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At What Age are Kids Aware of Racial & Ethnic Differences?

My Guatemalan husband and I have two white-passing children, who we are raising to be bilingual and bicultural. We've only spoken to them in Spanish and we have made a concentrated effort to instill within them a sense of pride in their Guatemalan-American heritage. 

A few years ago, the kids and I were out driving in the car. I don't remember where we were going, but it was daytime and just the three of us. We were driving down a road we travel often, right down the street from our house. I stopped at an intersection and a big beautiful church with a playground sat on the corner. 

Little Maya looked out the window and asked me in Spanish, can we go play at that playground?

I told her no we couldn't.

She responded, "¿Es porque somos guatemaltecos?"

My heart dropped at her words.

I quickly reassured her that we weren’t able to play at the playground not because we were Guatemalan, but because we weren’t members of that particular church. But it was a harsh realization for me--that four years old is the age at which BIPOC kids realize they are the “other.”

Not long after that day we were driving in the car again. This time it was the four of us--Francisco, Maya, Mateo, and me. Out of the blue Maya said, "Papi, I hope you don't get taken by the police."

My heart dropped. Again.

Francisco and I told her that she need not fear her Papi being taken by the police, because he had his green card and documentation to be in this country. But as I said those words, my heart broke for all the mothers who cannot reassure their children of those same worries. How many kids in this country live with the fear of their parents being taken by ICE? How many wives and husbands live with the fear of their spouses being deported? Or their father, mother, sister, brother, cousin... That burden of fear is a lot to carry, especially for young children. 

According to Pediatrics Nationwide, children become aware of their racial groups’ status within larger society around age 9. But I would argue for BIPOC children this age could be much lower. At just four-years-old, Maya was aware of the discrimination faced by immigrants in this country. For children of color, this is called the Encounter phase. That's when kids are aware if their group is treated unfairly or differently – or if their group is in a position of power. 

As a little white girl growing up in a small affluent town in Southern California, I didn't have an awareness of race and ethnicity. I did not encounter discrimination until I was 18-years-old. It breaks my heart that these are lessons my littler girl learned at four. 

This is why black lives matter. No lives matter until black lives matter. Ignorance is not bliss. It is not until you know better can you do better, as Maya Angelo decreed. 

Looking for some ways to get the conversation started with your kids? Here's some children's literature recommendations that can help:

14 Antiracist Books for Kids and Teens Recommended by BIPOC Teachers and Librarians

14 Children’s Books To Help Parents Talk About Race

42 Powerful Children’s Books about Race and Racism


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