My son used to call caucasian skin "normal skin". He mentioned it casually after our neighbor had been over playing, who is of African descent, and quite dark-skinned. It bothered me so much at the time, but now I can't even remember if he expressed a preference or not...so yes, they do grow out of the tendency to "say anything that pops into their heads as a way to categorize things and people". He also used to refer to some people as "fat", but not in a negative way -- I didn't know where he had even heard that word, but then read it in a curious george book that was given to us, when the "fat man goes fishing".
My son is a very heart-on-his-sleeve, speak before he thinks kind of kid, but he is in no way racist. He is currently obsessed with "Indians" (let the flames begin!) and no matter how hard I try to substitute the words "Native Americans", "First Nations People", etc, he insists that he's not talking about them, he's talking about "Indians", by which he means the stereotypical depictions he has heard about only when we read Peter Pan (which we discussed at length) and on a Tom and Jerry cartoon on a ferry.
: I agree that these things don't need to be censored, but used as a jumping off point for discussion. The book "The Little House on the Prairie" has been a great conversation starter for us. It's uncomfortable to talk with your kids about the atrocities that have been carried out (and we haven't gotten into them in depth, as they are still so young) but it's important, and I want them to question "historical" accounts and take 'perspective' into consideration.
Yes, we've discussed the difference between people from India and Native Americans, and have talked about how they came to be called "Indians", where the first people in North America came from before they were any people here at all, and the history of how their tribes and cultures were virtually wiped out by the settlers, but he still holds on to a very romanticized version of "Indians", and you know what? that's ok -- he's 5, and in love with what he perceives the culture was like. And actually, while he obviously doesn't have an in-depth understanding of the culture, it seems healthy to me for him to want to be like them. We're all learning more and more about Native culture and history, and I don't think that shaming him about his current mis-information helps, so we're just finding resources to learn from, and enjoying our journey.
If anyone can recommend any really good books aimed at the 5 - 10 yo crowd about this subject, I would love to share them with him. So far, we've read mostly historical and informational books, but would love some more cultural stories.
So I guess my point is, kids are young, and learning, and I totally agree with dharmamama and Incamama (among others) in that you can't hold them accountable for their thoughts and feelings. If you shame them, make them feel at all like it "isn't ok" or "we don't say that in our family" or whatever, then you run the risk of closing off communication, and making them feel badly about themselves.
As for the kids who might suffer for their ignorance, there isn't really anything you can do to prevent a 4 year old from making ignorant comments -- they are ignorant!! Yes, yes, intelligent and wise, but totally ignorant of the most sensitive way to address their fears/concerns/curiosity/etc about those who are different from them. They need thoughtful adults around in close contact to help guide them along. I also agree that being around a huge variety of people is really important, but they still make insensitive comments from time to time. Childhood is for learning the ways of the world, they aren't required to already know all this. Heck, we're all still learning. except for those of you who already have it all figured out