they learned it from watching you

My four year old is the only black girl – hell, person – in her preschool. Last year this wasn’t the case, as her brother was there with her. But this year she is all alone.

Last year, there were some problems with “mean girls” – yes, in preschool. They would exclude Little A, and if there is one thing Little A cannot stand is being excluded. Even when children tell her they won’t be her friend, she replies, “Well, we don’t have to be friends to play together.” Yeah.

So imagine how pissed I am that now children in the preschool are still excluding – but making it explicitly about skin color, eye shape, and hair texture.

What is the school doing about it? Well, first they discussed it with the kids, pointing out how the teachers (none of them black, but two white, one southeast Asian and another east Asian) are all different but they all like and love one another. Next they plan to consult with folks who have experience handling this in early education. They also talked to a few parents, three of whom have a child of color and the other a parent of a white child, because “those were the names that came up.”

Will there be a parent meeting about this? Well, yes, but no date has been set. And their next step today in this conversation? Talking about animals.


This whole situation pisses. me. off.

One, this is not a new issue, so I’m quite annoyed at the school’s reactive posture. This should have been seen as a possible problem from what happened last year with exclusion, and me specifically bringing up the problem of race and racial differences. Why they are unprepared for this blows my mind.

Two, why only have conversations with the children most negatively affected – the conversations should really be with the parents of white children. They are the ones doing the excluding. They are the ones acting out racial prejudice.

Which leads me to my last issue – having the teachers address it in school is fine with me, but let’s please recognize that these children learned this behavior at home.

They learned racial prejudice and exclusion from watching their parents.

Young children emulate their parents. They think their parents are the best thing in the world. And in thinking so, they copy what they see their parents doing. I know, because my kids, at 5 and 4, are copying me all the time. My son wants to “wear pajamas like Mommy.” My daughter tries to match my clothes each day. They talk like me, use the same idioms as me.

And while being an overt racist will probably lead to racist kids, you don’t need to be a verbal racist to show racism in your life. You don’t need to say that black people are bad or Asian people are weird for your kids to learn racism. They learn it through the daily experiences of our lives, from what we watch on TV to the people they see on the street everyday. And most importantly – who you hang out with, who you invite over, who are obviously your friends send messages to kids about what you value as a family. For my kids, living in an area that is 2% black, we practically have no choice but to live truly multi-racial and multi-cultural lives. We have white friends who come over, who are obviously mommy and daddy’s friends. We have babysitters that are white. We have good friends of practically every race. And our kids know they are our friends because we talk about them, we hang out with them, they have a constant pressence in our lives. So our kids don’t get any idea about excluding children based on race or appearance.

For (some of) these white kids though, their lives are white. Their parents don’t have friends of other races – they don’t have to. Their kids witness their parents having mono-racial ideas of who is worth hanging out with and who is not. And while kids may not, at this age, put an inherent value on thing like skin color, hair type, and eye shape, they do recognize difference easily enough to see that the only place they interact with people not like them is in school. And they make an inference that if Mom and Dad don’t hang out with these people, then I shouldn’t either – for whatever reason.

This is a nasty lesson to start learning at 4 and 5. I’m determined, however, to make this a teaching moment for all involved, especially the white parents.

10 thoughts on “they learned it from watching you

  1. Wow! I don’t want to have to experience anything like this when my child starts school but I know its a reality. I hope the outcome is favorable and the parents don’t try to play the defense.


  2. Sounds like all the parents and school employees would benefit from an education on diversity and inclusion. The info is out there with no shortage of skilled specialists to provide it, and as you said, there is no need to be reactive. If the school has the will to take the lead — and it’s theirs to take, to set the tone, they can turn this situation around. I hope they “get it,” and soon, for their sake, and especially for your baby’s sake.

    For the parents’ part, it sounds like there is a lack of exposure based on the makeup of the community. TV and radio don’t count! Maybe the school or PTA should sponsor more multicultural activities. You have your work cut out for you! Best of luck.


  3. Hi Latoya,

    my name is Chris but my friends call me Parker, and what a story. Wow!!! What impresses me the most about your story is the attitude of your little Princess, how she brushed off the “I won’t be your friend”, and replies, “Well, we don’t have to be friends to play together.” That’s PRICELESS and is actual a testament to YOU Latoya, and how GREAT of a PARENT you are!!! I was wondering if my business partner and I could send you a Motivational card we created to help build Self-Esteem in our little Princesses? It’s genuinely us and the words and images are powerful. I myself have two beautiful little Princesses Wow!!!


  4. I have to say that reading this has angered me. How can you call the parents of the white children racist, when it is very clearly you that has racist tendencies.

    How can I say that this with conviction? Easily. You go to great lengths to talk about all the ethnic groups that you befriend as if that is a badge of honor. Sorry, but that isn’t proof of anything, especially when you list them off as a collection.

    Your “solution” to this problem isn’t to look at your own child as the reason the other children don’t want to play with her, but to blame it on the fact that she is the only African-American in the class. I know that what I write here will not change anything, you will see this as the racist rantings of a “white trash” mother. I will try, however fruitlessly, to show you different.

    I am a mother of 3 beautiful daughters myself. While raising my daughters, I finished my Masters and Doctorate degrees. My husband is also well educated, and a senior partner at a large consultancy. Throughout our lives, our circle of friends have included every ethnicity you can imagine participating in the Academic circles of a large, progressive, west coast city. However, our closest friends do tend to be Caucasian and Asian. This isn’t a choice, it is just how things have worked out over time. My circle of friends are interested in philosophy, ancient history, LGBT rights, classical music, overland travel, and etc.

    Your solution to this perceived problem is to claim that the parents are spreading their racism to their children because of their “choice of friends”. You are the person who chose to live in an area that is 2% black. In a class of 50 children, that means your daughter is the only one of her ethnicity. On the numbers alone, it is very likely that the other parents friends have no black friends. Confronting them with this fact will not give you satisfaction, and will likely alienate you further from them.

    Instead of a confrontation, I would take the lesson your own daughter has given you. Instead of going on the offensive, instead invite the classmates to your home or park for a party/sleep-over. Not on some racist rant, which will only make the parents angry, and certainly wont win you any friends.

    My middle daughter was also alienated once by a group of children simply because (so I thought) she wore glasses. So we had a sleep-over for the girls in the class and I discovered that my daughter could be very bossy and whiny when she didn’t get her way. After realizing that the girls didn’t want to play with her because of this, we worked on those problems and soon after any differences were forgotten. By the tone of your blog, you come off as uppity and morally superior. Is it possible that your daughter also comes off this way to her classmates?

    People aren’t racist because they have no black friends, that just means they have no black friends. Kids don’t play with other kids because they have a different skin color. They don’t play with them because they don’t like them.


    1. Naomi – thanks for your comments.

      Interesting that you used the word “uppity” to describe me. Not sure what you mean by that, but the racial undertone is very clear.

      In the case of my daughter, kids didn’t say they didn’t want to play with her bc she wears funny clothes. They said it was bc she had brown skin and curly hair. The teachers bought this to my attention, teachers who have known my child for over 2 years. My daughter is extremely friendly, and her teachers will tell you the exclusion was not bc of her behavior. I also coop in the school every week, and can see how she interacts with others. This was a classic case of exclusion for exclusions sake. It happens with children all the time. Perhaps they don’t like my daughter. Ultimately though, they didn’t like her because of her skin color.

      This is not surprising. Read nurture shock by po Bronson, especially his chapter on why white patents don’t talk about race. Most white children don’t know if their parents like black people- this is a research based assertion, not my opinion. This is bc while many white parents think that non- racist is as easy as not saying racist things, it actually requires much more than that. It requires explicit conversations about race. Otherwise children take in their own messages about race. Remember the recreated doll tests shown on CNN not too long ago? Children of all races still choose the white dolls as better, smarter, and nicer. And that was in 2009.

      We do live in a lily- white area. But, like you, we came here so I could earn my doctorate and law degree and make a better life for my kids. To choose to live here, though, does not mean that I should just willingly acquiesce to racism. No matter where I live in this country, race matters. It shouldn’t just be our burden, as black people, to engage in cross racial friendships.

      I don’t at all feel morally superior to anyone. But I’m still angry that my 4 year old is subject to exclusion bc of something she cannot change. Only one of the offending children’s parents approached me about play dates, and we made that happen. When your child has been the target of such bias, it’s really hard to approach parents who feel ashamed of what their kids have said. And honestly, most of the time they don’t believe it. It’s like talking to the parent of a bully.


  5. Like I said, fruitlessly. Not sure why I am bothering, except perhaps because I feel badly for any little girl who feels that she is being ostracized.

    Question: What do you find when you are looking for something?
    Answer: What you are looking for.

    You were looking for racism and you found it.

    “Interesting that you used the word “uppity” to describe me. Not sure what you mean by that, but the racial undertone is very clear.” – Uppity has nothing to do with race. Uppity b*tch is a term used frequently for a woman who acts superior, and you should well know that this is a pervasive attitude about successful women in academia.

    Kids can be friendly and still disliked. My oldest daughter is consistently chosen as the sweetest girl, cutest girl, most popular… type of prizes and there are still girls that don’t like her. Yes, they may not have liked your daughter because of her hair and skin, but it still had nothing to do with racism, not at 4-5 years old – and there is a lot more research than a straw CNN poll and an off the shelf pop-psychology book that proves this. As a post-doc you know how to discern between the noise and the real information. The book you site is the very worst kind to utilize, it is far from scientific. Instead of developing a hypothesis, performing the appropriate studies and then basing their writings on the findings, they do the exact opposite – a cardinal sin in any research study. They already knew what their conclusions would be before they started writing and then found the material to support their belief. Which is why they wrote a book instead of publishing a (peer reviewed) paper.

    You seem to have this idea that it is everyone else that must change. The white parents must make friends with black people or their kids will be racist. Then they must talk about race, despite the fact that they live in an neighborhood are area where race is simply not important.

    I didn’t ask you acquiesce to racism. Mainly because it is not my place to ask you to do anything, but mostly because I don’t think your daughters were subject to racism. They were subject to the same thing that every child goes through at some point. Having to learn to fit in. Surely you are not suggesting it is the parents of the other girls in your daughters class’ responsibility to ensure, as you put it, cross racial friendships? I don’t see any logic in that. It is their responsibility to raise their children to be moral, productive and positive members of society.

    You say that no matter where you live in this country, race matters. That is true anywhere in the world, but you have gone a long way to ensure that you minimize the effects of stupid prejudiced and racist thinking. Again, I will draw on my own circle of friends. Race isn’t an issue, simply because it isn’t one. As you move through more affluent, educated circles, it simply doesn’t matter anymore. I don’t think of my friend Ena as Japanese, but I think of her as my awesome girlfriend who knows where to get the best shoes, have a great time doing nothing and is a respected broker.

    The only thing a person can truly change is themselves. Going off on the parents of the other girls in the class and accusing them of being racist will do nothing but tick them off (just reading this made me angry), and your daughter will be further alienated by the very group of girls that you would like her to be friends with.

    Face it, kids at that age will play with a kid who has boogers all over them, smell bad and have mud covered clothes, if they are fun to play with. Kids just don’t care, but if an ice-breaker is needed, don’t use a hammer and try to change other people, change your approach. I know if you had the nerve to come to me and call me racist and demand that my kids played with yours, it would have the opposite effect. My girls would have nothing to do with yours outside of school – and certainly not because of race, but because their mother was trying to force her will on my daughters.

    Best of luck! I really hope that you try this out, and start taking advantage of that wonderful brain you have been blessed with. You have worked hard to not be caught up by the stereotypes and yes the racism that is around us, and give to give your daughters a world where their skin color will not matter, all based on class.


  6. Now I’m an uppity bitch? Trying to understand how to protect my kids makes me “acting superior.” Another parent comes to me to confirm that her daughter told her that she wasn’t playing with my kids because she had brown skin and curly hair and I’m uppity for being angry and upset? I expressed my FEELINGS here on my blog. What I did about it is another thing. But here, in this space, we, as mothers of color, can be in a safe space to speak OUR truths. I should of deleted your comment just for that.

    But luckily for me, I’ve never been referred to as an uppity bitch, at least not to my face or have ever heard it used about me behind my back. I’ve also never referred to any woman in that way, even if I disliked her. I’m actually very well liked and respected by several male colleagues. Why would you use that word against another woman?

    I study race, children, and education. I suggested Nurture Shock as easily digestible reading fare that actually correctly sums up the relevant, peer reviewed research. The studies cited are all peer-reviewed. And the assertion that just because it’s in a book means it can’t be accurate – that’s nonsense. If one wants to talk about a mass array of science and how it all fits together into actual, practical advice for real people, writing a peer-reviewed article that is mostly for the pomp-and-circumstance of academics is hardly the way to go.

    The doll tests have been replicated countless times – the CNN cite was so that people could see it for themselves – again, making what is academic accessible. The researcher that conducted the study, Margaret Beale Spencer, is a world-renown child psychologist. The methods were rigorous and statistically significant.

    Now to your more substantive claims:

    “I don’t think your daughters were subject to racism.”

    Based on what? Your assertion that racism is only about “stupid prejudiced and racist thinking”? Lady, come on. You are suffering from the disease called white privilege and your refusal to even consider racism as a factor is one of the main symptoms.

    At the end of the day, our differences (except the fact that you are assaulting my character when you don’t even know me, while I have no desire to do the same to you) stem from this statement: “Race isn’t an issue, simply because it isn’t one. As you move through more affluent, educated circles, it simply doesn’t matter anymore.”

    How can you, a white woman, where the more “affluent, educated circles” are populated by people who look like you, make such an assertion? Do you know what it is like to walk around in a place where almost no one looks like you, and know that stereotypes about who you are are behind the looks you get in the street? You, who admit that you don’t even have many black friends with which to at least inquire what it feels like on the other side? I have no problem with disagreement, but your perspective is so clouded by Whiteness that the cliche “consider if the shoe was on the other foot” cannot possibly pierce your closed mind.

    The beauty of white privilege is that race doesn’t have to matter for you. But the research – great peer reviewed research – overwhelmingly shows that for racial minorities, the more educated and affluent circles we find ourselves in, the more race matters. There are countless articles – do a google search on “black middle class racism.” Read Hoshchild, “Facing Up to the American Dream,” or Feagin, “Living With Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience.” Read Lewis, “Race in the Schoolyard” on how children enact racial hierarchies in middle class schools. Talk to my black middle class friends, all of whom are highly educated, relatively affluent, and perfectly reasonable people. Come to Palo Alto, one of the richest suburbs in the country, and try to understand why the teachers in our schools believe our children cannot be taught .

    This is not about me feeling morally superior. My kid doesn’t gain anything from that. Nor did I ever say I was going to “tell off” white parents about their kids. I said I was going to make it a teachable moment, and that’s exactly what I did. We actually did have playdates with the offending girls, and the parents and I thoroughly discussed the impetus for such playdates. My daughter plays with lots of girls of lots of different backgrounds, and I talk about race with almost all of those parents, and their girls (and the moms) continue to seek us out. I also work with my children, every day, on how to appreciate the differences among all the people they interact with. They have dolls and books with all different types of people in them. Why shouldn’t I expect that of other parents? Why shouldn’t my children have the benefit of all of us, in this society, engaging in anti-racist practices?

    In case you do think I am just the rare angry black woman reeling about racism where it doesn’t exist, check out this blogs where another mother of color talk about their children’s experiences with racism.

    Love Isn’t Enough

    Also read a white mom who is actively being anti-racist in her children’s lives.

    Bicultural Mom


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