Race & Childhood
I used to think that youth was about expansiveness meaning your world kept getting bigger and bigger as you grew older. Now I am not so sure. Becoming a new mother during a crisis-filled time has made me question everything I knew about childhood.
I remember when I was a kid running to play outside, staying out until the streetlights came on, going to ring a friend’s doorbell to hang out, having sleepovers, getting dirty, celebrating at birthday parties, and roaming around free.
Nowadays, it’s easy to see that everything has limits; a box is drawn around almost every aspect of life. In the United States and from what I have heard in many of the major cities in the world, children are no longer “free-range .”Instead, you will find them in the house glued to a screen, bogged down with homework, dealing with an identity crisis, dancing on Tik Tok, learning about complex social issues, or trying to make it big before 18 years old. Childhood has become more complicated due to technology, living in the information age, and changing societal expectations on what life is supposed to be.
During this time of unprecedented shifts in the world, children have been exposed to and are confronting one of society’s greatest woes, the ongoing struggle of racism.
Even as the world grows into a melting pot, surprisingly, race still plays a significant part in childhood development. Race shows effects on children’s physical and mental health of all races. Children get divided along social and economic lines early on. Discrimination plays a significant role in health disparities, leading to low birth rates, chronic disease, and mental health challenges in minority children, teens, and young adults. Racism is rooted in different aspects and systems of life, which can influence the opportunities afforded to diverse populations. These influences impact children since they are innocent bystanders.
Many adults and parents are currently grappling with how these shifts will shape the upcoming generations. Since the issue of race and racism comes up almost daily on the news, in our schools, and at home, I wanted to examine how race influences the minds of young people. I reached out to Dr. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar, an associate professor of sociology and an academic coordinator of Caribbean studies at Ryerson University. Her areas of expertise are Caribbean studies, Caribbean diaspora, tourism, transnationalism, second-generation; African traditional religions in the Caribbean, and racism in Canada. She’s also the writer, director, and producer of Posting For Peace, a short documentary on youth, social media, and violence in Trinidad. She’s the author of the ebook Introduction to the Caribbean Diversity, Challenges, Resiliency.
My Interview with Dr. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar
Race is a Social Construct Created to Divide
How Does Racism and Discrimination Work?
“You can have prejudice and discrimination occurring in societies where everybody looks the same. You will use something else; religion, the way that you talk. It’s effortless to do that in societies where people don’t look alike based on skin color. People could easily get over this if we wanted to, but we’re talking about over 500-years of history, at least in this part of the world that came out of European colonialism, that we still have not resolved. We have not gotten past that, and that’s why we’re still stuck here in this idea.”
For an example of how superficial our thinking about race is, Dr. Hernández-Ramdwar made reference to a woman named, Jane Elliott, an American diversity educator known for her “Blue eyes/Brown eyes” exercise, which she first conducted with her third-grade class in 1968, points out how we make these little things meaningful.
“This history is based on the trans-Atlantic slave trade of enslaved Africans and Indigenous genocide. All these things are based on European colonialism, where white-skinned people dealt with darker-skinned people. We, as human beings, created this idea about race. In the same way that this developed, it is the same way that it can be dismantled.”
How Much Does a Child’s Race Have an Impact on Their Future?
“The way I describe racism to my students is that it affects you from the womb to the grave because racism can affect the prenatal care that your mother gets. Think about that; before you’ve even arrived on the planet, the prenatal care, or lack thereof that your mother gets, how she’s treated when she’s pregnant, the kind of birth experience she has, it starts there. Then we take it into infancy. What kind of experiences did you have as an infant, as a child, when you go to school, as you get older? Then your parents, if your parents are racialized, what kind of experiences of racism are they having?
We know that there are links between racism and poverty. Once we start talking about poverty, we know we must discuss health. We must speak about stress, disease, and crime because poor people live in more dangerous neighborhoods, are surveilled more by the police, and interact with the justice system.
If we look at a person’s entire lifespan, which racism can also shorten, it’s enormous. When people hear racism, I sometimes think they’re like, oh, name-calling, physical attack, or you didn’t get that job or something like that. It’s not just that; it’s compounded.
It’s the everyday microaggressions. It’s just walking through the world. In the United States, it’s breathing while Black, walking while Black, sleeping while Black, driving while Black, living while Black. You just have to be Black, and it lessens your life chances.”
According to Business Insider’s article, 26 Simple Charts to Show Friends and Family Who Aren’t Convinced Racism is Still a Problem in America, extensive academic research and data collected by the federal government and researchers have documented numerous ways that Black Americans experience life in the United States differently from their white counterparts. It’s called “systemic” racism because it’s ingrained in nearly every way people move through society in the policies and practices at institutions like banks, schools, companies, government agencies, and law enforcement.
With so much of a person’s life experience determined and dependent on race, the lines often become blurred when a person is multiracial.
How Do Multiracial People Identify?
“I was going through the same kind of idiocy in the eighties and nineties as a young multiracial person in Canada, the same stuff I was dealing with where I felt that I did not belong anywhere. I’m still seeing this with young people today. So that’s something that perplexes me.
Why is this young generation of people still in this quandary? The second thing is that not everybody who’s multiracial identifies as racialized.
I get interviewed by students a lot. We have a journalism school at the university. I had a young man contact me, and he said, I want to interview you about being mixed race. I’ve done this a million times. I was expecting a certain kind of interview. Until he said, why do you think that so many mixed-race people identify as white?
I was so blown away by the question because my experience of people who mixed race tend to identify as racialized and experience racism.
We must remember that it’s not just how we want to identify. It’s how we’re identified.
Let’s say your mixed daughter is growing up; if people just treat her as white everywhere, she goes and assumes she’s white. If she goes, I’m half Black, or she wants to define herself, or I’m a quarter Black or whatever. People will say, well, you don’t look it. People are good at putting you in your place when it comes to race. You know, they don’t like when you are trying to question their perception of you.
People are constantly trying to tell me who I am and how I should identify. For a child, it’s incredibly challenging. It takes a lot of strength and parents who support the child in that way. I sometimes use a crazy analogy for my students. You can call yourself a purple, pink spotted hippo all day long, but if people don’t see you as a purple, pink spotted hippo, then it doesn’t matter. You want to define yourself, and that’s the thing about race. Race is superficial. It’s totally based on people’s perceptions. People who are not falling within these very specific racial categories find it is an everyday battle.
You must decide for yourself who you are.”
How Do White Parents Deal with Race Versus Parents of Other Racial Backgrounds?
“The first thing is that White people, in general, don’t have to think about race unless they’ve specifically and consciously decided to do so. They don’t have to think about it because it doesn’t affect them because of White privilege. Suppose you are living in a society that is a white supremacist society. In that case, you have an automatic pass as a white person by having white skin and looking like you’re of European descent, which gives you a kind of privilege, which means you don’t have to think about things the way that racialized people must think about them. Unless they’re a white person who might be affected by some other kind of marker of oppression, like poverty or disability, they experience marginalization despite being White.
I think in 2020, a lot of white people were finally going; that’s what it’s like for Black people because of having to look at the horrific incidences of Black people being killed by police for being Black.
The truth is these kinds of horrific instances have been going on since the beginning of colonialism; that is what happened to Indigenous people. And Indigenous people are erased in the United States. There’s a much bigger conversation and public discourse in Canada about Indigenous people, what happened to them, and what is still happening.”
In support of Dr. Hernández-Ramdwar perspective, after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, a study done by Stanford University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, for the most part, White parents did not have conversations about race, or if they did, they were more likely to have conversations with their kids that the experts say could be unproductive.
The Diversity Trap
Should White Parents Seek to Introduce Their Children to Diverse Communities?
“It depends on if it’s coming from a sincere place and recognizing that the world is diverse. The parents realize that they are probably living in a bubble of White privilege and want to ensure that their kid doesn’t grow up only knowing White privilege. They should interact with people of different cultures and races to understand the world. White people are a minority on this planet. It might be a good experience for that kid to be a minority for a change in the school that’s heavily racialized. For example, it also means that parents would not feel threatened if their child loses that white privilege to a certain extent because they are the minority.
The parent who’s doing it more like, let’s take a tour of the ghetto on the weekend, so Bobby can see Black people that’s different.”
For white parents trying to raise antiracist children, the article, White Parents Must Do Better to Raise Antiracist Kids, suggests that parents should not take the colorblind approach because it works to shield children from the realities of racism. In addition, don’t make “Black” a dirty word or shush your children when they encounter someone with different skin color, and they ask them about it. White silence on issues of race often comes not from lack of caring but fear of saying the wrong thing.
What is the Difference Between Race and Ethnicity?
“Ethnicity is your beliefs. Ethnicity is the language you speak and the kind of food you eat. Sometimes race and ethnicity overlap in some specific circumstances because the ethnic group all happen to look alike, but that’s still not race because there could be other people who look like your ethnic group but aren’t of your ethnic background.
Ethnicity tells us a whole lot about people. Once you know someone’s ethnicity, you then have a better idea about who they are as a person, especially when it comes to things like beliefs and traditions.
Race can’t tell me any of that; people get it twisted.
If you just paint everybody with the same brush, say, Hey, we’re all Black. No, there are important distinctions. There are historical distinctions. They’re cultural distinctions. I mean, to get nitty and gritty with this, some of these people who might be migrating from Africa may have ancestors who sold your ancestors into slavery.”
Confronting Your Own Racial Bias
How Do We Confront Our Own Racial Bias?
“First, we would have to talk about stereotypes. The place in popular culture where this is most evident is comedy. It’s still acceptable for non-white comedians to make jokes about other races. I have also seen a white person makes jokes about other races and get away with it. It’s an arena where people are allowed to say these offensive things, but at the same time, a lot of what these comedians say, no matter what race, is coming from a real place.
Comedy is where you’ll see Black comedians making jokes about Chinese people and Persian comedians making jokes about Indians. People have real prejudices against other groups, and nobody’s calling other people on it. I think it’s like a pecking order under colonialism, the white person.
It’s like the plantation. The White master was always at the top, and the lighter your skin shade, the higher up this pyramid you were, the more power you had, and the darker you were, the less access you had to any kind of power.
So, if you were somewhere in the middle, you always had somebody to pick on. We continue to do this to each other, not recognizing who’s holding power at the end of the day. If we’re bickering amongst each other, as people affected by racism, are we looking at why we are still oppressed by a power structure that none of us can seem to overcome? Why aren’t we looking at what we have in common instead of our differences? This is directed at racialized parents. If you are a racialized parent and say racist things about other groups, if you have racism against Chinese or Indians or whatever, you need to stop and look at where that is coming from.
It’s not about people; it’s about a system.”
At the core of the experiences of many racialized people is an expression of the grief and pressure racism causes as part of an ingrained system leading to the response to demean others. Sadly in most racialized societies and groups, there is the issue of colorism leading to additional division and biases. According to a study noted by the Inclusion Solution, behavioral scientists conducted numerous studies globally that show both Whites and Blacks are more favorably disposed toward people with lighter skin, rating them smarter, wealthier, and even happier. One such study showed participants 60 photos, including some pictures of the same person that were altered to make their skin look darker. Both Whites and Blacks gave lower scores on intelligence to people with darker skin.
In Latin and South America, light-skin is seen as more attractive. In Mexico and Brazil, light skin represents power. Darker-skinned people are more likely to be discriminated against across the globe, which is often shown in the media people consume.
What Role Do You Think Social Media Plays in Defining Race and Self-identity?
“Social media has the potential to be a great equalizer. I’m fascinated by how social media can democratize access to messaging, and for identity, it’s a brilliant platform. I would love to see more platforms emerging.
I think this is going to happen in other parts of the world. I want to see a platform get big on the African continent and the same thing in Latin America and the Caribbean where they can have their outlets. That’s why I’m such a fan of TikTok because I’m seeing these amazing conversations going on. There’s no other way these could have taken place without a platform like TikTok. For example, I see Black Americans being taken to task by other Black people around the world.
They are saying your perception of race is not global. It’s not universal. People are saying this is how I see myself. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m listening to these conversations, and I’m blown away because everybody gets to have a say in the discussion; it’s not like the Americans have a bigger TikTok platform. For example, somebody in Uganda made a TikTok today, and two seconds later, somebody from the Dominican Republic will respond to them. The American voice is no longer the dominant voice.
That’s huge because America has been the dominant voice for generations. If you have access to social media, you have access to TikTok; it doesn’t matter. Those conversations are priceless. It makes people think; you can see the wheels turning. You can see, people are like, hey, I never thought of that. I learned something today.”
How Do We develop Resiliency in Young Children and Their Families?
“I think many of us have spent the last two years contemplating what’s most important to us, what matters at the end of the day. That should be passed on to children what needs to be valued and what’s important. Instead of letting your children get caught up in popular culture, show them what they should be putting their energy towards.
For example, let’s say it’s a family that says spending time with the ones you love is important. We’re going to make that effort to make sure that we go and see grandma and that we stay in contact with our family. I think people realize our work was taking up a lot of people’s time. Then all of a sudden, you’re working from home, and then you’re like, wow, why can’t I have more of this family time? It’s precious, especially when you can feel death is right there.
It is reconnecting with our ancestry and our cultural traditions and those kinds of things. That’s incredibly important for resiliency.”
Tug a War Creating Divisions and Backlash
“On a global level and maybe on a historical level, these worldviews of race are dying. I’ve watched the absolute intense division around these vaccinations with great fascination. And the way that vaccinated and unvaccinated have become the new determinants of what side are you on and what you represent. That could have only happened because things like race and gender are all dissolving. It’s like, we’ve come to a point where there’s been pushback finally from people in 2020 with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter.
The statues coming down have been there for hundreds of years and so on. I think people invested in keeping people apart based on race panicked. It’s like we can’t use race anymore to divide people. Then we’ve had transgender people speaking out and saying we must dismantle gender, and now we’ve got pronouns, and it’s becoming more normalized. We have same-sex couples and families. The push for division has been going on for some time as we push more towards unity. Let’s stop dividing each other because of race, because of gender, based on sexuality, or whatever.”
*Quotes by Dr. Hernández-Ramdwar have been edited and the sources referenced are included by the article author Annmarie Hylton.
About Camille Hernández-Ramdwar
Dr. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar is an associate professor of sociology and an academic coordinator of Caribbean studies at Ryerson University. Her areas of expertise are Caribbean studies, Caribbean diaspora, tourism, transnationalism, second-generation; African traditional religions in the Caribbean, and racism in Canada. She’s also the writer, director, and producer of Posting For Peace, a short documentary on youth, social media, and violence in Trinidad. She’s the author of the ebook Introduction to the Caribbean Diversity, Challenges, Resiliency. If you would like to reach Dr. Camille Hernández-Ramdwar you can find her on LinkedIn.
About the Author
Annmarie Hylton-Schaub, Head Marketing Strategist and Content Developer at Project Good Work, a boutique marketing group focused on helping individuals who want to launch social impact projects, charities, and change-making initiatives. The marketing group works to develop branding, marketing strategy, and content to connect clients with the people who believe what they believe so that their project and business can thrive.
If you have a passion for an unserved community, a social justice problem, or want to change minds, contact Project Good Work at ProjectGood.Work to start your project of change today.