Volume 50, Issue 2: Spring 2016

Separate but equal: False equality and the political exclusion of children

Photo: Gordon Parks/ The Gordon Parks Foundation, from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exhibit. Earl Collins and his daughter, Doris Jean, in St. Louis. Posted on the newyorktimes.com, Dec. 24, 2015.

Contemporary democracy emerged as a revolutionary corrective to the unequal and exclusionary regimes of the feudal and colonial eras. Preserving a genuinely inclusive and equitable political order hinges on having a relatively intelligent and articulate populace electing and guiding a group of intelligent and articulate representatives. It is a peculiar arrangement, however. The political ideal of speech and reason at the centre of democratic life is also responsible for the historical exclusion of women, people of colour, the poor, indigenous peoples and children. These groups were deemed unworthy because their intelligence was considered deficient.

Modern democracy, ostensibly, no longer tolerates the exclusion of women, people of colour or the poor, yet the exclusion of children continues to be justified on precisely the grounds that they lack speech and reason. Is this a natural omission? I suggest it is not. Nor is it trivial. Indeed, our failure to properly include historically marginalized groups is rooted in our failure to recognize children as political agents. Democracy goes off course and runs dangerously adrift insofar as our political ideals are unmoored from the plight of most vulnerable, the voiceless. Over the years, the exclusion of children has been given many names: adultism, childism, adultarchy, adult supremacy, misopedy. Whatever we wish to name it, the exclusion of children is a remnant of colonial injustice, the preservation of which has a profound impact on modern politics.

But aren’t children more respected today than in any point in history? Yes and no. True, child welfare associations emerged in the early 20th century (shortly after animal welfare associations). And, in the post-war era of human rights, the universal moral equality of the young was recognized and this inclusion did enhanced protections for some children from overt violence (mainly white youth). The 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of Children elaborated on these protections. But whereas the recognition of moral equality for marginalized groups served as a foundation upon which their political equality would be established, children have never been recognized as fully equal. The effect has been disastrous, for moral equality without political equality is simply false equality. False equality was a rot at the centre of every fledgling democracy that pronounced universal dignity while disenfranchising women, people of colour and the poor.

False equality guaranteed the cultural denial and the bloodshed that marked the “separate but equal” Jim Crow era. False equality adheres in the ongoing denial of citizenship to those who have lived most of their lives in our democracies. History has demonstrated time and again that our failure to establish political equality for the historically marginalized is a blatant mockery of their moral equality.

But how do we include children? Some confusion is to be expected, since recognizing the full equality of children entails something more revolutionary than extending the franchise by lowering the voting age. The challenge it poses is more fundamental precisely because the child lacks those capacities of speech and reason presupposed by our democratic institutions. It is not enough, therefore, to simply add children to adult politics and stir. Elections and parties and bureaucracies are, after all, designed by adults for adults.

Acknowledging the full equality of children is transformative of society itself because it necessitates a fundamental rethinking of democratic ideals and institutions around the particular capacities of children. Politics presupposes difference and disagreement. Where there is undifferentiated uniformity, there is no politics. Political equality, then, is the form of equality we establish between people with diverse interests, ideas, identities and capacities. Establishing the formal equality of people with diverse capacities is a necessary part of the anti-colonial shift that democratic politics offers. Recognizing the political equality of children means recognizing that speech and reason can no longer wholly define politics. What we need to get there is a decolonial politics of childhood.

“Intelligence has never saved anyone”

Speech and reason are not forms of agency used by the very young. Older children use language, but they do not formulate and articulate abstract ideals or principled arguments about justice. The political equality of children must be structured according to the modes of agency they do exercise: care, play and mutual aid. Although care, play and mutual aid can be seen as elements of adult-dominated approaches to the economy and the environment, their role is supplementary and always in the service of intelligent deliberation.

There is a great deal at stake in the decolonial politics of childhood. It strikes against the colonial view that the absence of speech and reason signals dependency and a lack of freedom. This view permits dominant society to categorize groups as children, simultaneously disqualifying people as political agents and asserting protective dominance over them. Dominant colonial society infantilizes these groups in order to situate them as naturally inferior, dependent and therefore contemptible. Reflect, for a moment, on the terms used to construct people as political subordinates: childish, infantile, immature, adolescent, puerile, juvenile. The assumption built into this discourse is that to be a child is to naturally invite discipline, even violence. Any resistance, protest or direct action is summarily dismissed as a tantrum since it is not expressed in a “mature” manner indicative of “civilized” politics. The discourse precludes dominant society from seeing any emotional response to racial, sexual, or economic injustice as human, and therefore as politically valid, because as children these groups are no more than slaves to emotion.

Accordingly, most of the early emancipatory movements sought to prove to white patriarchal society that marginalized groups were just as cognitively and linguistically capable as they. The prejudices of dominant societies were tacitly affirmed when these groups aspired to the very standards of intelligent political discourse that old white men had established. Then came the realization that there is no liberation in meeting a threshold that has been imposed by those who claim the authority to define humanity. Liberation is only realized in the rejection and dismantling of the authority itself. Thus, when it comes to children, the aim is not for those with the requisite intelligence to speak for children so as to include them. Nor is it to show that children are capable of speaking intelligently for themselves. Rather, the aim is to reject intelligence as the measure of political worth and inclusion. When we fail to do this, we preserve and reinforce the standard of speech and reason that gives life to the pernicious colonial logic of exclusion and domination. As Fanon reminds us in Black Skin, White Masks:

When someone else strives and strains to prove to me that black men are as intelligent as white men, I say that intelligence has never saved anyone; and that is true, for, if philosophy and intelligence are invoked to proclaim the equality of men, they have also been employed to justify the extermination of men.


I ntelligence has its place, but not as the arbiter of political worth. The politics of ignorance, prejudice and stupidity that we are currently experiencing is in part a result of our adherence to antiquated colonial ideals of speech and reason. Democratic stupidity and democratic intelligence are two sides of the same colonial coin that voters flip every few years.

Anti-colonial parenting

Taking on a decolonial politics of childhood invites us to consider what it would mean to respect children as agents on their own terms. What if possession of adult intelligence was viewed like male genitalia and white skin, as an old and arbitrary criterion for ascribing agency, person-hood and equality? What forms might political resistance and emancipation take if we abandoned speech and reason as the exemplar of political action? What new shape might our institutions take if childhood were understood as a vital constitutive feature of political and economic life? How would it affect the things we take for granted, such as state sovereignty and global capitalism, if we take seriously that a third of the population does not recognize the legitimacy of national borders or globalization? The life of the child makes few demands on our limited planet. Their health requires us to secure clean water, clean air, nutritious food and unpolluted environs in which to play. What would the relationship between industry and the environment look like if children’s relationships to nature were a formal political constraint? In what profound manner would parliament, the academy and the workplace be altered if children were partners and present rather than merely a re-presented interest that has been disappeared into the home and the classroom?

It should also be noted that one does not need to have children to have a parental role in a child’s life. Extended family and close friends are also potential parents to children. To be an adult who genuinely respects a child as an equal is to be a unique kind of activist. Parents make daily decisions related to everything from food to education to entertainment that either affirm or contest prevailing injustices. We nurture political, social and economic equality insofar as we treat children as equals and we foster inequality insofar as we treat them as subordinate. As Anishinaabek scholar and activist Leanne Simpson writes: children teach us “the importance of having agency over one’s life.”

One reason why so many Indigenous cultures continue to be resilient in the face of colonial violence is that they actively incorporate the agency of children into their legal and political traditions. The relationships of respect and reciprocity between generations promote cultural transmission in the most oppressive circumstances.

The road to full equality

But isn’t this all a bit far-fetched? After all, don’t children need to be subordinate to keep them from running out on to the highway? Claims of this sort make little sense. Is the implication that a relationship of political equality with children somehow entails letting them get hit by cars? Is it that people who may need rescuing from time to time necessarily forfeit their citizenship? Of course not. Different human beings have different needs and the unique needs of the child do not disqualify them from the opportunity to shape the world they live in. To that end, recognizing children as fully equal means, for example, reevaluating why exceedingly dangerous patterns of private transportation are situated so close to public spaces used by children.

No world worth building comes with a blueprint. Like those who fought for abolition, desegregation, women’s liberation and every other emancipatory upheaval of society, we do not have a roadmap. Like them, we have only a few guiding principles related to democratic life: equality, reciprocity, autonomy, inclusion. That said, we do have some very qualified guides to help us on the journey: children. The political agency of children is always right under our noses. It manifests in early non-verbal requests for care, in protests over arbitrary rules, in concerns over fairness, in their contributions to the establishment of familial norms and in myriad other ways. Adults can begin by applying our intelligence in the removal of obstacles to children’s presence and participation in public life, and by restructuring political relationships in accordance with the child’s agency. The result, I suspect, will be truly revolutionary.