Inoculating Children Against Eugenics:
Thoughts on How to Raise the Next Generation to be Anti-Racist and Anti-Ableist
I am not an expert on the history of eugenics, but I am passionate about the importance of teaching about the history of eugenics in order to create a more inclusive society with human rights and dignity for all. As a faculty member who teaches child development, and as a Chinese American mother, I humbly offer my thoughts on how to attempt to counter the hegemonic views supported by eugenics, of some bodies being inherently better than others. The proposed activities can be thought of as a way of inoculating children against racism, ableism (prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities), and other forms of oppression, before their minds and hearts become too comfortable with everyday injustice. A few ways to start are by acknowledging your privilege, providing counter-examples, and engaging in counter-storytelling.
Acknowledge your privilege. Because of my research on college students with disabilities, it was natural that I ended up advocating for students with disabilities on my campus. Initially, I made the mistake of not acknowledging my own privilege. I am someone who does not identify as having a disability or disabling condition; I am what I would now call “temporarily able-bodied,” in recognition of the fact that most of us will become disabled to some extent as we age. A key slogan of the disability rights movement is “Nothing about us without us,” so I try my best to collaborate with others who identify as having a disability, and to listen to the voices of people with disabilities, whether Disability Studies scholars, disability rights activists, or writers and ordinary people with disabilities.
If you identify as a white person, you will need to acknowledge your privilege in order to successfully raise a child who is anti-racist. This may mean finding your own way to overcoming such obstacles as white guilt, a belief that it is not polite to talk about race, a fear of making mistakes when talking about race, resistance from others to discussing race, or the temptation to take the easier path by not mentioning race. If you are able to make the transition from non-racist to anti-racist, then your beliefs and actions will support equitable outcomes for people of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. It is impossible to achieve this without recognizing racial injustices. Other forms of privilege you may want to discuss with children, if applicable, could include being cisgender, straight, or a member of a dominant religion, among others.
Provide counter-examples. In order to raise children who are not sexist, Sandra Bem (psychologist and feminist) believed in the importance of providing children with counter-examples of gender, e.g., books portraying women working in professions that are typically male-dominated, and explicitly discussing with children that genitalia have nothing to do with what makes someone qualified to do a certain type of work. A similar approach to raising children who are not racist could be taken by deliberately exposing children to examples which go against racial or ethnic stereotypes, such as Black scientists or Asian athletes, and explaining that someone’s skin color, eye color, or hair type has nothing to do with what makes someone good at doing a certain type of work.
Providing examples of famous people with disabilities, or people with disabilities engaged in ordinary activities like being parents, can be a way to refute the ableism perpetuated by eugenics. The eugenics movement in the United States, which served as inspiration for the Holocaust, eagerly (and often inaccurately) labeled people -- mostly women -- as “feeble-minded” in order to deprive them of their reproductive rights by sterilizing them without their consent, or through coercion. In addition to teaching children about Civil Rights heroes who fought race-based discrimination, we can teach them about people with disabilities who fought for disability rights.
Adults striving to be anti-racist and anti-ableist can also provide varying, non-Eurocentric examples of what beauty can look like by including people with different types of bodies, such as Black people (especially Black women) with natural hairstyles, multiracial people, plus size models and dancers, people with visible disabilities, and transgender, gender nonconforming, or non-binary people. “Fitter family contests” were popular in the US in the 1920s due to the eugenics movement, but of course the winners of those contests tended to be of Western or Northern European descent, Protestant, without disabilities, and with a heterosexual couple as parents. In contrast, children today can be exposed to diverse examples of what families look like, including multiracial families, families with same-gender parents, single-parent families, families with other relatives as caregivers, and families with adopted children.
After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, a white teacher in Iowa named Jane Elliott enacted a classroom exercise to teach her white 3rd graders about discrimination by temporarily creating an environment where either brown-eyed students or blue-eyed students were “on top.” Although she was the target of hate for doing this, she has also received awards and went on to a career as a diversity trainer. Such activities successfully teach students how people are discriminated against, and why they are discriminated against in the sense that people can be motivated to maintain their own privilege; however, this approach does not give the historical context of racism growing out of colonial beliefs in white supremacy, especially with regard to harming Indigenous people and Black people. Eugenics is the missing piece which explains that people’s false beliefs in their own superiority can drive their need to discriminate against others.
Engage in counter-storytelling. Children as young as 6 years old have been successfully taught about slavery in American history through books, dramatic play, and discussion [1, 2]. Storytelling can be very powerful, include examples of resistance and human dignity in the face of oppression, and appeal to children’s sense of fairness. Research has found that when the historical context of racism is included in lessons about famous African American people, both white and Black children valued racial fairness more . Younger children can be taught about one tool of eugenics, anti-miscegenation laws, by explaining that it used to be against the law for certain couples to get married, such as people from different racial backgrounds, or people of the same gender. But when people’s wrong ideas change, then they change the laws, too.
Children 10 and up may be ready for more complex versions of stories from the history of eugenics. One example is the immigration laws supported by eugenicists in order to keep certain people out of the country because they were wrongfully considered to be less healthy and intelligent, or a threat to “racial purity.” These undesirable groups included Chinese people, and even Eastern European or Southern European people now considered white. Intelligence tests developed by eugenicists supposedly demonstrated that certain people did not deserve to be admitted to the country, but the tests were tricky and meaningless because of cultural and language biases.
Teenagers may be interested in the possibilities presented by stories of social justice movements. Standard coverage of American history includes the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but lesser-known tales of the civil rights movement deserve to be told, such as the East LA Walkouts by Chicano high school students seeking equal education, or the 504 Sit-In by people with disabilities seeking equal rights under federal law (the resulting legislation was the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act). Eugenics falsely deemed all of these people inferior in intelligence, character, and deserved human rights, but through unity they prevailed.
 Husband, T. (2010). He’s too young to learn about that stuff: Anti-racist pedagogy and early childhood social studies. Social Studies Research and Practice, 5, 61-75.
 Marriott, D. M. (2003). Ending the silence. Phi Delta Kappan, 84, 496-501.
 Hughes, J. M., Bigler, R. S., & Levy. S. R. (2007). Consequences of learning about historical racism among European American and African American children. Child Development, 78, 1689-1705.
Christina Chin-Newman is a Professor in the Department of Human Development and Women’s Studies at California State University, East Bay.