wondering about children and racism

It was Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and I was pulling out of the driveway with NPR on. They were playing King’s famous speech, and it occurred to me that this would be a good teaching moment for Abdullah. He didn’t hear too much of the speech, but what he did hear was that memorable, rolling, booming voice that we have all heard before. After less than a minute after pulling out,  I switched off the speech, we said our du’aas for travel, and I asked him, “Would you like me to explain what he was giving a speech about?”

I hesitated a minute before I began, because this was the first time my son’s attention had really been drawn to people’s skin color, and I wondered if it was a can of worms that should be opened at this time (he is only 3 after all). I opted to give a general discussion about skin colors, and not go into the details about how whites were discriminating against blacks per se. I simply said that at the time that King was speaking, there were a lot of “bad people” who thought that some people were not good simply because they had different colored skin. I said that what makes a person good or bad is what they do, not what they looked like.

We recently learned Surah at-Teen where Allah says in the Qur’an: Laqad khalaqnal insaana fee ahsani taqweem: “We have certainly created man in the best form.” Everyone is Allah’s creation, I told him, whether their skin is light or dark, whether their hair is yellow, brown, black, or red. And everyone is beautiful because Allah, the Creator (al-Khaaliq), and the Fashioner (al-Musawwir) is the one who made all.

I don’t know at what age it would be good to move beyond this general discussion into the historical discussion of racism of light skinned people against dark skinned. I almost feel hesitant to broach the issue, because it taps into such a deep human evil that I am loath to expose my son to before he needs to be. And yet I know that my decision to hold off for now, and only give a limited view of this issue is affected by my own background. I have never felt the evils of being judged by the color of my skin, my family never lived under Jim Crow laws, my ancestors never felt the yoke of slavery, so one could say that I am coming from a position of privilege, which certainly influences how I portray this subject to my son.

Even so, our own Indo-Pak culture has its own subtle racism that our children will inevitably have to confront, when they hear talk of people being identified as “fair” and “dark” (usually with some judgment behind it, as if fair=beautiful). It’s an inherently racist choice of words itself, because “fair” means “beautiful” and that is the term used commonly to refer to light colored skin (don’t even get me started on the “Fair and Lovely” cream that is an obsession in India and Pakistan).

My aunt told me a story about some children in the preschool she works at. A boy was trying to point out a black friend of his to his mom, and he was saying, “Look, he’s the one in the green shirt–he’s holding a lunchbox.” He used no color-related words to describe him. After Black History Month, when a similar situation came up, he described by skin color instead. Children are inherently color-blind to a certain degree, and yet the reality of the world is that it is not, and the reality of our creation is that we are all different. At what point do we pay attention to these differences, which are, in the scheme of things, insignificant, even if visibly dramatic?

The coming years will give us further opportunity, God willing, to delve into these issues, so I still have time to wonder and reflect on how to approach it.

The funny bit is that after giving Abdullah that whole spiel on how Allah created all people beautiful and that deeds determines who is better, his mind was still focused on those dramatic words of Martin Luther King. After all that, he said, “But Mama, so what was his dream about, then?”

Gotta love kids. 😉


2 thoughts on “wondering about children and racism

  1. nice post, mashAllah..and definitely a topic that should be treaded carefully and with no clearly correct path to follow.

    I don’t have an answer for you but one thing to ponder over is the cognitive abilities of children–like the example you gave of the child at the preschool, how do children at Abdullah’s age categorize and describe people? There have been many studies done on racism in children and their findings generally suggest that children as young as three don’t think of people in “colors”.

    So, if children don’t have the cognitive abilities at that developmental age, is it appropriate or even beneficial to discuss race? His response to your spiel may demonstrate that your discussion may not have been necessary, at this age? (not my opinion, just a thought)

    Of course, every child is different. Some children may have advanced cognitive abilities so you really have to do things based on Abdullah’s level. Being proactive is always a great thing. But, sometimes parents like to jump the gun and talk about things that aren’t even within the child’s ability to comprehend. Perhaps it’s better to wait until Abdullah shows you signs that he’s learning to see the world in color. You may be worried that its too late at that point, but he’s young…He can handle it, inshAllah 🙂

    Again, I don’t have an answer–this is a tough issue and I’m not a parent either. But, just some food for thought 🙂


  2. good tip on the studies of kids–that’s definitely something to look into. I’m sure there is plenty of time to get into this, it was just something that popped into my head given that it was MLK day. I remember in one of my psych classes we had to get this book “How to Raise a Non Racist Child.” Probably something to dig up and look at!


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