Nicki Butler is a psychology junior and Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
“The police are killing Black people,” 5-year-old Naomi exclaimed after being called on. She said it with such vigor and passion. The words bursting out of her, as she shared with the group. She said it the way that a child would answer a question, What is two plus two?: “Oh! Oh! Four!”
She knew the right answer. She knew the truth. Even though we weren’t talking about police brutality — even though we had never brought up the topic at summer camp before — Naomi knew.
I work as a counselor for a city-run day camp in the town neighboring mine. I’ve worked there every summer for four years and each one has passed by quite similar, except for this year. I expected that to be so because nothing is normal this year. I expected it to be the coronavirus that altered our camp so much. But really, COVID-19 didn’t make things that different.
Sure, we changed the pick-up and drop off zones in order to limit contact with parents and we took each child’s temperature every morning. We all wore masks and stayed six feet apart, but the kids were predictable as ever.
They loved water games and dodgeball. Sometimes they opted to play with dirt and sticks rather than participate in a very expensive and well-planned activity. They laughed and fought and pushed each other and drew chalk mermaids and built poorly constructed forts out of hula hoops. They were kids. Masks and temperature checks didn’t change that.
The other pandemic rocking America right now, the one that has been festering in our country since the first slave ships arrived in 1526, has changed them.
Kids are innocent, naive, and self-centered. Society pushes its youngest towards the center of the herd and blocks out as much bad as it can. While they barely understand the coronavirus, they understand racism.
Many studies done by those who analyze race and child development have found that infants as young as 6-months-old can detect race differences, and by the ages of 2 to 4-years-old can internalize racial bias.
The youngest at our camp is 5-years-old, so it’s safe to assume that all of them have preconceived notions about race and the ways it affects us. Naomi at 5-years-old knows the police are killing Black people. She knows it so confidently that she shared it with the group with zeal.
The awareness around racism that has been rippling across many during this time doesn’t start at 18-years-old. Our children are aware too. They know racism and they’re learning about how it affects the world they’re growing into. They probe for more details at every turn. Their sponge-like minds soak up every bit of information and crave more every day.
During story time, 6-year-old Kayley said, “Tell us a story about George Floyd.” I was shocked that they knew his name, but then again, how could they not know the name of a man whose murder ignited a massive conversation about race in America and sweeping movement for justice that has exposed racism in every place we look?
I wanted to tell them about George Floyd.
I wanted to, but I couldn’t. We aren’t supposed to discuss any sensitive, controversial or political topics at camp. We are told to tell the children to ask their parents about these matters. We are taught to shut these conversations down — as if any more information could hurt them and as if the truth would be too much of a burden to behold.
However, that burden rests with Black and Brown people, and it rests with their kids too. There is a level of cognitive dissonance in the rationale here. Adults shut down the conversations to stop them from knowing about racism, but the kids bring these topics up. They must know.
They want to know why the police are killing Black people. They want to know George Floyd’s story and we choose not to tell them — as if ignorance will somehow save them and as if they haven’t already witnessed enough racism in their albeit short lives to know the answer.
We were playing “Red Light, Green Light” and we added in purple light just for fun. Green is go, red is stop, yellow is slow and purple is dance.
One of the kids started performing the lyrics and dance from “This Is America” by Childish Gambino. He knew every word and every move. He must have seen the music video a hundred times to be able to replicate Gambino’s performance.
The music video depicts the 2015 Charleston shooting where white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine innocent black people in the basement of a church. The video also showcases choreography that is reminiscent of Jim Crow Era minstrel shows. The final line of the song is: “You just a Black man in this world / You just a barcode, ayy.” And yet we still argue that kids don’t know about racism in America and that they shouldn’t know.
Maybe we choose not to teach our children about racism, because we think it would be too difficult or uncomfortable. Maybe we don’t feel equipped to have those kinds of conversations. Or maybe it’s because white supremacy is much easier to uphold when we can plead white ignorance since birth.
While ignorance may seem innocuous in a child, it becomes more and more dangerous with each passing year. A young, white and ignorant child after a few years becomes a white, voting and racist adult.