Why You Don’t Discuss Race With Second Graders

We have reading buddies once a week, so second graders come into the class to read books with my kids. After they finish reading, they can play a game. Today one of my boys and his second grade buddy were playing chess, while another fifth grader and his partner looked on.

I missed the first part of the conversation, but came by in time to hear one of the fifth graders saying that chess was racist because it was black against white. Before I could speak up that this a) wasn’t accurate and b) not a subject you discussed with 7 year olds, one of the little ones piped up. “What’s racist?” He asked.

The two older boys stared at each other for a second, then at me with something like panic. Before any of us could say anything, the second little boy announced “I’m black.”

He is not. He is definitely, definitely not. He has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and very fair skin. The fifth graders, again, looked at each other, then me with a mix of confusion and panic. Again, they were interrupted. The same boy said, in the same definitive tone as before “I’m not black.”

“Gabriel is black.” The other little boy said, looking over to where Gabriel and his buddy were drawing together. “Yes, he is.” Said one of my boys, clearly relieved to have something he could answer clearly. Gabriel is definitely black. Then the same little boy leaned in and said quietly to his buddy, “Is Gabriel black?”

The other second grader interrupted again. “Are you black?” He asked his buddy. “No, I’m Chinese.” My student answered. “Black Chinese, or white Chinese?” The little one pressed. At this point, his buddy put his head on the table. The little one patted his hair gently, and moved his chess piece.

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