I first met Diego (not his real name) when he was 7 years old. He was a mischievous little guy, small for his age, with an impish smile and manner. He and his family had emigrated to New York City from Mexico when he was an infant. Now they lived somewhere in East Harlem not far from the social service agency where I volunteered helping 2nd and 3rd graders with their homework after school. I had been doing this for more than a year and enjoyed it immensely, though the kids could be handful when they were in a rambunctious or defiant mood, which was not infrequent. Such is the nature of 7- and 8-year-olds.
My duty was just as it sounds. Once a week, I'd come and sit down with two, sometimes three kids and go over their homework with them, answering their questions, verifying that their answers were correct and helping them if they weren't. Over time, I was often placed with the same kids and got to know them. Diego was one of my regulars and one of my favorites.
One afternoon, he and his classmate, Sergio, were assigned to me. Sergio was originally from Guatemala. He was very bright, a little moody and more reserved, but a good kid, too. He loved to laugh, but at times was very serious.
While Sergio worked on math, Diego was reading from a big picture book and, as usual, was struggling. At one especially gnarly multisyllabic word, he was completely flummoxed. I reached over to point to the word to help him sound it, but Diego wasn’t listening. Instead, he was staring at my hand. Then, he slowly extended a finger and touched the back of my hand, gently rubbing it as you do when you're testing a wet-looking surface to see if the paint is dry. Then he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time."Why are you black?" he asked.I paused. How do you answer that question from a 7-year-old? I wasn't sure. So, betraying my agnosticism in favor of an answer I thought would satisfy him, I said: "Because that's how God made me."
Diego considered this for a few seconds, then he looked at me with what I took to be pity, as if to say "man, you got a bad break." He then sat up in his chair and proudly proclaimed: "God made me white."
I was stunned. Diego was not white. He was brown-skinned mestizo.
"You think you're white?" I blurted out.
Diego didn't hesitate. "Yep," he said. He proceeded to quiz me intently about whether my parents were black, too. He was working hard to solve this new puzzle.
I had worked with Diego for many months. I wondered: did he only just now recognize that I was African American? How did he get the idea that he was white? And where did he get the idea that it was better to be white than not, which was clearly what he believed?
I would go on to work with Diego many times afterward. Nothing like that episode ever occurred again and we got along great. Then, the pandemic ended in-person sessions and I haven't seen him since. But I have thought often about our troubling conversation with Diego. It made me wonder: when and how do children come to recognize racial differences? From where springs the perception that white is better than non-white? If that belief is learned from the values and imagery of the dominant culture, can it be unlearned or mitigated?
Evan Apfelbaum, Boston University
photo credit: www.evanapfelbaum.com
To try to get answers to these questions, I reached out to Evan Apfelbaum, who has a doctorate in social psychology and teaches organizational behavior at Boston University's Questrom School of Business. Dr. Apfelbaum has researched how children acquire racial perceptions. In 2020, he was part of a research team that also looked a the question of when do adults start to have conversations about race with their children -- if ever?
Apfelbaum, along with fellow researchers Jessica Sullivan and Leigh Wilton, both professors of psychology at Skidmore College, found that most parents thought these discussions should not begin until around the age of 5, which the academics felt was as much as four years after children first begin to notice and formulate ideas about race. In practice, they said, that was largely theoretical because most white parents don’t talk about race at all.
"Most (White) Americans -- including those espouse racially egalitarian views -- adopt a 'color-blind' approach and avoid talking about race, including when talking with children," they wrote. "Consequently, children learn to avoid talking about race themselves. This is a missed opportunity. When children learn to talk about race and ethnicity constructively, they develop empathy for others, learn about new perspectives, understand their own identity, avoid engaging in practices that reproduce structural inequality and even exhibit less racial bias."
photo credit: monkeybusinessimages
As for my questions about the origins of racial perceptions, they wrote:
"Research from racially and culturally diverse contexts has shown that 3-month-olds prefer faces from particular racial groups, and 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces. Before entering pre-school, 3-year-old United States-based children associate low-status racial groups with negative traits, and by age 4, they associate particular racial groups (e.g., Whites) with high-status markers. And United States children experience the negative consequences of living in a racialized world: seven-year-olds experience racial discrimination, and race-based discrimination is widespread in schools.”
It reminded me of a story told to me some years ago by a friend, an African American, who was adopted and raised by white parents. They also adopted an Asian child and had two biological children. My friend said his parents never talked about race to them, so he was shocked and hurt when around age 7 or 8, a white girl at school with whom he was friends one day told him: “My parents said not to play with n——s.”
So, it starts in childhood. But when? Why? How? And what can be done about it?
Part 2 of this article will include excerpts from my fascinating (to me) interview with Dr. Apfelbaum, including his views on why talking to your children about race when they’re very young is so important. We also discuss how very young children come to form negative racial and ethnic stereotypes, and the key role of parents and teachers in shaping their perceptions.
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