“Race is a social construct.” That’s one of the first things you learn in any Sociology 101 class. Like so many other life lessons, I didn’t totally understand it until I worked with kids. And, like so much else again with kids, these lessons are poignant, heart-breaking, and hilarious.
I’ve seen two little girls comparing the color of their arms- one whose ancestors came from North Africa, the other from southern Europe. “I don’t get it,” the second girl said. “How come you’re black if I’m darker?”
I’ve had Indian students ask me “Where would I sit on the bus?” when we studied Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement.
I’ve had first generation Mexican-American students express personal guilt for the treatment of slaves, despite the fact that her ancestors were in no way involved.
The very first year I worked as a classroom assistant, our school was randomly chosen to participate in one of the many standardized tests that the country uses to gather data on public schools. This meant that the teachers did not proctor it, but sat by as an outside person ran things.
The woman running the show had the kids fill out their info- name, grade, birth date. Then she got to the section on race and ethnic identity. 25 nine year olds lifted their heads and said “Huh?”
What followed was the best example of how ridiculous these categories are.
The kids were asked to check the boxes that best applied to them, and the woman read through each one. When questions arose (and boy, did they) she replied that she couldn’t answer them, and the kids should just pick ‘the best fit.’
Confusion was an understatement.
A Salvadoran student listened as she listed the options “Hispanic or Latino, including but not limited to Mexican, Puerto-Rican, and Dominican.” At 9 years old, he was understandably confused by the phrase “including but not limited to.” “I’m from El Salvador, does that mean me?” He asked. The woman smiled and listed the same damn thing again. “I’m not white, so is that me?” He asked. She avoided his answer. “Guess not.” He muttered.
The Indian kids had no idea what to put down. “India is in Asia, we’re Asian.” One said. The Chinese kids immediately disagreed, on the basis that they were Asian, so it couldn’t be the same.
“White or European ancestry.” The kids who had a parent born in Europe immediately filled this out. The rest seemed confused by the specification about Europe.
“African-American, or Black.” A confused Indian student held his arm next to his black friends. “My skin’s darker than his, am I black if he is?”
The Middle Eastern kids asked if there was a box for them. “Is Israeli white?” One asked. “I’m way darker than you, so Iraqi can’t be white, can it?” Said her friend.
In the end, I would guess about half the class put down the correct identifier. Two Indian students and the Salvadoran student filled out “African-American or Black” on the basis of skin color comparisons. A Chinese student decided he couldn’t be Asian if the Indians were, so put down Hispanic. The Israeli kids picked based on their differing opinions about where Israel was on the map, while the Iraqi student wrote out her own box and checked it off. For reasons known only to himself, Declan O’Connor (a pseudonym but I swear this kid had the most Irish name I’ve ever encountered) chose “Pacific-Islander.”
Here’s my favorite part, though. Through all the yelled questions, the confusion, the proctor getting angrier and more frazzled by the minute, one student kept his hand up until it all died down and the proctor finally called on him. “I don’t know what to put.” He said. “I’m from Morocco. It’s in Africa, but I don’t think I’m Black. There’s no Arab box. What do I put?” The proctor at this point snapped at him “Just put what you are!”
Every teacher in the room wanted to throttle her at that point. The student, however, narrowed his eyes and said loudly “Listen lady, I’m an American!”
All of this is on my mind right now because of what’s going on in the news. Young men dead at the hands of the police. Young unarmed men dead. Young unarmed black men dead.
Race is a social construct. It has no scientific bearing. Any group of kids will show you quick how ridiculous these categories are. But it doesn’t matter, because society trumps science. Best friends will hold their arms side by side and giggle as they wonder who is black and who isn’t. But society won’t question it.
My Greek student will likely never be followed in a store the way my Sudanese student will.
They’ll stereotype my Indian boys differently from my Black boys. Their skin is the same color, in reality, but I doubt Raj’s mother will ever need to worry about her son out at night in the way Jamal’s mother needs to worry.
There will come a day, soon in all heartbreaking likelihood, that Youssef will not be so quick or so proud to tell the world he is an Arab.
There are two things I wish when I think of this, both impossible. One is to protect them forever from this. Keep them in this state of innocence and logic unclouded by prejudice. The other is to unleash them on the world. Imagine an army of 8 year olds going into every charged situation and saying “You’re being jerks! This is stupid!”
My more logical wish is that this generation comes of age holding on to these beliefs they know to be true- that these categories don’t matter. I know my classroom isn’t the norm in America. There are places where all the faces are white, or all are black. Places where racism is still the norm and differences are seem as something to fear. But a generation ago the town I’m in was nearly 100% white. Now we have a huge diversity of backgrounds. Kids grow up with wide groups of friends from different races, religions, and backgrounds. Maybe we are moving towards a nation like that.
These dividers don’t matter with little kids. They don’t know about the hundreds of years of blood and pain that exist between people. They don’t know that the actions of a few can doom every member of a group to be victims of hate and mistrust for a generation. They don’t know that people will judge them in a second based on how they look- judge them, exclude them, hurt them, and sometimes kill them- even if they put their hands up.