Kids’ Misuse Of The Term ‘Racist’ Is Dangerous —So Let’s Disrupt It

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An adult who is reluctant to clearly and effectively correct such careless and damaging behavior by children is complicit.

I f you regularly spend time with kids and adolescents in the upper and middle grades, there’s a good chance you’ve recently heard them use this phrase: “That’s so racist!”

As a parent, I’ve overheard kids using the phrase at my child’s school and during her extracurricular activities. The claim takes a variety of forms, including, but not limited to: intentional misuse as a joke (Child A: “Go stand by the white door.” Child B: “That’s so racist!”); intentional misuse as a joke that reinforces a negative connotation of the word “black” (Child A: “Let’s not play on the blacktop.” Child B: “That’s so racist!”); and accidental misuse that shows misunderstanding of the concept of racism (Teacher: “What do you notice about the kids in this photo?” Student A: “They are all white.” Student B: “That’s so racist!”).

I reached out to several other parent allies who I thought might share my concern, and over half of them had either directly heard children using the retort, or had learned about it from their child.

Whether uttered by adults or children, misusing the word “racist” reduces its legitimacy and dehumanizes the people who suffer from its real effects. No matter how subconscious or innocent, it is a strategy which re-appropriates the word according to the terms of the racial group that has been uncomfortably confronted about its role in systems of oppression.

Misusing the word ‘racist’ reduces its legitimacy and dehumanizes the people who suffer from its real effects.

Although we may be tempted to shrug these words off as immaturity and nonsense, they reveal real attitudes about racism to which kids are being exposed at home and in popular culture. Our current political climate has emboldened skeptics of systemic racism to openly dismiss it with claims such as #AllLivesMatter and #NotAllWhitePeople. Joining this chorus of doubters, adults who have never experienced real racism may sarcastically label a comment or behavior as “racist” to mock what they perceive as oversensitivity from people of color (POC). Current events highlighting our political and racial divides, such as those involving Colin Kaepernick or Jemele Hill, offer ample opportunities for white adults to consciously or unconsciously share these attitudes with their children. Putting air quotes around the term, rolling eyes, or using a sarcastic tone are behaviors that send a strong message to kids about how they can talk about racism.

Even if you don’t personally engage in these behaviors, kids are picking it up from discussions between other adults in real life or via mass media — and this shouldn’t go unchecked. By any measure, an adult who is reluctant to clearly and effectively correct such careless and damaging behavior by children is complicit in perpetuating a host of dangerous ideas.

Taking A Colorblind Approach Only Normalizes Whiteness

Adults’ failure to correct misuse of the word “racist” teaches children that talking about race, particularly about whiteness, is wrong.

The last example shared above is the only one where the child is actually responding to a real race label being used by her classmate. Student B’s accusation implies that simply talking about or noticing race is a racist act. This colorblind approach to race is not only unrealistic, but ineffective in combating racism, as explained in volumes of contemporary social science research and summarized in the article “7 Reasons Why ‘Colorblindness’ Contributes to Racism Instead of Solves It.” Noticing race is natural, and it’s not the problem. The problem is our conscious and unconscious biases about various races, which show up in the way we use, or do not use, race labels. When children flinch at the term “white,” and call it racist, it shows their buy-in to the normalization of whiteness as a default identity that needn’t be labeled. Talking openly about whiteness creates discomfort for white children unaccustomed to their race being named, disrupting the assumption that white is synonymous with normal. The article “Why Talk About Whiteness?” presents a succinct explanation for why refusing to use white as a race label disempowers us from fighting racism altogether.

Joking About Racism Is A Micro-Aggression

Tolerating kids’ use of the word “racist” as a joke is also disempowering and damaging to the wellbeing of children who identify as people of color.

Children of color are already at risk for loneliness and isolation in situations where they are a racial minority, as explained in the brilliant piece “27 Things You Had To Deal With As The Only Black Kid In Your Class.” Because POC are often accused of misinterpreting situations where race-based micro-aggressions have occurred (such as a white person’s surprise about their academic ability or how articulate they are), they grow up learning to just tolerate these offensive behaviors. Children may not have the ability to explain why joking about racism feels like a microaggression, or they may just choose not to call it out because it reflects behavior to which they have become accustomed. Often, the negative consequences of calling out their peers would override any real benefits, so they remain silent. Children of color may even be the ones jokingly misusing the term “racist” as a method for inclusion, since adapting to systems of oppression can often feel less taxing than fighting them.

The Effects Are Cumulative

Allowing children to casually and frequently misuse the word “racist” diminishes the focus and concentration of children of color, resulting in an unfair educational playing field.

Researchers have been able to identify and measure the cumulative effects of micro-aggressions, especially how they affect task performance and therefore the achievements of their targets. Countless studies show that exposing humans to negative stereotypes about their group before asking them to complete a task results in measurable declines in performance. These findings are widely cited when explaining differential math and science outcomes for girls versus boys. Similarly, when a child of color who experiences real racism is constantly forced to dedicate emotional and cognitive energy to processing comments from white peers about racism, it reduces the energy they can expend on the task at hand. Reacting to these daily triggers and seemingly small behaviors adds up over time to disproportionately impact children of color in academic settings.

Many readers will balk at what appears to be over-sensitivity about this issue, and some will retort that policing the word “racist” is just another catalyst for a generation of snowflakes. If this describes your reaction, my guess is that you are white or white passing. It’s worth asking yourself if your racial privilege includes the luxury of thinking this just doesn’t matter.

Adults in the racial majority might be uncomfortable with this call to action because they never agreed to be complicit in systemic racism and they don’t fully understand their role in dismantling it. Here are some ideas to start with:

  1. Commit to calling out race-based micro-aggressions, such as misuse of the term “racist,” as a crucial part of your role as a parent or teacher shaping the minds of the next generation.
  2. Educate yourself. If you’re uncomfortable and inexperienced in this territory, kids can tell. Start by reading the short article ”How to Talk to your Kids about Race: A Guide for Parents” or taking a webinar such as “Let’s Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students.”
  3. Be prepared. Memorize a phrase you can use so you don’t have to come up with one on the fly, such as “Hey (child’s name), when I hear the way you use the word ‘racist’ it makes me worried that you may not understand what it means. Can we talk more about it?” Use your script as an entry point for a brief age-appropriate discussion about how racism is dependent upon power, and why it’s not okay to joke about it. To help develop your own understanding, grab a copy of the book Is Everyone Really Equal?
  4. Get decision-makers on board. Do some research and then contact your principal about in-depth training for teachers at your school from organizations such as Crossroads and Teaching Tolerance. Seek funding from the district or other sources and commit to playing an active role in making it happen.
  5. Develop empathy. If you are a member of the racial majority, read up on the lived experience of those who find themselves in the position of being a racial minority in the classroom. The book Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria? is a great place to start.
  6. Share this information. If you are a white parent trying to figure out your place in racial justice, consider joining Showing Up for Racial Justice Families to learn more about how you can spread information effectively within your own racial peer group.

Given our sordid past when it comes to showing up for people of color, folks with racial privilege must embrace our collective responsibility and get on board with working to eliminate oppressive language of any kind, including misuse of the word “racist” on school grounds and at home. Ignoring or excusing children’s casual, inaccurate, and excessive use of the term demonstrates lack of bravery and accountability, making us the exact kind of bystanders that anti-bullying curriculum warns against. Disrupting this behavior is part of our job as the role models and mentors of young people, especially for those of us with racial privilege and power. Now let’s get to work.