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When A Pre-Schooler Is A 'Racist'

Over the past two weeks, he has made several comments, unprompted, that he didn't want to say hello to a specific child or "be their friend" because they are "brown."
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Parenting is often smoothed by the wisdom of crowds. The one gathered here on Parentry is as good as they come, and periodically I run questions from y'all that you think might be best addressed by "polling the audience." Here is one of those dilemmas. What do you think triggered this reaction in this four-year-old, and what should his parents do?

So, my older son, (four years, two months old) recently started preschool. It's a new school for him, as we moved from one east coast city to another over the summer. Over the past two weeks, he has made several comments, unprompted, that he didn't want to say hello to a specific child or "be their friend" because they are "brown." He has said it about some of our African-American neighbors in the apartment complex where we currently live as well as a South Asian girl in his class.

The interesting thing to note here is that my wife is Indian and we socialize with her family more often than my family, so the cousins he is closest to are all brown-skinned people. My Indian
mother-in-law was one of his primary babysitters up until a few months ago. Our closest friends here are a biracial family and Jacob loves playing with their two sons (9 and 11). And my son himself is fairly brown, certainly darker than his younger brother and myself. We have tried explaining to him that skin color doesn't make a person bad or good and have tried pointing out all the friends and family members of color he has but the comments persist. Any suggestions on ways to address this? Is this a phase he'll pass through? Are there books we can read with him that might help work through the issue?

My wife's theory on the situation is that someone at his last school (where he was the only brown child in his class) might have said they didn't want to play with him because he was brown and he's now projecting that on others as a way to cope with that. But when I asked him directly if anyone had ever called him brown, he said "No, because I'm not, I'm tan."

He also said that you had to "match" with the person you were playing with. I asked him who told him this and he said "I told myself" (a favorite line of his). I asked him if my skin matched his mother's or if mine even matched his, which he admitted doesn't, so I then asked if we shouldn't be able to play together, he smiled and said yes. That was about as much I could get out of him. For the record, he's also refusing to associate with girls, so he's both racist and sexist at the moment.

In any case, any thoughts or suggestions on this would be greatly appreciated.

So, what are your thoughts and suggestions? Can a child be racist? What words to use when having these earliest conversations about race?

And if you have a question you'd like answered here, let me know in the comments, or, more anonymously, at