On socialization and learning where we fit in the world

Hey, did you know we’re Mexican?

says the little girl at craft table at the library.  She couldn’t have been older than six.  Her little friend across from her dropped her scissors, mouth agape.

Don’t you call me that!

She was clearly insulted and the table fell silent, all eyes on the offender.  She averted her eyes, but there was no place to go.  She and her two friends had been told to stay there and color and stay she did.  Just before hurling this horrendous insult, she had been happily counting and singing . . . in Spanish.  Clearly, neither she nor anyone at the table had any particular issue with the country of their obvious heritage until it was named.


After a long moment of silence, the third girl leaned in and whispered, “It’s called Hispanic.  We’re Hispanic.”  With that, the tension eased and they went back to their playful chatter about school and television and friends.  They forgot about that dirty word.


She may as well have said, “Hey, did you know we were spics?”  Or !@#$%^&*.  Or chinks.  Or any number of racial slurs.  I can’t help but wonder how a child growing up Hispanic in an Hispanic home with Hispanic friends, watching Dora the Explorer, who happily sings songs in Spanish in the library learns that Mexican is a dirty word.

This is socialization.  Learning what is “other,” labeling it and trying to make it conform.  This is the “leavening effect of democracy” which compulsory schooling offers.  It does not teach us to value difference, but to conform.  It does not teach us to handle conflict, but to submit to the capricious and cruel tendencies of small children with inadequate supervision.

Humans are fundamentally social creatures, and I would be the last to argue against teaching our children how to function within our social groups.  Socialization is a natural part of being human.  But how do we best teach this to our children?  Seated in neat rows while the teacher talks?  Or perhaps better seated in circles?  On the playground while an adult with a whistles chats with an aid and watches for any grievous rule breaks?  Or within the context of the family where true, selfless love can be experienced alongside daily modeling and guidance specific to each child’s needs?

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10 Responses

  1. Regarding the library scene, you forgot “honkey” and “cracker” in your list of racial epithets! 😉

    I wasn’t aware that “Mexican” was a dirty word…I guess we’ve all learned something today.

    Regarding Uppercase Woman’s daughter’s experience, I can relate. This happened to our oldest daughter AND our middle daughter – at homeschool co-op and at church. Very sad situation.

  2. I guess I didnt know Mecican was a racial slur either. Poor kids. Adults can sure mess things up for innocent children.

  3. Me, neither. That’s why it took me by surprise. And maybe it is the effect of a privileged upbringing, but I’ve always found racial slurs against whites sort of comical. The one time someone actually called me a honkey, I couldn’t say I was exactly insulted. Certain words used against women can, however.

  4. You’re certainly right that this child did not learn to be offended at “Mexican” from Dora the Explorer, so your question is a good one: where did that idea come from? Having grown up in the hyper-segregated city of Chicago, I can say that “dirty Mexican” was an established term of abuse, almost a single word in some neighborhoods; and while it was not a term we used or even thought much about [we should have!], it did color my perceptions & attitudes (for instance, when choosing between Latin & Spanish for language classes).

    Everybody struggles with the pain attached to words that try to nail us down (by ethnicity, gender, appearance, or whatever), and there’s good reason why we seek out words that are not so closely attached to pain. Part of this involves struggling, both as children and as adults, to find the right words for oneself & one’s community. That this seems absurdly “PC” to some (& occasionally is so) is probably inevitable, but the people who complain often haven’t felt the pain, or are taking more account of their own.

    I’d agree that humans are fundamentally social, so I think it’s a bit of a jump to claim that kids teaching each other about proper language is purely a “school socialization” thing. Yes, it would have been a good moment for a parent or teacher to step in & help the kids think through the meaning of “Mexican,” but homeschooled kids can teach each other questionable things as well (an episode of “bombing Iraq” games on a playground full of homeschoolers comes to mind). In both cases, the kids may teach the wrong lesson, but eventually the adults will have some interactions with them that help correct the misconceptions. At least, that’s what we hope.

  5. When I was a kid this would have been “hey, did you know you’re adopted?” — translation, you’re not who you think you are and you’re less worthy and secure here than I am am.

    Doesn’t matter what the words are or where they come from or even if they are factually true or false. It’s not about socialization and learning to get along or even learning to respect and celebrate cultural diversity.

    It’s power of story. Who am I and why am I and who loves me, how should I live and what does it all mean?

    I agree this is not for schools or peers to determine! 😉

  6. Your post made me laugh. I live in California–highly Mexican and Mexican American in population, and often culture. Yes, Mexican has become a dirty word–but more for those using it than those who it is applied.

    I also laugh because my children are Mexican American, with the exception of my oldest son. I raised my 2nd son to be very proud of both his Anglo and Mexican heritages: I cook both food, listen to music from both cultures in both languages, I have books in both English and Spanish, he watches both Spanish and English news broadcasts, I have both languages spoken in the home to the best of my very limited ability, I discussed both traditions and holidays throughout his grouping up.

    Then enters my step children, more Mexican American than my son as both their parents are of Mexican descent, where my son only has a Mexican father… and they used the M word against my son as an insult (which I found humorous to an extent.) When I tried explaining that they also were Mexican they were appalled and denied it venomously! They were GERMAN they had been told by their aunt (whom found it funny)… and they believed it. They were 6 and 7 yrs old.

    I had to talk with my husband about it, and about his sister’s false information. These children needed to be aware of their heritage and be proud of it as well, not embarrassed nor ashamed. It took awhile, but they came around to accepting they were Mexican American and to appreciate that, but I think they still see themselves as something different in some way.

    You see, many Mexican Americans try very hard to distance themselves from the stereotypical Mexican image, so much so as to almost deny their own ethnicity. I don’t see this as much with other “hispanic” cultures, but I definitely see with the Mexican one.

    As for assimilation rather than appreciation–yes, the schools are awful for trying to see everyone as the same rather than appreciating the differences. And it most definitely leads to this confusion and embarrassment and disregards for other ethnic/cultural groups.

    We try hard in this family to see and appreciate the cultural differences. To laugh at them at times, borrow from them, to revel in them… but never to melt them into something new and American. The differences are what make the relationships so interesting and great… and often eye opening! We have been fortunate enough to have Mexicans, Germans, Yugoslavians, Russians, Romanians, Serbs, Italians, Canadians, Persians, Jews and Italians as family and friends… and we love the diversity! Recognizing and appreciating our differences and even our similarities… but schools would have the kids not discuss these differences for fear of offending someone. Who says the differences are bad, I wonder?

  7. P.S. To clarify–while I raised my 2nd son to appreciate both is American and Mexican cultural heritage, my oldest–no Mexican American son– also learned to appreciate the Mexican culture as well… more for its own sake than as a part of who he was/is.

  8. Yes, you are right Circle Reader. And I didn’t mean to imply that this is only occurring in school. My point is that this is part of socialization, just as strong a part of socialization as the “learning about difference” people want it to be about.

    It is inevitable, but I do believe children need parents or other adults in close proximity to help guide them through how to handle such situations.

  9. My just-turned-7 year old mortified me a couple weeks ago when she asked very loudly in the auto repair shop shuttle driven by a very nice Latino gentleman, “Mommy, why are all people who drive shuttles & taxis ethnic?”

    Somehow she’d picked up on the use of “ethnic” as code for “non-white” even though AFAIK neither DH nor I do that.

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