Racism: As Seen by Children

As many of you know, I work at an elementary school Monday through Friday. I get a lot of awesome drawings, weird compliments and kids sneezing on me. But, in addition to all of those beautiful things, I get a rare life chat with someone whose world view is completely pure. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we read books about the great leader and had the kids write about what they learned. While many of the kids abandoned their writing for the toy kitchen or the newest hand-clap game, a couple little girls continued to sit with me.

One – who told me that she was “exactly five-and-three-quarters-old” – said that she would feel really sad if she wasn’t allowed to play with her friends, so she thought that MLK was a “great man.”

“Martin Luther King, Jr. changed people’s ways because he thought everyone was as great as everyone else,” she told me. “It doesn’t matter what color you are. It matters what’s on the inside.”

An 8-year-old at the table chime in and said, “Yeah! Like, some people have brown hair and that’s okay if you have brown hair.”

Couldn’t agree more, kid.

If only it was that simple.

When I asked them what they thought of how the black people were treated in the stories we read and how they would feel, they said:

“It wasn’t fair and the black people probably felt so bad that they couldn’t ride the bus with their friends.” (6 years old)

“I would be so disappointed and so sad because it was really mean and we’re all the same.” (6 years old)

“They didn’t get to do the fun stuff that the white people did and that’s not okay.” (8 years old)

Although almost all of the kids said that “we’re all equal and happy now,” the talkative five-and-three-quarters-year-old disagreed.

“There’s a black boy in my class and some of the kids treat him like the white people in the book did,” she said. “So I think I should help him so he can feel better, because I know that people are the same just how they are. But sometimes the black people at my school treat me that way too. Once they said I couldn’t sit with them at lunch because my skin is white, so I had to go to a different table.”

Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this. Obviously, I realize that racism is alive and well in this country. I just didn’t expect to find it in a kindergarten class. I went to a very diverse school for kindergarten and don’t remember caring one smidge what color skin someone had. She proceeded to tell me that it was okay, because she was going to teach people to “change their ways, just like Martin Luther King, Jr. did, and to treat people the same.”

Overall, I was incredibly proud of the way my kids responded to information about MLK and what he did. It may just be one day and they may be too young to really understand, but it’s something. I think it’s important for us to realize that racism is still affecting our society and its children, because I think that it’s an easy thing to forget. We’re grown ups and we know that racism is wrong. So that’s that, right?

Wrong.

As with bullying of any nature – regarding gender, sexual orientation or the fact that one person has braces and someone else doesn’t – we need to continue to keep the lines of communication open and to have conversations with children. They might be little, but they know what’s up.

My favorite response of the day? I asked a 6-(and a half, of course)-year-old why she thought white people were so mean to black people.

“I don’t know. Maybe because they thought people had different germs,” she said. “But they don’t and they’re not different because they all have love.”

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