In Of Mice and Men, Crooks states that when he was a child, he would sometimes play with white kids. He said, "My ol' man didn't like that. I never knew till long later why he didn't like that. But I know now." Explain what Crooks means.

Crooks means that he has become painfully aware of racial discrimination as an adult, which was something he never entertained as a child playing with white children. His father knew the white children would eventually grow up and discriminate against his son later in life. As the only Black worker on the ranch, Crooks suffers from racial prejudice, is treated like a second-class citizen, and is forced to live a lonely, isolated life.

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As other educators have noted, when he makes this remark, Crooks is referring to the deep racial prejudices that existed in this time and place. Just wanting to engage with other children, neither Crooks nor the white children with whom he played were actively aware of the racial prejudices that existed in their parents’ world. They were innocent and free of such biases.

Nevertheless, there were subtle messages conveyed to the children by their parents. We can see this in the statement that Crooks makes. His father communicated something negative about his playing with the white children, even if Crooks did not realize at the time why his father was so disapproving of it.

As an adult, Crooks certainly understands the racial divide between him and the other men on the ranch. When Lennie comes into his room, Crooks tells Lennie,

I ain’t wanted in the bunk house, and you ain’t wanted in my room.

However, it is far more than just the father’s concern about Crooks encountering active prejudice as an adult that makes him worry about the young child Crooks interacting with white children. After all, whether the father permitted Crooks to play with the white children or not, the racial prejudice would impact his life as he got older. It was also probable that Crooks’s father feared that any small altercation Crooks might have with another child could result in punishment that would be completely out of proportion. It would seem clear that if Crooks got into any dispute with another child, as young children often do, it would be the white child who would be believed. The adult Crooks understands this. He tells Lennie,

If I say something, why it's just a nigger
sayin' it.

Given this, in any possible dispute with his white playmates, the young Crooks probably would have borne the punishment, regardless of his actions and even if he were innocent in the matter.

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What Crooks means is that while Black and white children were allowed to play together, Crooks's father knew that white people did not like Black people, and so it made him uncomfortable to see his son with white children. His father knew that once Crooks grew a little older, a strict racial segregation would come into play.

Crooks says that he was born in California and that his father owned a chicken ranch of about ten acres. He mentions they were one of the only Black families around. He says,

And now there ain't a colored man on this ranch [except, of course, for Crooks] an' there's jus' one family in Soledad." He laughed. "If I say something, why it's just a nigger sayin' it"

Crooks experiences a profound sense of isolation due to the fact that he is not only the sole Black person on the ranch, but also one of the few Black people in this part of California. The text does not explain why there are so few Black people in the region, but it is possible that racism has driven many Black families away or prevented them from settling in the area at all.

The presence of racism on the ranch is brought into stark relief when Curley's wife threatens to have Crooks lynched. While this threat is not completely serious, Crooks takes it seriously, demonstrating that he is well aware of racist violence and wary of white people.

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When Lennie enters Crooks's room in chapter 4, Crooks eventually warms up to him and confides in Lennie by sharing information about his upbringing and background. Crooks tells Lennie that he was raised in California on a ten-acre ranch and grew up playing with white children who treated him "pretty nice." Despite the friendly nature of the white children, Crooks's father never approved of his son playing with them, because he understood the reality of racial prejudice, which would divide them as they grew older. Crooks goes on to tell Lennie, "I never knew till long later why he didn't like that. But I know now."

Crooks then elaborates on the way he is treated as a second-class citizen without a voice or opinion. As the only Black worker on the ranch, Crooks suffers from racial discrimination. He resents not being allowed to live in the bunkhouse with the other white ranchers and is forced to stay in a small room attached to the barn. In regards to the social hierarchy of the ranch, Crooks is at the bottom, below Curley's wife. He has no authority, is completely powerless, and is extremely lonely.

As a child, Crooks was too naïve and innocent to understand the influence of racial prejudice. His father knew the white children would grow up to discriminate against his son, which is why he was against Crooks playing with them in the first place.

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In chapter four Crooks opens up to Lennie, telling him about his childhood and his intense loneliness on the ranch where he is segregated and often the victim of racism. He feels comfortable with Lennie, saying, “A guy can talk to you an’ be sure you won’t go blabbin’." He tells Lennie that he is not a southern black and how his family had a chicken ranch in California where he grew up with his brothers. He reveals that when he was a child he would play with white children from the surrounding area:

"The white kids come to play at our place, an’ sometimes I went to play with them, and some of them was pretty nice. My ol’ man didn’t like that. I never knew till long later why he didn’t like that. But I know now.”

As a child, Crooks is unaware of racism. He is just a kid playing with other kids. Surely, his father understood racism and was probably wary of the white families. The fact that Crooks may have formed friendships with some of the white children obviously bothered his father. Later, Crooks would understand his father's worries as he became victimized by prejudice against his skin color, called derogatory names and forced to live separate from the other workers on the ranch.

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