Race in the Life of an Indo-Trinidadian Child: Debunking the Myth of “Racial Innocence”

Kerry-Ann Escayg,
Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education, University of Nebraska at Omaha

Some believe that young children, due to age-related cognition, cannot grasp the meaning of race or racial matters. That is, they are neither able to formulate racialized perceptions nor engage in racist acts. Yet much literature in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the Caribbean, has shown that young children not only recognize racial criteria, but also act upon them, especially in their peer-group interactions. Here, I highlight the story of a 5-year-old Indo-Trinidadian female I interviewed for a larger study on Trinidadian children’s racial identity and attitudes. My approach is a narrative one, for I aim to explore the child’s understanding of race as well as to highlight how such interpretations may implicate parental racial socialization as a mediating factor that influences children’s racial self-identification and out-group attitudes.

Clara (pseudonym) is a 5-year-old Indo-Trinidadian girl. In terms of physical characteristics, she has a brown complexion and long, straight, black hair. When I visited her classroom (a government-funded early childhood center), I noticed that Clara enjoyed playing in the dress-up center. The dress-up center included both Black and White dolls and I observed that Clara seemed to prefer the White doll. As part of my data collection process, I interviewed Clara. In one of these interviews, I asked Clara to draw a picture of herself. I provided a range of skin-tone makers, crayons, and colored pencils. Clara considered the available materials and then selected a light pink marker. Sadly, she did not chose a marker that represented her own skin tone, despite being instructed to draw herself. When I asked her why she chose that particular marker, she stated, “Because it is my favorite color.”

During the course of the interview, Clara also selected a dark brown marker, and then informed me that she was drawing one of her friends. Interestingly, when I asked Clara if the marker matched her own skin tone, she replied, “No.” I then followed up by asking her, “So which one looks like you?” She looked at the markers and other materials and then selected a light brown pencil crayon. Again, I asked her if this particular color matched her skin tone. She placed the pencil crayon to her skin and said, “No.” Equally interesting, when I reiterated my earlier question, “Which one looks like you?,” she looked at all the markers, and in what seemed to me to be a negative tone, she responded by saying, “Black.” She did not choose the black marker, however, but instead finished her drawing by using the light brown pencil crayon. Such inconsistencies reveal two salient conclusions: Clara is racially self-aware (she recognizes skin color and can self-identify), but her preference for lighter skin color, which appears to operate as a dominant factor, impedes accurate self-identification.

Clara’s preference for lighter skin tones became more apparent in another interview. To assess her racial self-identification, I asked Clara if she was Indian. She responded, “No, I am Christian and I am cute.” Equally interesting was Clara’s selection during a perceived similarity task. I asked Clara to select a photo that most looked like her. Four photos were available: a White female child, a Black female child, an Indo-Trinidadian female (light brown) child, and a mixed-race female child (light-skinned with curly hair). Clara identified with the White female child. Taken together, Clara’s selections and her responses to the interview question clearly illustrate a positive attitude toward White racial characteristics, most notably skin tone.

Of equal relevance to the participant’s racial perceptions is the role of parental socialization. Clara’s mother indicated that she does not engage in any discussions about race with her child. She explained: “We don’t do like, ‘You are an Indian’. . . . We don’t do that. We are Christians, we go to church; Sunday is for church, and nothing else.” Such racial socialization technique (that is, silence on race) may partially explain Clara’s inaccurate self-identification as well as her pro-White racial attitudes. It is important to note that the parent appeared to ascribe more significance to her Christian identity than racial identity; thus, young Clara’s statement that “I am Christian and I am cute,” constitutes a salient feature of her identity. This of course, is largely due to the parental socialization she has received.

The convergence between Clara’s self-identification, attitudes, and her received socialization reveals that while developmental factors may be taken into account, a parent’s racial socialization also plays a significant role in the child’s racial self-identification and out-group attitudes. Racial socialization—the messages parents send to teach children about the meaning of race as well as racial identity—has been extensively studied in the United States. Few investigations, however, have focused on the Caribbean, in general, or Trinidad, more specifically. Given that issues of race and racism are also prevalent in Trinidad, it is important to consider historical as well as contemporary race narratives that inform children’s racial attitudes.

In sum, data from Clara’s interviews revealed striking parallels with other empirical work conducted on young children and race in the Caribbean and elsewhere. In essence, such findings further illustrate children’s ability to ascribe positive racial meanings to particular racial characteristics. While Clara’s case presents one example, it also clearly signifies the importance of both parental and educational efforts aimed at instilling racial pride through direct and indirect socialization techniques (discussions about racial history is one strategy that can be employed). Indeed, using Clara’s story as an example, I argue that educators and parents should employ strategies that will enable children to critique and challenge the descriptors often attached to “Whiteness”—namely, that of superiority. The strength of my convictions derives from my own childhood racial autobiography, which resembles that of Clara’s. My own path to decolonization occurred later in life, through my scholarly pursuits in history, literature, and anti-racism. I hope Clara’s own decolonization process can occur earlier in life, so she can actively challenge ideologies and social practices that typify racial characteristics, such as lighter skin color, as more desirable than others. May she prevail . . . and all others who expose and seek to dismantle the historical legacies of colonization, even as the shadows of its savage nature continue to permeate our present-day realities.