My son is in class with 2 people named Matt. He was trying to get one of the Matt's attention. They both were talking to my son. The conversation likely could be paraphrased like this:

Matts: Which one of us are you trying to talk to?

My Son: The brown one.

His teacher overheard that and gave him a small speech about how he was being racist and he should not talk like that. The specifics would be lost via second hand information. This happened a few days ago and there was no note in the agenda that talked about this (which is normally where I would find correspondence from the teacher).

My information does comes second hand from my 9 year old son however I am confident that he is telling the truth.

While his statement is less that tactful I believe it to be a correct observation. I recall reading something a long time ago that talked about how children are colour-blind in that they see other children and not other children of different heritage etc.

My question is kind of 2 part.

  1. Could my sons statement be seen as rasicm or racist? I do not think talking about skin colour is inherently racist. .
  2. Assuming my assertion is true I should say something to the teacher because while I can educate my son, mostly on tact, I do not think called his statement racist is teaching him correctly. What should I say to the teacher? My son could have twisted the words.

I do not think this is something I want to let go as it could give my son the wrong impression of how to deal with other people. It is not a question of it being rude or inappropriate as it definitely was. I think is it a question of if it was racist.

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    I don't like the tag I used for this. I don't have the rep to create a rasicm tag.
    – Matt
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 18:45
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    It probably depends on how old he is and in general what sort of exposure he's had to the concept of racism. My initial thought is no. I cannot stand it when people just throw up a racism flag over any tiny thing that someone somewhere might be offended by. My kids have described people by color before. They're not racist. They're 5. That's what kids do until they are old enough to know how to do it some other way
    – Kai Qing
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 18:57
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    Yes, it can be seen as racist -- without question very low on the "is this racist" scale, but that is how microaggression works. Absence of intent to offend doesn't exclude racist actions. This a complex, nuanced subject, and one conversation won't resolve it, but starting discussions about how different people (particularly when they are of different races) perceive one's language and attitude are important.
    – Acire
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 12:15
  • I think in the context of varied backgrounds and given the limitations of imperfect communication we need to consider the validity of overlooking microaggresions more often in some circumstances.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 1:26

4 Answers 4


From our childhood, we are conditioned to believe that certain descriptions are meant as a complement and a few others as an insult.

For example, growing up, I was always the shortest girl in my class and most of my friends used to wish me as 'Hi shorty'. It was the truth but I never liked it because tall people didn't have any such nickname. Also, many people I know used to advice me about exercises to increase my height so I started believing that 'Shorty' is an insult.

Now I have a daughter and she is dark skinned. I'm from India so though westerners refer to all of us as 'brown', within the country we have different shades of brown ! She is quite a confident child but every once in a while, I have to boost her morale. For example, at a family get together, some random relative would say something like 'she's so beautiful even though she's dark' and that makes her feel there's something wrong with her though that person may have meant it as a complement.

Since we live in a society, most of us should try and abide by the regular social norms. Calling someone by skin color may be truthful but it's socially perceived as an insult. So it should be avoided, particularly because there are many other ways to refer to a person (Their surname for one).

Your child is at an age where it's not really a big deal and I'm sure he didn't mean it as an insult , which is why the teacher didn't update you on this. However, you should make him aware that calling someone black/brown/Fat/Short is not really appropriate even if it's the truth.

  • is not really appropriate even if it's the truth This is what I think as well. I really appreciate this answer. Thank you.
    – Matt
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 12:02
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    I think this absolutely gets to the core of the matter, and to something that a lot of adults, particularly privileged adults, do not understand: that something can be insensitive even if not meant that way. Great answer.
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 17:24
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    I agree about descriptions having the potential for negative impact. however, I disagree that the solution is to ignore obvious physical aspects and instead address the connotations people put on them. For instance, in your example the 'dark' description was not the problem, the problem was 'even though she is'. Dark is relative and by itself really has no meaning until it is compared to something. The beauty of dark is also relative.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 11:43
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    What we need is to minimize our negative talk or put downs since they only bring people down. Your daughters skin color (dark to some, light to others, regular to others) is fine in all contexts except put downs, which should be what we eliminate, in my opinion.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 11:43
  • @AdamHeeg When a child hears a word being used as a put down, they would always think of it as a negative word. I understand you don't feel skin color is an issue. But if the conversation went like "Which Matt ? The lame one." would you feel the same ? Why do we call people 'Differently abled' rather than lame, deaf, mute , autistic etc., Because that's the polite thing to do, that's the accepted way. It's difficult to control other people's way of talking. We can only control our reaction to it and our own way of talking to others.
    – svj
    Commented Nov 3, 2017 at 2:38

While it is easy to dismiss this as an overreaction by the teacher, since the statement wasn't meant maliciously, I think the teacher was smart to take it as a teachable moment, and that it can be a good one for you as well.

We tend to think of virtues and values as things that children absorb naturally, but the reality is that they generally need to be consciously and conscientiously taught. Racism is actually quite natural to human beings --you don't have to be a bad or evil person to develop or pick up prejudices. Even if your own parents don't have them, it doesn't mean you're not picking up those attitudes from elsewhere in the general culture. There are reports of parents being shocked and horrified to see their own children marching with the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

I don't think jumping straight to "you're a racist!" was a great approach, but that may just be how your son perceived the conversation, not the teacher's actual words. Either way, you now have a chance to shape how your son takes this --he'll be watching you closely to take cues from your reaction. If it were me, I'd explain to him that noticing someone's skin color is natural, but identifying or singling out someone out on the basis of that trait tends to feel weird and uncomfortable for that person, especially if they are a minority in a group. It might also be an opportunity to open a conversation about both the history --slavery, segregation, apartheid --and the current events --Charlottesville, racial disparities in interactions with police, the Charleston shootings --that have arisen from taking color or race as a primary way of identifying people.

  • Hmm. I think that's better. I'll delete. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 14:22
  • Your statement - "identifying or singling out someone out on the basis of that trait tends to feel weird and uncomfortable for that person" i believe is only true for insecure people. Further I think it misses the point. I believe that our society needs to focus on the context of these 'identifiers' rather than the identifiers themselves. Otherwise we will never address the actual problem.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 20:31
  • Also, generalizations are a brain function that has and still does keep us safe in many situations. Our brains will continue to generalize as it was designed to do so. Just as we need to grow up and learn to control emotions such as fear and anger etc. we don't pretend like we don't have them or call them wrong. In the same way we need to learn how to handle our natural ability to generalize and adapt to the social needs of our day.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 20:33
  • @AdamHeeg I've often been a racial minority in a room, and I can testify firsthand it does indeed feel weird and uncomfortable to be singled out for that fact. However, your connecting of this to insecurity may be right on the money. To be an identified or singled-out minority of any type in any situation IS an insecure position, practically by definition (and often by design). (As regards your second comment, I'm not sure in what way you feel it contradicts my answer.) Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 20:38
  • @ChrisSunami i did skim it, but I think you're missing your own assumptions. I think you generalized seeing someone brown as being prejudiced (your 2nd paragraph and overall stance). Noticing a skin color and saying it out loud are in fact not prejudiced. Your addition of children marching with white supremacists also seems to be out of place for the information we have with this topic. Anyway, i'm not saying you are wrong in some of what you say, but you brought in outside racism to support a teacher in a situation that based on the facts were given was not racist.but i could be wrong.
    – Adam Heeg
    Commented Nov 2, 2017 at 20:56

Racism is a sore subject, but I'll venture an answer.

If you define "racism" as "a noun describing... subscribing to the belief that the human population can be classified according to race", then yes, I believe it was a racist response. At that moment, the most significant identifier of Matt was that he was the "brown" Matt.

That doesn't mean it was meant to be unkind (though that might be debated by some.) That depends partly on the child's age and on how he treats Matt otherwise.

If you only accept that racism is the belief in the superiority of one race over another, then only Matt can honestly say. But people who often experience microaggression usually see even such small things differently than those who don't.

There are many ways to answer the question, "Which one of us are you trying to talk to?"

  • You Matt (pointing my finger.) (That's probably how I would have done it as a child do it.)
  • Matt K. (first initial of last name. Very common way to differentiate "Matts".)
  • You, Matt, in the red shirt.

But "the brown one" strikes me as not ok. First, it's speaking about a person in the third person. Second, it relies on race. Third, there are two Matts in the class. Surely the teacher doesn't call on them by saying, "OK, Brown Matt," or, "Please go to the board, White Matt." Variance from how the teacher identifies them means something unless the teacher addresses them as Mr. K- and Mr. L-.

If your child was 5, I would think nothing of it. Your child is 9 (which would put him in the 4th grade here) and that's a little too old to refer to someone as "the brown Matt". However, the teacher didn't even think enough about it to write you a note. I would let it be. As you said, the specifics are lost now.

I do not think this is something I want to let go as it could give my son the wrong impression of how to deal with other people.

It seems like you're saying it's ok to identify people as "the brown Matt", "the black Matt", etc. I don't think you are, but I think the teacher tried to address the way your son spoke, and the only problem is if it's racist or just rude. Either way, it's not good.

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    Out of curiosity, what do you see as the difference (if any?) between referring to someone by skin colour vs a different physical property? If we accept that "the tall one"/"the blonde one"/"the brown-eyed one"/"the skinny one"/"the long haired one" is acceptable, that (those?) is simply another physical property that can be used to identify someone. Do you not feel that in some cases giving so much importance to skin colour actually is counterproductive? Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 22:45
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    @SnyperBunny skin color has been used (and often still is) for identification/labeling in a quite different way than height, hair or eye color, or weight, and so it ends up in a different category. (But I'd also avoid labeling "fat Matt" or "skinny Matt" for a similarly sensitive reason!)
    – Acire
    Commented Oct 31, 2017 at 23:15
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    @SnyperBunny - "Do you not feel that in some cases giving so much importance to skin colour actually is counterproductive?" No, I don't (or I would have answered differently.) As I said, people who often experience microaggression feel/perceive things differently. We - almost the whole Western world - have fat shamed so long! Now it's politically/socially incorrect, thank heavens. To an overweight young woman, saying "That dress is unflattering on you," will probably be heard as "That dress makes you look fat," even though the comment had no specific context. It's the same with race. Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 0:08

I would just like to offer a perspective with an opportunity for reflection on the situation as it arose. Your son when asked by one of the 'Matts' whom he was talking to, would in natural circumstances, simply have said: 'You' or 'The other one'. The fact that he did not respond in this way does perhaps suggest some other thought process in this situation.

While the identification of a physical characteristic is not necessarily rascist, some discussion could be had regarding the sensitive nature of such comments.

As the teacher did not bring this up with you, it would appear that she understands that your son is not racist and was addressing a manner of speech which could at some stage be perceived as such.

I would engage with the teacher regarding the situation, to ascertain her perspective, keeping the lines of communication open and transparent, and perhaps all can learn from the experience.


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