My 3-year-old has an uncanny ability to bust me on curse words. The whole ride home from school he ignores my questions about his day, dinner preferences, upcoming activities but then, sure as sh ... sugar:
“What did you just say, Mommy?” he asks sweetly.
“Oh I was talking about a ... uh ... thing,” I stammer.
“No, Mommy. What did you say about that man in the parking lot?” he persists.
He’s referring to when I expletived about a man blocking a busy parking lot aisle. While I am looking forward to a call from a scolding teacher about my son’s use of the word “shit,” I’m far more concerned about the foul racist language he’s going to encounter.
I’m not talking about Trump’s racist tweets or comments. These crimes are the headline. Where I feel out of my depth as a parent is the insidious, heavily biased storytelling that I won’t always be able to interpret for my son — the language of the news.
When news stories describe Latinx asylum-seekers as “illegal aliens,” or refer to African-American protesters seeking social justice as “thugs,” that becomes the hateful way that kids see Latinx and African-American people — perhaps including themselves. While I don’t think (most?) mainstream articles and news segments intend to rally white supremacy, good intentions are not a useful explanation for my son. I try to convince myself that my family’s progressive values will shield my son from becoming a racist, but will they? I look back with shame at the unchecked racist messaging that got into my own head as a kid.
When the 1992 Los Angeles riots happened, I was 13 years old, living in a Los Angeles suburb. I was glued to the TV along with my parents, my brothers, and everyone else I knew. The lens for my experience was not the unjust acquittal of the four officers who beat Rodney King — no one on the local news was talking about social justice. They were talking about “looters” and violent people burning down “our” city. While I wish I could tell you that my parents used that moment to teach me about racially coded language or news bias, they were working, making dinner, paying bills, or any of the other tasks that I find myself doing in the evenings now. Anti-racism should have been the priority. We are Jews, immigrants, humans — we have a moral imperative to be anti-racist.
It’s my turn as the parent now and I don’t want to mess this up. My son is white, at the moment male-identifying, food stable, neurotypical — all “unearned assets.” It’s my job to help him acknowledge his privilege and to raise him to be anti-racist. I want his experience of media, which soon enough will be without my supervision, to reflect the values my spouse and I are working to cultivate in other parts of his life.
“He’s only 3!” you might be saying. It’s not like he’s scrolling through Twitter or glued to MSNBC but, nonetheless, he’s in danger of developing a pro-white bias. You know that box with the shapes where you put the triangle into the triangle hole? He can do that. No, this doesn’t make him a genius. It does, however, mean he’s like most 3-year-olds who can sort and classify by race.
Children are not colorblind and my son is at a point of inflection when it comes to learning to discriminate between people. I’m scared because this, right now, age 3-5, seems to be when the bias kicks into gear.
Children are not colorblind and my son is at a point of inflection when it comes to learning to discriminate between people. I’m scared because this, right now, age 3-5, seems to be when the bias kicks into gear. Who he chooses to sit next to in the sandbox speaks to how he’ll treat people at work. I’m not willing to risk punting a conversation about racially coded language down the road. I see what “when he’s older” looks like.
The teen boys I work with in my therapy practice, largely from white, upper middle class backgrounds like mine, are sort of aware that we don’t live in a post-racial society. I witness how white privilege informs so many of their choices and their assumptions. (Margaret Hagerman powerfully describes how white kids come to understand race and privilege in her book “White Kids.”) College is a given for them — of course they’re going to a four-year university that their families will pay for. I hope the same will be true for my son. Also, these kids can and do get away with “shenanigans,” like unauthorized use of their parents’ credit cards or shoplifting, without real fear of (meaningful) repercussions and often without any consequences. Some of these kids even own their privilege in disturbing “Is anybody really going to bust a nice-looking white kid?” ways. This is not what I hope for my son.
Just as I’ve looked for resources on sleep training, potty training and nonviolent discipline, I went looking for guides on how to make my son a critical consumer of media. Tomes have been written about the negative effects of media on children in terms of violence and video games, but nobody seems to be addressing the language of the news media. Not in the mainstream anyway. All that unchecked scrolling through terms like “inner city,” “Radical Islam,” “articulate,” not to mention “shrill” and “hysterical” puts our kids at risk of getting pulled (deeper) into racism and other forms of discrimination, including sexism. In the stomach-turning Jeffrey Epstein sex-trafficking story, for example, many news outlets described the victims as “underage women,” casting blame on the children involved and insinuating empathy for Epstein. What’s the effect on a 14 year-old girl — or boy — who reads a story like this? White men can get away with whatever they want. Hell, they can become president.
Rather than a strong focus on anti-bias or anti-racism, the resources I’ve found focus largely on how to support kids when there’s a tragedy or a crisis covered by the news. This is important, to be sure. However, limiting and monitoring screen time won’t change the effects of underrepresented, stereotyped and otherwise maligned people of color, women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups. I’m going to do my level best to do anti-bias training with my kid. We live in a part of town where it’s somewhat easier to build meaningful relationships with people who don’t look like us. We read books that feature protagonists who aren’t white males. We talk about the way my son takes up space and impacts other people. But my family’s efforts are deafened by systemic racism, particularly when the news media, including purportedly liberal outlets, propagate the same racist messages, implicitly or explicitly. All the responsibility can’t be on parents — but a lot of it is. We’ve got warnings on video games, do we need warnings on iPhones? Parental Advisory: coded language may make your child a racist. Shit.
Lucy Rimalower is a licensed marriage and family therapist in practice in Los Angeles, where she focuses on teens, women, and families with same-sex parents. She also provides crisis counseling and consults for film and television on mental health issues. Lucy enjoys baking cookies and raising her son to be a feminist.