Sean Penn's Son: How to Stop Your Racist Children


So many racist children, so little time.

Indeed, it seems this month has been especially notable for youngsters publicly expressing their bigotry. Yesterday there was Robert Zimmerman, Jr. Before that was Towson University’s White Student Union. Then Joe Cassano, son of New York fire commissioner Salvatore Cassano, had to resign from his EMT position in the wake of a racist and anti-Semitic Twitter rant.

But then there was Hopper Penn, son of Sean.

The 19-year-old was recently caught on camera shouting racial and homophobic slurs at a black paparazzo, prompting a public apology. Considering his father’s prominent dealings with the Obama Administration, Haiti earthquake recovery aid, and public gay rights advocacy, many have found this one hard to stomach. How did such an apparently tolerant dad raise a son like this? The answer might have less to do with upbringing than it seems.

The Root’s Kelli Goff posed the question today: "Are Parents to Blame for a Child’s Racism?" In the article, she looks to experts to uncover whether a child’s racist speech and behavior can be attributed to parental influence. One of her central points of examination is Evan Ebel, the self-avowed white supremacist accused of murdering Colorado Department of Corrections prisons head Tom Clements this month. Many have claimed Ebel’s actions and racist ideologies are completely contrary to how he was raised.

Goff goes on to cite Dr. Jeff Gardere, who says parents play an extremely important role in a child’s racial awareness because they are primary "role models." Even teens who desire to be different from their parents eventually "drift back to the ideals and morals" they were raised with. And as for racist language? Usually, "they have heard it at home."

On the other hand, Maureen Costello, an affiliate of the Southern Poverty Law Center, claims that what a parent says to a child may be even more important than leading by example. It’s important for parents to explicitly distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate expression, particularly when it comes to racist language. It’s the same principle informing why kids talk differently with their peers than with adults: even once external influences take precedent over parental control in a child’s life, those instilled values are likely to remain intact. And ultimately, it’s a more foolproof way of deterring racist language than avoiding the discussion and leaving children to learn through other channels.

Photo Credit: NY Daily News

It seems clear, then, that preventing hate speech is initially the domain of parents. The experts have spoken. But frankly, I’d be fine with the racist wordplay if it didn’t so explicitly reflect under-addressed material inequalities.

This seems an obvious point, but throughout American history, lopsided attention has been given to what people are saying at the expense of addressing the realities their speech is reflecting. Racism is deeply entrenched in our country’s DNA, and holds real socioeconomic benefits for those in power.

If this is going to change, parents need to be equally concerned with explaining the material impact of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other discriminatory institutions to their children as they are with making sure they don’t say the "wrong thing."

One is basically useless without the other.