it must be really hard for you with the 2 kids, and being pregnant and all," she said.

I laughed nervously in that way you do when you are going through the rolodex of possible puzzle pieces in your head. D told her what happened? Wait, something happened? Something that D could communicate? D can communicate? Beyond "I want Mamma Bear Pappa Bear" (which is what he calls The Berenstein Bears, his new favorite tv show, replacing Cailou--thank god for small miracles--but still driving me crazy)?

Miss M. charitably took the panicky smile on my face as a cue to further explain.

"About your husband?" she said, looking around the room as the other parents were coming to pick up their kids. "And how he left yesterday and moved to India?"


My first thought--I have to admit--was whether I was so tired that I had forgotten this had happened. (Like the time I told my husband about this "crazy dream" I had involving our kids spewing every bodily fluid on us in the course of one day, and he informed me that it wasn't a dream, it was last Sunday.) Then, I just laughed--in a more natural, non-stage-fright way--and told Miss M. that my husband was at home and had no plans to move, to India or anywhere else.

It was then Miss M's turn to laugh and look slightly puzzled: "D is non-stop," she said, as things like "natural comic" and other attributes that seem bizarre to pin to a 3 year old rolled off her tongue. Apparently in "circle" that morning, D had told his class and all his teachers, and I quote: "My daddy moved to India yesterday and my mommy and I are very sad but my brother is too baby he isn't sad."

After we exchanged a few more laughs and a bit of necessary awkward conversation, I collected my crazy D and all his stuff and drove us home. On the drive, my thoughts quickly turned from whether D was super imaginative or a pathological liar (I decided on the former) to something decidedly different: How did D make up that his daddy moved to India?

It still baffles me, really. Our race and ethnicity are not the usual stuff of conversation at our house (yet?) D hasn't been to India yet. In fact, I'm not sure if the word "India" has been used around D any more often than many other words. So how did he pick India as the backdrop for his daddy's imaginary furlough? How do we learn where we're from? Does D know he is Indian? He barely understands that "home" is a place, could he possibly understand that India is one? It's heady stuff, the way a child's mind works, and the way a child learns about race.

As is the natural corollary. If D somehow, implicitly, knows what "Indian" is, does he also know what other races are? And does he know that race makes people "different"? I'm reminded of my friend's 3 year old daughter who, when asked who was going to be the next President, responded "Obama! The black man!" My friend was somewhat aghast--especially as her daughter repeated the whole thing numerous times--and went out of her way to explain that she did not teach that particular qualifier to her daughter. So how did she pick it up?

I don't think racial identity and, by extension, prejudice are hard-wired. I am pretty sure you have to learn to hate. It's cool to see D play at his preschool amongst his "it's a small world" cadre of friends--Diego, Joaquin, Johnny (how cool is that? That Johnny is the one with the "weird" name...!) And yet: D's first friend at school was another little Indian boy, and D somehow selected him himself.

I can't tell you what that means but I'm pretty sure it means something. (Maybe I need some time in "circle" to figure it all out...!)
Kimya said...

That's a funny story! And I agree with you, I don't think kids "know" race, I think it is a construct that is taught to them, as well as all the repercussions (hate, prejudice, bigotry). But I suppose kids do know what they are because this is not the first story I have heard of a little Indian baby picking another little Indian baby as a BFF. It didn't happen with my children (much to my disappointment I have to say) though...

Anonymous said...

"Active imagination" totally! Don't worry, all kids have one. It's weird when they don't make up crazy things.

SJP said...

Kids pick up SO many things. Like, think about how most learn "mommy" or "daddy" as their first words. It's not like we all go around saying "mommy" and "daddy" all the time, right? Yet, almost universally they intuit it. Same for race maybe?

SM said...

Super interesting topic. I think there is a difference between seeing "like" and seeing "different," although clearly it might be a subtle difference. What I mean is that identifying with people of the same race, whether you are an adult or a child, is different from hating somebody from a different race. Right?

Anonymous said...

Well...I don't know. I am not sure why somebody would remark on the color of somebody's skin unless they had heard others around them doing the same thing.

Shalini said...

Kids soak up everything around them, from the way you get along with your husband to any subtle prejudices you may have. We do them a disservice to not appreciate how sponge-y they are. So I would wager to guess that you probably talk about India more than you realize and that you have likely talked about trips to India that your son has remembered. And I would bet your friend has remarked that Obama is black and her kid picked up on it. It's a good lesson to always keep in mind that what we say and do is important on many, many levels.

NS said...

My daughter told her entire preschool class that her mommy and daddy like to "play doctor"! I am not joking. I don't know where she got it from and I don't know if anybody understood (well I guses the teachers would have) but I had the same question about whether my kid was some sort of crazy liar or not!

Anonymous said...

A few years back, my super conscious about racism and white privilege white co-worker told me that she was flabbergasted and speechless when her then 4 year old son asked her why only brown people have the "dirty hard jobs in parking lots and restaurants and stuff." Direct quote. She and her partner did the whole nine yards- buying the brown and black dolls, multi-culti books, enrolled him in diverse social justice pre-school etc. They didn't even let the poor boy watch any TV. But the world is still what it is and the little ones pick up EVERYTHING.

As for little D, he's not a liar, he's a creative genius. You should get him to "write" a picture story about his dad moving to India. Of course then you have to scan it and post it on the blog...

Veena said...

I agree with the poster above, I love D's story and I can just imagine him telling a captive "circle" audience about his sad, sad tale! As for why he picked India who knows but you're right it has to mean something and I guess like everyone else is saying, it probably drills home the point that we don't give children enough credit, they are constantly absorbing and taking in their environment. It's actually a good thing to ermember when we fret about instilling them with "culture" or whatnot because it seems like they are soaking in culture and identity without us having to force it on them.

Kiran Konkani said...

Just finished watching the first 2 of 6 segments of INDIA on PBS. For the remaining 4 segments' dates and times go here

Teach the kids some Indian history. Finally good television!

Esme said...

I think racial identity is also something hardwired. My white friend's Chinese adopted daughter talked about her eyes and hair as a toddler, and it was evident that even with limited language, she was trying to articulate her understanding that she is different. I remember playing a Chinese movie when I was babysitting her, and she jumped up and raced to the screen and was completely absorbed by the Chinese actors. She then asked me to play it again and again the next day. Her mother had never played a Chinese movie before, and we are in a pretty non Chinese presence region, and yet, the first time she saw a Chinese person, she completely felt a kinship.

There is no way this adopted girl learned this kind of racial identification at home or in her surroundings. On the contrary, I would have expected her to have no reaction to the Chinese movie (it was an action movie, and she was half falling asleep when I turned it on, and she was not interested in watching the other "white" shows that were on before the movie). But she was completely entranced by people who looked like her--especially one of the female leads.

Since then, now that she is a little older, she is more white than anything, and her interest in her birth land is almost non existent, but I will never forget the way a toddler version of her reacted to seeing fellow Chinese. There was a instinctive connection.

I think kids--preverbal kids, especially--understand race on a much more biological level.

Anonymous said...

My 3 yr old is always commenting on how he is brown like his brother and daddy, and how mommy is white. Also about who is brown and white in his class. I talked with his pre-school director about this, and she said that it's perfectly normal, and that this just means that he is observing his surroundings. As a matter of fact, she suggested that we talk about how people are different and how we should appreciate what's different.

Just my $.02. I'm with the other anonymous poster who suggested a drwaing a picture with D about how his daddy was going to India.

My husband travels for work and we always draw pictures of the places that he goes.

parutron said...

tee hee, funny. by the way, i KNOW you went home and told S he had to pick up D next time so the teacher would know that he didn't move to india........

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