Sure they notice physical differences. One boy has long hair, another has glasses, another has brown skin, another is tall, another has white skin. My 4-year-old, Gordon, has a baby doll--sweetly named "Baby Doll"--which has brown skin. He's never, to this day, talked about it as a black doll or commented that other dolls are white. When I told him I was bringing Baby Doll to the office to have her picture taken for the website, he responded, "Because she's the prettiest?"
So I admit to having mixed feelings when I heard them recite from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, which they had learned in school. I was proud of them--and the school, for teaching about such a great man. Indeed, I do believe King to be one of the greatest Americans in history.
But I also felt sad that my boys were being taught about racism so early. To understand King's greatness, one has to understand what he was struggling against. To understand racism, one has to understand race. In studying King in school, Gordon and his brother had read comic books about King that talked about how little black and white children had not been able to play together and how King wanted to change that.
When I've asked my black friends about this, they seem pleased that the kids were learning such a crucial lesson so early. Abhorrence of racism can indeed be learned, and lessons learned early are more likely to become deeply ingrained.
I want my children to know all these things. I want them to understand reality, and I want them to have a sense of justice and injustice, but I hate that the only way to do this is to emphasize otherness and difference--especially for kids their age.
Perhaps we should approach these issues--lessons that cultivate a sense of race or ethnic consciousness--not as a good thing or a bad thing, but as an older thing. Certainly we have that attitude about sex and drugs. Why not racism? I'm not sure what the proper age for this is. But one rule of thumb might be this: If a child is not conscious of race, don't make him so. When he becomes conscious, then teach him about injustice. The awkward twist is that black kids probably are forced into becoming conscious of this earlier than white kids; they may not have the luxury of waiting to learn. I would love to hear the thoughts of some of Beliefnet's African American members on this point.
Ironically, the speech that my little 4-year-old memorized included Dr. King's dream that one day black children could play with white children without focusing on the color of their skin. Ironically, my son was doing that--until he heard Dr. King's speech.