Innocent racism

Anyone who has ever come into contact with children will know that toddler + public place = embarrassment of some kind. Most of these cringe-worthy moments pass me by now; I have developed too thick a skin to even recognise when my child has committed a slight faux pas. But some things are so obviously wrong that they are impossible to ignore.

We attend a church-run toddler group each week, and on the back of the door there is a poster with a white baby and a black baby; both crawling and just wearing nappies. Back in the day when Sam’s vocabulary was limited to ‘no’, ‘more’, ‘dog’ and ‘digger’, something really quite terrible happened: he pointed to the black baby and made extremely loud monkey noises. Feeling exceptionally hot under the collar, I shushed him and hurriedly said ‘that’s not a monkey, Sam’ before hightailing it out of there.

The second time it happened, I explained that the photograph was not of a monkey; it was, in fact, of two baby boys. ‘Look how smiley those two baby boys are, Sam! Those two baby boys are crawling, just like you used to when you were a baby!’ – Still amid continuous and noisy ‘OO OO OO! AA AA AA!’s.

On the third occurrence in three consecutive weeks, I tried another tactic; ‘Sam those babies have the same hair colour – look! But they have different coloured skin. And you have the same coloured skin as your friend Jimmy, but you have very different hair. But we’re all people, aren’t we?!’


…Ok perhaps that one was a little advanced, but I really had no other trick up my sleeve. The strange thing is…he only ever did it for that poster; on kids TV, you can guarantee that each child featured will be from a different ethnic background (and, somewhat amusingly, the white child usually has ginger hair). TV; fine. Books; fine. The little girl who sometimes came to that very same toddler group; fine. But for some reason, this particular poster was bringing out Sam’s inner racist.

On the fourth week, when Sam’s increasingly realistic monkey noises were once again displayed at the top of his voice…I kept quiet, hoping that showing no interest at all would be the thing to discourage him.

I had to endure a couple more painful sessions until he finally grew bored. And that, I thought, was that.

…Until today, when he pointed to the poster and said; loud and proud: ‘Wot dat black monkey doing, Mummy?’

I don’t think there’s much else I can do, except to warn others of the dangers of living in an area where every bloomin person is white.

And also, when in a flustered state of extreme embarrassment, DO NOT – under any circumstances – say, in a fake jolly voice: ‘Oh do excuse my son he’s obsessed with monkeys.’ Unsurprisingly, such explanations do not alleviate the awkwardness of the situation. One of the worst things I have ever said; albeit accidentally and without any malice or meaning behind it, other than to imply that he pretends all people are monkeys…our lion game backfired when he started having nightmares; so recently we’ve been spending most of our time swinging through imaginary trees and eating imaginary bananas.

Maybe it is time to impersonate a different animal…


  1. Interesting story 🙂 quite a tough situation to handle there!

    • Yes, very tough! It does make me feel better though that it is nothing but childish confusion and lack of awareness – he doesn’t go to nursery or anything yet so I know it’s not something he is parroting back from an ignorant adult. But that doesn’t particularly help in solving the problem!

      • oh yes I can’t imagine what my son will pick up from nursery school once he goes to one!

  2. Kids – gotta love them!!! They always say and do the wrong things at the wrong time. Angie

    • Tell me about it! I’ve got new evidence for this…but may wait awhile before posting in case it sounds like Sam is attacking every member of society – being branded a miniature racist is probably enough for the poor little chap at the moment!

  3. Red

    Oh pish tosh. Stop being embarrassed or explaining. Ask him why he thinks it is a monkey. That way he will tell you what you need to say. Instead of thinking your child knows or understands a racial slur (which is quite rare at that age, unless he hears it used regularly), consider he may be seeing something in the photograph you did not.

    What he tells you just may make you laugh yourself silly for being embarrassed. You can win this!

    • Oh I never even considered that people would actually think it was a purposeful racial slur! Oh no no no there is no way he’s picked it up from an adult – he doesn’t go to nursery or anything yet so I’m with him 24/7. It is definitely just him being young and being confused by people who don’t look exactly like him. I will ask him why he thinks that the next time he says something – I expect it will have as much to do with the baby’s stance as his colour.

  4. When my daughter was about Sam’s age, I took her to work with me on a Saturday. The only other person there was my team leader, who happened to be an extreme pear shape (a SERIOUSLY big bum!). Aub looked at her, leans over to me, and in a toddler whisper (which is about 300 decibels) says, “Mommy, your friend is REALLY fat!” I explained why it was not nice to say such things, and I apologized, very red-faced, to my team leader, with visions of my having to spend Sundays scraping gum from under her desk. However, she was somewhat nice about it…until Aubrey yanked on my arm and exclaimed, “Mommy, her butt is REALLY HUGE!” One of the many times that I wished I was a hamster and had eaten my young.

  5. There is a famous story in my family where my mom took my sister to the doctor for a check up one day. In the waiting room was a teenage girl with very bad acne. My sister pointed to the girl and said loudly “Oh mom, that girl’s face make me want to be sick.” Despite what would be natural inclinations, I still have a sister and my mom still wants to disappear when she tells the story. Kids will get you in trouble. There was this one time when my son got me stuck in a hot tub full of girls from Buffalo… (that’s another story…)

  6. A friend of mine was standing in line at our local grocery store in front of a black man and her toddler very politely took a tissue out of her purse and handed it to the man so he could “wipe the dirt off.” Yipe! I think every mother has experienced it at some point.

    • Haha the number of similar stories I’ve heard since posting this…! I’m glad we’re not the only ones!

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