Can Children Be Racist? When Your Four-Year-Old Niece Calls You Brown and Dirty

Social Commentary

Can Children Be Racist? When Your Four-Year-Old Niece Calls You Brown and Dirty

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Recently, at a family gathering, my four-year-old niece suddenly pushed my father away when he hugged her and said, “Don’t touch me, you are brown and dirty. I don’t like brown.” The bomb she dropped was met with absolute horror, writ large on the faces of everyone in attendance.

Imagine a room full of loud, festive Indians falling completely quiet. It takes a certain kind of superpower to achieve this eerie level of pin-drop silence. It’d be comical had my niece’s superpower not been prejudice. But to my father’s credit, he perfectly assessed the uncomfortable situation and delivered the most Indian solution to it: laughter. On his cue, the rest of us joined in and all was forgotten.

Until later in the evening, when I proceeded to hold my niece’s hand during a dance performance and she responded by screaming at me for touching her. Yep, you guessed it, I’m brown too. But then, so is my niece.

So how did she suddenly become an ambassador for Fair and Lovely? After putting out the very tempting idea of disowning this little devil, I decided to have a chat with her parents. Both of them claimed that they were neither the source nor the inspiration of her colour choices. How then did my niece cultivate such a bias? And is it even possible for four-year-olds to be racist?

For years, it was assumed that biases are something only grown-ups subscribe to: It was understood that one had to be mature to be discriminating. But Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard University psychologist and prejudice expert, sent this popular scientific belief to the dumpster. According to her findings, children, even at the age of three years, exhibit the same level and kind of bias as adults. In her study, a sample of white and black children who were between the ages of three and 14, were shown graphically drawn faces in different skin tones. They were then asked to describe them as happy or angry: Most of the children termed the black faces as “angry”, while white faces – including the ones with a frown – were called happy. Even when the children were asked to compare Asian faces with white faces, the outcome was the same.

Today’s woke and politically correct generation has learnt how to look past stereotypical depictions, recognising the danger of blindly upholding them.

Essentially, what the researchers concluded was that biases such as “dark is dirty” can’t be easily unlearned. Even for kids. If you think about it, impressionable four-year-olds, like my niece, are more at risk: they see, consume, and believe. Unlike suspicious adults, they don’t question. And although, a child’s opinion is shaped by the people closest to them, their mindset is also influenced by a gamut of external factors. The assumption that what our kids read and see barely have any effect beyond numbing their minds and putting them to sleep, is a gravely naïve one. After all, for a prejudice to be structural, it has to be kept hidden in the safest of corners. And what better hiding place than children’s fairy tales? A child’s understanding of a stereotype that they come across on their favourite show or in the pages of their preferred bedtime story, ends up determining their response when exposed to a similar situation in real life.

After much reading, I decided to speak to my niece about her behaviour. I asked her what made her think brown was dirty. “Because white is pretty,” she said, puzzled as to why it wasn’t obvious to me, and continued watching Chota Bheem. That’s when it hit me. In Chota Bheem that has 40 million viewers worldwide, Bheem is milk-white and so is Chutki. Chutki has two globes of pink plastered across her cheeks to accentuate her cheek bones. Did I mention that she is a seven-year-old? The antagonist in the series is dark and his name is Kalia obviously. My niece’s bookshelves are stacked with Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty – all three have storylines where a fair princess is universally held as the marker for beauty, who is then rewarded with a happily-ever-after with a equally fair prince. It’s what we have been believing for years, so can I really blame my niece?

Today’s woke and politically correct generation has learnt how to look past stereotypical depictions, recognising the danger of blindly upholding them. Maybe that’s why we have an Indian Barbie, a Latina Disney princess, and a controversial but Black Hermione Granger. But back home, girls are still told not to go out and play in the sun “kyunki kaali ho jaayegi”.  

How do we then expect children to cope? Endless hours of playing with dolls with blonde hair and blue eyes, watching cartoons and reading fairy tales with a dominant all-white universe led my niece to conclude that anything else must be dirty. My niece, over time, like every other child developed structures around such truths, trying hard to fit herself and the world around her within those definite boxes.

But here’s the thing: How do you dismantle such biases? Maybe the next time I watch Kalia on screen, I will point out that he is not evil because of the colour of his skin but because of his deeds. I could draw her attention to the other characters in the cartoons she reads – Ram and Krishna, who are blue not because they are divine but because they are dark. Or buy her an Indian barbie. But before that remind her constantly how pretty she is. Especially when she is standing in front of the mirror.