There’s nothing quite as upsetting or challenging as a child making a racist comment. Sometimes it’s a seemingly innocuous comment, a they-didn’t-know-better kind of comment, and other times it is a deep, hurtful comment meant to tear another person down. Both are challenging to manage correctly.

When a child makes a racist comment, there are a few questions we need to ask ourselves:

1) Do they know that the comment is racist?

2) Where did the comment come from?

Let’s look at the first question. Do they know that the comment is racist?

One Momentous School teacher shared her experience at a previous school where she worked with predominately first generation Americans and newcomers from majority Spanish speaking countries. One day the class was reading a book that featured a Japanese-American boy. A student looked at the picture and said, “Chinito” which refers to a Chinese person. The teacher took a moment to evaluate the situation and asked herself, “Does he realize that this character is not Chinese, but rather Japanese?”

So she made a point to tell the class, “This character is Japanese-American.” Later, when the students were working independently, she approached the student and asked him why he had used the term “Chinito”. He told her that his parents used the term to describe Asian people in general. She asked him how he would feel if she called him “Mexican” (he was Guatemalan). He responded that he wouldn’t like that because he’s not Mexican. She said a lightbulb went off in his head as he realized the connection.

Many times, children repeat what they hear without necessarily knowing that it’s offensive. In these cases, the appropriate response is to foster awareness without shaming. Simply alerting the child to the nature of the offense without making them feel bad is often enough to prevent them from making similar comments in the future.

Now let’s consider the second question: Where did the comment come from?

This may seem obvious, but children only know what they learn from the world around them. Many adults have the opportunity to go out in the world and hear a diversity of thoughts, read and learn different perspectives, meet people with different opinions, and evaluate and formulate their own thoughts. But children don’t have that capacity, yet. All they know is what they are taught from those around them. If they hear racist comments at home or in their community, they may not have the ability to evaluate the comments and identify them as racist. They may just take them at face value and believe that they are fine things to say.

This can be a very tricky issue to handle. Teachers do not have the ability to control the environment that a child goes home to. They can’t control what kids see on TV or hear from politicians or celebrities.

Another teacher shared about a previous experience. It was after the 2016 presidential election and students in her class were chanting, “build that wall” in reference to a wall along the Mexican-U.S. border. The implications of their comments were that Mexican people should not enter the United States.

In this case, the teacher knew that the comment was racist, offensive and deeply hurtful, especially to the students of Mexican descent. She knew that these comments would not be tolerated in her classroom. But she also knew that the only reason the students were making these comments was because they had heard them at home from parents, neighbors and politicians.

The first time she had encountered a racist comment earlier in the year, the teacher said something like, “That’s not a nice thing to say.” A student responded, “My parents say it, and they’re not bad people.”

She had a challenging situation on her hands. She didn’t want to tell students that their thoughts were bad or wrong, deepening the us vs. them divide. She didn’t want parents to accuse her of passing along her opinions to the students. But she knew that she couldn’t tolerate hateful or offensive comments in her classroom, and that her role as a teacher was to help students learn math and science but also how to be kind, respectful human beings.

One way to think about the classroom is that it is its own world with its own culture and rules. We can’t control the big, wide world, but we can control the culture of the classroom. So in this case, the teacher told the class, “I don’t want my opinion to be the only opinion you can have. I want you to learn from others and form your own opinions. But in this classroom, we are always kind. I want you to always think about the words you are saying and reflect on whether they’re kind or unkind.”

When teachers establish their classroom as a place where unkind comments are not tolerated, they’re not saying that one’s opinion is bad. Neither are they passing along any sort of judgement about politics or current events. They’re simply saying that their classroom is a safe place.

One way to frame this is to say, “I would never allow someone to say something hurtful about you. And I will protect every person – even people who aren’t in this class – from comments that are unkind or hurtful.”

It is important to note that not every child who makes a racist comment heard it at home, and many parents would be mortified to hear that their child said something offensive. Don’t jump to conclusions about a child’s family or home environment when a child says something racist. It could be that he heard it from another child at school, an older kid in the neighborhood, or from a movie or TV show.

Avoid telling students – or even implying – that their thoughts or ideas are wrong. They might be quick to dismiss you and think that you just don’t understand them. Instead, ask questions such as, “What do you mean when you say that? Why do you feel that way? How would you feel if someone said that about you? How do you think that makes that person feel? What is a different way you could say that?”

The tough reality is that you can’t fix racism. You can’t make it go away. Nothing you say in your classroom is going to rid the world of racist thoughts. But you can teach students that comments have consequences. That some comments are unkind and hurtful. And you can plant the seeds that there are other ways to think and speak.

You can’t create a world where racism doesn’t exist, but you can create an environment where it is not welcome. You can create an environment where only kind and respectful comments are tolerated. 

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