For my Sociology class I had to find an example of an event or incident where there was racial or ethnic inequality at play and while doing so, I came across this article in the NY Times titled "‘Only White People,’ Said the Little Girl" that really struck a chord with me.
Children tend to be quick learners. They see or hear something, and whether they understand the concept or not, they’ll pick up on it and within a few days, they’ll be able to mimic it. Repeating the words “mama” and “dada” to a toddler over a period of time teaches the child who its parents are; when they go to school, they learn social cues along with academic lessons; and when they watch TV or play games, they find their likes and dislikes. Children being quick learners can be a good thing and a bad thing. It can be good in situations where they are able to get ahead of other children and pick things up at a faster pace.
But let’s say you accidentally curse in front of your child and they easily parrot it back to you? What do you do then? Some parents will yell at the child for saying such a thing, and others will be patient and teach the child why it is wrong to curse. That’s nothing too major. What if another child says this to your child, and you are close enough to hear it? What do you do? Who do you speak to about it — your child, the other child, the child’s parents, a teacher, if it’s during school hours maybe? And in what manner would you go about doing it — would you get angry and demand an apology, or wait until you got home to speak to your child about it? And what if it’s not something minor like a profanity, but something major like a racist comment?
Topher Sanders had to go through this exact situation when he was at a playground with his 5-year-old son. Sanders described the scene for us in the article, “The kids have just started kindergarten and are now split up among four schools. Some industrious mom had the idea to get them together again. It was a great idea. It was also the moment when I saw the messy birth of my son’s otherness.
Otherness is a concept that is central to sociological analyses of how majority and minority identities are constructed. Sanders was watching his son play and just as he was about to get on, as Sanders describes it as “one of those spinning things”, a little girl stopped him and said, “Not you, you’re black,” Sanders wasn’t sure he had her right, but then she added, “You’re not white. Only white people can play.” It is a bewildering statement to hear from a child, who is only 5-years-old and who has only just started school. Sanders’ first instinct was “to go over and drop science on her and all of the other little children” but then his senses kicked in and he realized that a large, black man would do more harm than good.
Sanders explains how people of color, in particular, black individuals, often have to lower their rap music when a white woman gets on the elevator with them or flash disarming smiles at white women when they pass by them at night on the sidewalk. In other words, black men need to learn how to project safeness — or else, they get discriminated against, cursed at, banished, shot, or killed, even now in the twenty-first century. In the past, it was easy to tell someone of a different race or skin color that they weren’t allowed on the premises. Shops could place signs on the windows stating that it was a “Whites Only” store and everyone would have to abide by that rule. That’s just the way it was back then. There were separate water fountains, separate bathroom, separate schools, etc. No one could argue with those rules and if they tried, they would be beaten or hated and sometimes even killed.
It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement that people of color were able to revolt against these rules and fight for their rights to be in the same stores and buildings as white people. In class, I've learned that racial inequalities, as well as racial privileges, accumulate over generations, which might explain why the white child was able to differentiate between the white children, including herself, and the black, such as Sanders’ son. She could not only tell that they had different skin colors but perhaps because of her parents or the people around her, those with close-minded, conservative minds, have planted the idea that blacks and whites do not belong together and should not mix.
Though the comment that the little girl had made meant nothing to Sanders’ son, it hit Sanders in a way that he did not think would occur so quickly. Sanders, like most colored parents, had anticipated that his children would face some bout of racism, but he did not expect it to happen at the age of five on a playground. Sanders says, “My son has watched too many boys and men that look like him die before his eyes on television. We don’t shield him from those images.” Sanders and his wife try to explain the shootings and killings of black men both in films and real life to the best of their abilities. Sanders goes on to say, “We don’t have a choice but to talk to our son about Ferguson, Eric Garner, workplace frictions, Baltimore, Charlotte, Alton Sterling and on and on".
This type of inequality affects not just black people, but it affects all people of color, because if one child can get away with banishing one type of individual from a certain activity, then it gives other children the ability to do the same with children of other races and ethnicities. If the child does not learn her lesson, then she will grow up with the mentality that because she possesses white privilege, she can get away with it being racist and excluding certain groups or people. Sanders mulled over several different thoughts when contemplating whether he should go over and talk to the children or the child’s parents. As badly as he wanted to teach his son that he couldn’t let people talk to him or treat him in such a manner, Sanders himself had to take a step back and consider the long-term effects that would occur if he went over there: “If I scared the white people at the playground with my reaction, what would be the impact on our little family in Maplewood? Would we be in the next email thread for a play date? Would the other families talk about my son’s angry dad?".
In the end, Topher Sanders decided that the next time this happened — and there definitely would be a next time — he would make sure to interrupt the children, whether they were playing, studying, or even “swimming in the pool”. He explained the rationale behind this idea of educating not only the child who said the words or talk to the parents of the child but to teach a lesson for all the children in that area, everyone who was within earshot or viewing of the event so that they may also learn.
Firstly, he explains that the children being groomed to be racist need to learn that acting on their racism has consequences and the least of which will be met with resistance — “the children have to see that people will stand up to them and call out their ignorance”. Secondly, all the white children in earshot also need to see that resistance and be taught that standing by silently is only an endorsement of racism. And most importantly, he will model for his children ways for them to confront racism, because they need to see from their parents how to “speak to ignorance, wield their dignity and push back against individual and systematic efforts to define, limit and exclude them”,
We discussed a similar question in class when we were asked about whether the U.S. should continue to apologize for the slave trade, and what could be done as a way of showing remorse and regret for conducting and practicing slavery. Education is the best way to reform issues and debates. The more (truthful) information that is spread about these issues, and the more people, especially young people, become aware of the U.S.’s past history, the more open-minded and knowledgeable they will become about these topics. An apology, formal or informal, isn’t the only way to acknowledge that you’ve done something wrong. By continuing to tackle the issue of racism and making it known that events like the slave trade and stealing other people’s lands did more harm than good, the U.S. can teach future generations not to be racist.
What really occurred after U.S. Congress formally apologized to African-Americans in 2008? Did racism end? Did all Americans finally become accepting of other races and ethnicities? Of course, not, racism still exists today in the twenty-first century. Some people make it obvious that they do not like a certain group of individuals, like our President Donald Trump, and his followers; others clamp down on their thoughts and opinions, because they know it is no longer socially acceptable to be outright racist; and then there’s the third group, who inherit racist thoughts and feelings either from their parents, the society around them, mass media, or all of the above, and project these racist feelings and attitudes without even realizing it.