Is my 2-year-old a racist?

He says "No, no, no" to his Japanese-American teacher, he refuses to learn Spanish, and he doesn't like the pictures of blacks in his storybooks.

By Cary Tennis
Published March 30, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am the father of an intelligent, charming, well-behaved 2-year-old. He is a very sweet child -- his daily reports from daycare often say things like, "He comforted another child when she was crying," or "He gave everyone a big hug today."

But I'm concerned that he might be a bit of a bigot. To his Japanese-American teacher he says only "no," but not in a defiant way, more of a "don't speak" kind of way. In some storybooks he'll point out characters he doesn't like and they are, without exception, black characters. Our efforts to teach him Spanish are usually met with, "No, no, I want to speak English!"

In his defense, he does play well with his ethnically diverse schoolmates. But I am alarmed by his dismissal of and hostility to nonwhite American adults and cultures. Is this normal, a phase he will outgrow? I just never want to look across the dinner table at a teenage neo-Nazi, wondering what I could have done.

A Lover of Diversity

Dear Diversity Lover,

I think it's a little early to start worrying about whether your 2-year-old is a racist. He may be a bit of a litterbug. He may be guilty of disorderly conduct, public intoxication and occasional indecent exposure. But I doubt that he is a racist. He's just too young.

He may be expressing certain tendencies and preferences that may or may not mature into adult characteristics, but what I think is truly notable is not so much his behavior as the way it is affecting you.

My guess is that you yourself are trying to resolve some conflict related to race, and in your sleep-deprived, cognitively impaired fatherhood it's coming to the surface, spurred on by your child's potentially embarrassing behavior. Perhaps despite your best efforts you still secretly harbor racial attitudes that you are ashamed of. That would not be so unusual. We have no control over how we are raised or what we witness early in life. We end up with a lot of stuff in our heads. To put it rather drily, anxiety about race can give rise to intrusive thoughts. But those thoughts in themselves do not make you a bad person. It's what you do about such thoughts that matters. You may not even be aware of these thoughts; but I suspect your emphasis on multicultural ideals has some basis in a personal struggle over race and identity.

Your son may be picking up on your own concern about race and mirroring it, acting it out, perhaps literally mirroring it backward. It doesn't mean that he's in danger of becoming some kook with a bad uniform and a shaved head. I would think he's more focused on figuring out just where he stops and the world begins. He's into deeper existentialist stuff. Wait till he's a teenager and he wants to join the John Birch Society. Then you can really worry.

In addition to harboring some anxiety about race, you may also have an overly idealized notion about how we should deal with race in our society. If you believe fervently in civil rights and multiculturalism, you would naturally want to see your beliefs mirrored in your son's behavior. But such expectations can be an impossible burden for a 2-year-old to carry. As I say, he's got other things to do right now.

So for the time being, just try to relax and help the little guy become a person. Watch over him, teach him a thing or two, let him see as much of the world as he can -- and try to get some sleep. There's a long road ahead.

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