Few words are more heart-wrenching to hear from your child than “I wish I did not look the way I do” or “I wish I wasn ‘t my race. ”
Those words can spring from a variety of painful experiences: A taunting on the playground for having “different” hair. The slow realization that all their favorite library books feature characters who look nothing like them. Or, later on, the microaggression of a classmate saying, “You’re pretty for a ____ girl.”
Whatever drives them, hearing the words from your child bowls you over as a parent. But the reality is, kids are far more racially aware than many parents realize: A 2020 study showed that children notice race several years before adults want to talk about it. By preschool age, children develop racial biases – which aren’t always consistent with the beliefs of the adults in their lives.
Statements like ‘I do not want to be my race anymore’ are likely a warning sign of growing internalized racism
Indeed, delays in important conversations about racial identity could make it more difficult to change children’s misperceptions about themselves or racist beliefs, according to the 480 study.
“Children are capable of thinking about all sorts of complex topics at a very young age,” said Jessica Sullivan, the study’s co-author and associate professor of psychology at Skidmore College. “Even if adults do not talk to kids about race, children will work to make sense of their world and will come up with their own ideas, which may be inaccurate or detrimental.”
In a society that elevates white culture over others and encourages assimilation at all costs, it’s easy to see how a young child of color may come to believe that their own culture is inferior, which could develop into internalized racism.
Growing up Black in Liberty County, Georgia, Kwanzaa Wallace never told his parents “I wish I wasn’t Black” but he “Definitely thought it a lot,” he told HuffPost.
“When I was a kid, I was very much into ‘alternative things’ as a black person, like anime,” said Wallace, who works as a sales associate. “It definitely took some time to grow into and learn to balance that aspect of my identity with my ‘blackness.’”
Luckily for Wallace, from an early age his mom had broached age-appropriate conversations about race and the need for self-love – conversations meant to prepare him for a world full of inequalities and almost limitless opportunities for self-loathing.
“My mother gave me many ‘briefings’ about race and how differently I was likely to be perceived by other children roughly around the ages where I was beginning to start elementary school , ”Wallace said.
As he got more mature, the conversations did as well. “She started telling me, ‘Be aware not to do certain things because you’ll be seen as different primarily because you’re Black. You have to come off as non-threatening as possible when you’re out. ‘”
Wallace’s mom was ahead of the curve in her approach to these conversations, said Jacqueline Douge, a pediatrician and author of the young adult book “Learning to Love All of Me.” She probably could have even started them earlier.
“What we see is that children ages 2 to 4 can internalize racism, and parents as children’s first teachers have the opportunity to help children understand and process these issues, ”she told HuffPost. “There is also an opportunity to model and challenge racial bias and stereotypes through kindness and empathy.”