Stop Calling Babies Racist | Opinion

The idea that babies are born racist sounds like a really bad joke. In reality, it's become a heated discussion across social media and even at some schools.

It's part and parcel of our current "racial reckoning." Across the nation, American schools have been rushing to modify their curricula to address the so-called "inescapable racism" of white and light-skinned people, including children. Books like Woke Baby and Anti-Racism Starts With Me: Kids Coloring Book and A Is for Activist began have been exploding on Amazon. Ibram X. Kendi's book Antiracist Baby is a #1 New York Times bestseller.

"Babies are taught to be racist or antiracist—there's no neutrality," writes Kendi in his children's board book, using the same simplistic rubric for babies that propelled him to fame with his adult book How to Be an Antiracist.

What the binary really implies is that racism is not a behavior, a worldview, or a choice; it is an innate condition, something white people must work to overcome from birth. For Kendi and the millions of Americans buying his books, we cannot inhabit a racially neutral space of, say, a person who treats all people with dignity and respect. We must instead become anti-racist, fighting racism in the manner outlined by Kendi and company, through policy and programming that centers race.

Kendi's definition of racism resembles nothing so much as the Protestant concept of Original Sin, in which humans are born inherently predisposed to evil, born in sin. Our very birth confirms our innate sinfulness, according to Martin Luther and John Calvin, because sin originates in the act of conception. So, too, is the baby born to the woke born into a world of racial sin and in need of anti-racist teachings to "make society transform," per Kendi.

This Calvinist approach to modern racism, in which white babies and children are guilty from birth, implicated in racism from the day they are born, is wrong and damaging on many levels. For starters, human predispositions are created through environment. A child born into a family of racists will likely adopt racist attitudes and behaviors by learning and imitating them, and vice versa.

Moreover, even a person born into a racist environment can change and grow through education and interaction with others. This is something the trendiest forms of antiracism education today do not allow for; just as original sin dictates that even after repentance or baptism, a person is still predisposed toward sin, the idea that white people are born racist ensures that one's skin color is a permanent, lifetime marker that one must obsessively "do the work" to correct.

But this idea ultimately harms constructive antiracism work, for it suggests that we have no agency in our racist behavior. How are we culpable, if it's pre-written on our DNA?

antiracist baby

It should be obvious that taking away the culpability we bear for racist behavior, just like insisting that babies and children should notice people's race before anything else, is dangerously close if not downright identical to the justifications and processes that enabled the overt racism of darker times.

To justify their reracialization of childhood, woke anti-racists point to studies that have found that children detect racial difference at a very early age, and even express a preference for people who look like them. Three-month-old babies can identify faces based on skin color, while three-year-olds can form preferences based on "in-group bias."

But this bias is not necessarily or inherently racist. The mere existence of in-groups vs. outgroups based on visible differences, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or shared interests, is a fact of life, as is the fact that humans tend to gravitate toward people we perceive are most like us. Even the most assimilated immigrants need support from communities who share their nationality or ethnicity. We all need in-groups. Their existence does not automatically imply racism.

Take, for example, gender, another factor that typically creates an in-group. By the age of three, boys gravitate to other boys at playtime, as do girls to girls. "The pulling apart of girls and boys into separate play groups is one of the most striking, well-documented, and culturally universal phenomena of middle childhood," as one study noted.

Are these preferences sexist? Of course not. Numerous studies have found that many innate preferences are innocuous.

Racial preference, of course, may be a bit more complex, and in-grouping can turn toxic when those in the group become hostile to members outside it. And no doubt, being exposed to racist behavior by family, school, or media breeds more of the same.

But for Kendi and his followers, any preferences are inherently insidious. "We know that by two years old, children are already consuming racist ideas," Kendi said in an interview. "They're already discerning whom to play with based on kids' skin color, and so if we wait till they're 10 or 15, they may be a lost cause, like some of us adults."

Children notice difference, it's true. This does not make them racist. There are many ways to talk with children about these differences that accept their need for in-groups, but also create positive associations with those who are different.

Teaching people, especially children, that certain groups of people are born racist does not accomplish this. Kendi's worldview is merely re-entrenching a racialized worldview to children, who are incapable of seeing it for the nonsense that it is. Those who truly wish to live in a more equal society would do well to keep their children and babies far away from antiracism.

Let's strive for non-racist children, so they can grow up into non-racist adults and point out the flawed racialized language of anti-racism.

Monica Osborne is a writer and former professor of literature, film, and trauma studies. She is the author of The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma. Follow her on Twitter: @DrMonicaOsborne.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.