Five years ago, at a class picnic held by my then-6-year-old son’s school in a predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in Seattle, one of his classmates started screaming at him about “The Chinese!” I was shocked and appalled. I never thought something like this would happen to us in one of the most progressive cities in the United States. Frozen, my emotions cycled between anger, sadness, and confusion. Not knowing how to react or what to say, I said nothing. Taking my child’s hand, we quietly left.
I should have been better prepared than most for such an outburst. As an academic specializing in child development, education, and morality, I know how sensitive young children — even infants — are to physical, linguistic, and social cues about human groups, categories, and differences. Knowledge, preferences, and value judgments about race are developed very early in a child’s life. Yet my studies hadn’t prepared me for actually confronting racist acts or, in this case, the seeds of racism, in an innocent-looking 6-year-old.