Monday, January 16, 2012

Talking about race with (white) kids

I've been wanting for some time to talk about this subject — discussing race with children — but have shied away out of fear that I will say something wrong or, at any rate, inadequate.

I am white, after all. The fact that it's four years into my blog that I make a simple declaration like that is proof enough. I am steeped in white privilege to the extent that I could go my whole life without intentionally addressing the subject of race and be just fine. (Not admirable, but with no apparent impact on my quality of life.) Those who are not white, in this white-dominant U.S. society, cannot avoid the topic of race. I also do not want to. I want to stand with them and bring my children up to be less prejudiced than I am.

Oh, I said it. I have prejudices. They make me shudder and blanch and think, "Please tell me that thought did not just go through my head." I look at our parents and see, We are a little better off, a little improved, from the generation before us, and the same could be said for them, and that gives me hope.

I have come to realize that the only way to help the next generation — Mikko and Alrik and their peers — grow up even less prejudiced is to talk about race, openly, freely, frequently. And I realized that I was doing a disservice not to bring up that pledge of mine here — to talk about talking about race, so that this topic, too, is out in the open.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, is serving as a kick in the pants for me to get these thoughts on paper (as it were). So I'm going to just write, and not do as much research and linking (and maybe even pondering, and quailing) as I would like, so that it will get done, and out there. I did try searching through my Reader for associated articles, and I will list those at the end as further and perhaps more elevated reading. I would also love to hear your thoughts, particularly those of you who are people of color or are raising same, though I know it's not anyone else's job to teach white people how to be respectful.

I also want to say that this is coming from a place of process, and that I can speak only for this white parent parenting a couple particular white kids. I won't attempt to speak for any group, particularly not any group I don't belong to.

So: What I've learned, from my reading and from my observations of my four-year-old, is that children see race. As a child growing up (mostly in the '80s), I thought the point of being a non-racist was to be "color blind." Stephen Colbert likes to spoof this, by saying that he has no idea whether a particular guest is white or black, and knows only what his assistants have told him. It's as ludicrous a concept as he makes it sound. Of course, we see people's skin color, and their hair type, and their clothing style, and their manner of speaking, and whatever sets them apart from us (and there are a lot of other factors I could put in that list, but I'll stick with race and ethnicity for now). It's horribly naive for us to imagine that children (and even babies) don't see such things, and it leads to an ill-formed assumption that the best way to have them grow up in this idealized "color blind" way is to avoid at all costs mentioning the differences we ourselves see in an instant.

What's the alternative, then? It's to talk about race. It's to — take a deep breath — point out the differences.

Oh, man. That goes against every fiber of my PC upbringing. It was so hard for me to open my mouth for the first time and say to Mikko, about a boy in a book, "Do you see how his skin is brown? What color is your skin?" But you know what? He was relieved. He was receptive. He had noticed these differences, and he just wanted to know how to name them. By not talking about them, we were only letting him form his own assumptions about what the differences meant. And research has shown that the assumptions most kids make when race is not talked about is that anyone who's different from them is inferior.

You can surely remember this from your own childhood, about whatever topic. For me, since my dad was in the Army, anyone whose parent was in the Air Force or Marines or another branch was not as good (almost an enemy, which is so silly looking back). For Sam, whose dad worked for Ford, it was anyone who worked for or drove a Chevy (the traitors!). Kids categorize people quite easily, and they tend to see the world, excuse the expression, in terms of black and white. They don't understand how Army people could have a friendly rivalry with Navy folk but not really be against them. They only know: Here's how my family is, and you're different, and therefore that must be bad. The way to break through those barriers and reshape that way of looking at the world is: Talk about it. As often as you need to.

So I'm not an expert in this, far from it. I'm halting and tongue-tied and just trying my best — no, probably not even that, to be honest. But I'll keep trying, anyway.

Here are some ideas I've had to help introduce the subject of race in non-painful ways with a young child:

  • Talk about friends who are of a different color (or schoolmates or relatives or neighbors or even strangers), when you are alone. Point out the differences in skin tone or other features. I try to be matter-of-fact about this, not elevating one way or the other, just stating that we're different, and here's what we call ourselves, and here's what they call themselves. It's a naming process, demystifying the differences and letting him know that I see them, too, and that he can talk with me about them.
  • Talk to friends who are of a different color. I want to step lightly here, but I do think it's instructive (for me) to have discussions of race with people who are most affected by racism. I'm hoping to include Mikko in more of these discussions as he grows older. For now, if people are receptive to it, there are sometimes opportunities that come up. For instance, a child might ask in the person's hearing, Why does that man use a wheelchair? (This has happened to us.) And the man using the wheelchair might volunteer to answer the question for him. (I try not to discount this or assume that such discussions would be uncomfortable if all parties are willing.) I don't know how this looks with a four-year-old, but I'd like to find some way to open up discussions of race with friends who are people of color. (Um, I realize wheelchair usage has nothing to do with race; it's just a conversation that happened with us recently.)
  • Talk about being white (if you or your children identify as such). Part of white privilege is not being forced to identify as a race. White kids don't typically describe white friends to their parents as, "Jane and I were playing at recess. She's white." But a reverse situation would be more likely true: "Jane and I were playing — she's Korean." Don't wait to discuss race just when people of color are in view; talk about being white as well, and what that means.
  • Read books that feature a diverse selection of characters. (This could also include TV shows and movies if your family values allow for screen time.) One reason I love books that show people of color is that it will feel less exclusionary to children who look like the characters. But another reason is that it opens the door, quite painlessly, to yet another discussion for Mikko and me about race. Particularly since we tend to identify with the characters in stories we're reading, I appreciate the reinforcement of "We look different" with "But we are so much the same as well." (Here are a few options I've reviewed, but there are tons more out there, obviously: Jazz Baby, Mama, Do You Love Me?, On Mother's Lap, The Baby on the Way.)
  • Have dolls, action figures, and other toys that reflect diversity. This might somewhat depend on what sorts of toys you have anyway, but since we have a lot of dolls, I've made it a goal of mine to make sure several of them are DOC (dolls of color). Ikea makes some fun soft ones, by the by, and you might also check at thrift stores for super-cheap offerings. Then you can play with them in ways that reinforce respect.
  • Let topics come up naturally. If you remain open to these conversations, you'll catch moments that are perfect. We saw a family where the women wore hijab, which Mikko asked about. I was able to talk briefly about differences in religion and culture, just from an offhanded comment.
  • Gear it to your child's age level. They won't take in everything, and that's all right. That's why we keep having the conversations, over and over. You can speak simply, answer their questions with just a few facts, and add in detail as they ask for more. If they know you're open to talking, they'll ask for more when they need it.
  • Don't be alarmed at the things children say. Sometimes a kid will come off sounding like a racial supremacist when really it's just a misunderstanding of what she means. (As adults, we're more tuned to quiver at un-PC language.) Try not to overreact or overdramatize as you ask for clarification and talk out what your sweet little racist (kidding) means. They won't know they can come back to talk with you about the tough subjects if you shut them down, so try to stay open.
  • Talk about differences in concrete ways. One thing that's been helpful for Mikko is having me point out that skin tone is a spectrum by comparing our skin tones as a family. He can see when we hold our arms together that I have very light and pinkish skin, whereas his father (also white) has yellower and tanner skin than I do, and that Mikko's is somewhere in the middle. It helps to reinforce (I hope) that skin color is just one aspect of who we are, and that someone you love can be a different color from you.
  • That said, start the tough conversations about racism. Just because Sam has darker skin than I do (which, let's be honest, doesn't take much; I think Moby Dick had darker skin than I do) doesn't mean he's experienced the kind of prejudice or even fear of prejudice that people of color deal with on a daily basis in a place like the United States. Besides talking about differences, I need to (figure out how to) talk about how these differences have negatively affected some groups, and tell him (sob) about our country's painful history and, frankly, its painful present. To every person who's suggested racism is dead? Um, wake up. And see:
  • Work on your own prejudices. If you are white, own your privilege. Don't say, "It's too bad I don't know any people of color." Make some friends. It's not up to people of color to come up to you; you enter their sphere and be respectful. If you're religious, seek out a place of worship with some diversity (perhaps even where you're in the minority! yes!). If your kids go to school or playgroups or other organized activities, look for ones that have a diverse makeup. Shop or even live in neighborhoods where you can look around and see people unlike you. Attend festivals and visit museums to show you value other cultures. It does mean something to your kids. I can count on one hand (two fingers) the number of non-white friends acquaintances my parents had growing up. It has an effect on our children when we say one thing ("Everybody's valuable; everybody's equal!") and do another (segregate ourselves). Beyond this, I have so much baggage in my own heart and mind I need to get rid of, and I'm trying — through some good reading, some good conversations, and some soul searching. I invite you (wherever you are in this journey) to join me in pursuing a more open and caring heart.
It wasn't until I was grown that I realized how much prejudice was still embedded in my family. I had thought, since we never talked about race growing up except for an occasional explanation of the Civil Rights Movement, that my parents were striving to be as color blind as I was. Not so, as it turns out.

I want to do more as a parent. I want to be intentional about addressing matters of race with my (white) kids, so they can be better than I am. I pray so.

Some links to ponder:

How do you talk about race with your kids? Does having conversations like this scare you or inspire you? What did I say in this article that was oh-so-white?

Photo Credit: spekulator / stock.xchng


Becky said...

Thanks for the advice! I think it would be very beneficial to talk about race with a preschooler. I remember as a kid, having no problems with my older (black) neighbors, but in first grade I had some strange ideas about a black girl in another classroom. A few years later I made friends with a girl, who just happened to be black, and my misconceptions disappeared. Same with others of different races. I had to make friends with others different than me to make the connection (getting to know someone personally instead of generalizing an entire group.) My parents could not have done that for me although I do agree that their example (or lack of) does make an impact.

From my experience, it is harder to see diversity in the suburbs (here in a heavily white populated state), but in college I was associating with all kinds of people, from varying backgrounds. It was a lot of fun. I'm back in the suburbs raising my family, and I'll really have to search a little to get diverse friends again. I think we're more aware of diversity and with a black president, who knows what my child will think as she grows up? I think you're right, it will be, hopefully, a brighter future.

Lindsay said...

I do think that religion can make this question easier, because I feel like I have an easy answer to what determines a person's worth (that we are created by God in his image and as such all humans have immense-and equal-worth). When that is your starting point, it seems kind of ridiculous to think that a certain shade of people are less deserving of respect or might be lacking in some virtue or another because of their skin color.
Obviously we'll still have to address it, but this seems like an easy starting point to me.
And I plan on talking about our heritage-and that other people come from other countries with other fun traditions and foods and stuff too. I'm especially looking forward to teaching my son about being Irish in a couple of weeks on St. Patty's day, lol. This is the first year he really seems to "get" holidays and it is making it really really fun.

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful message. I think it is so important to talk about race. The thing I have trouble with is, as you say "talk about being white", I don't know what to say. It is like everything I now about being white is in contrast to NOT being white. How do you teach self-pride without it turning to supremacy? I'm struggling with this.

Shannon said...

I love the books written by Ezra Jack Keats. The main character is always Black, and the rest of the characters are multi racial. Plus the stories are well written and engaging.
Another good book for showing diversity is The Big Book of Families, which talks about all the different ways families and also has a multi racial cast.
Now it's time to dig through your links.

Shannon said...

@babydustdiaries I think there's a huge difference between white pride and cultural pride. You can talk with your kids about your family's history, the countries your ancestors came from, the traditions they have, and the traditions you have. Plus, most of those conversations are a great place to start to talk about other traditions and cultures.

Veronica said...

Spot on.... Your honesty, and the fact that you wrote this article for the benefit of everyone means so much to me:,)

Chocolate-skinned mom of 3

Anonymous said...

I commend you for taking such a risk with your readers and your children. This is so important and I wrote about it in my blog post as a response to yours!
You are an inspiration!

Anonymous said...

I try to teach my 4 year old that skin color is the same as hair color and eye color and that every variation is beautiful. It may be a little easier for him to relate to others because we have interracial relatives his age. The biggest problem I've encountered is reverse discrimination, as in people who expect you to apologize for being white. And personally I believe that the biggest civil rights issue today is the way most people treat Hispanic and Middle Eastern people as though they aren't Americans or should have the opportunity to become Americans.

Suchaproudmama said...

This is a great article! Thank you so much for posting this!

Laura @ Our Messy Messy Life said...

As a Mississippian, race is a tough nut to crack. So much to say on this topic but such scattered thoughts.....all I know for certain is that I hope my children can see beyond color better than I was raised.

Thanks for the links. I need to get reading :)

Unknown said...

Thanks a million for this post. Earlier today, someone I follow on Facebook asked if anyone was talking to their kids about race today. Not me. My oldest and I have spoken of race often as he has grown up - we still do at times. I was recently surprised at just how little he knew about the Civil Rights Movement. Apparently, it's not something that our local public schools touch on. Hmm...

My little one doesn't seem to treat or act differently around people whose skin is different than ours, so I figured all was fine on that front. I never even considered many of the points you've made here, though.

I grew up in a white, middle class, Christian neighborhood and the public school I attended reflected the makeup of my neighborhood. I had a major adjustment period when I moved to Los Angeles that I wasn't ready for - I was *uncomfortable* around people who weren't my race. No one ever talked about race to me. I learned, in my twenties, that every individual is an individual. It doesn't matter WHAT they look like. My kids don't need to have to learn this on their own!

I'm going to bookmark this post and come back to it often as I change my "why do I even need to bring this up?" attitude in check. It needs to change... NOW.

Claire T said...

Thank you so much for this post. This is something I am grappling with at present. I am a white New Zealander, married to a Japanese husband raising our daughter in Singapore - a truly multicultural city. So far our daughter aged nearly two appears to treat everyone the same. I had taken the don't discuss race approach but I can see real value in discussing the issue with her. I am very interested to see how she views herself in this context. Off to read some of the links now. Thanks for really making me think today.

Lisa Corriveau said...

Great post! Lots of food for thought here. We live in a very multicultural neighbourhood of a very diverse city, but I will have to start talking to my son about race in the next year or so. (He's only 17 months now) I'm lucky to have a few friends & family members of colour who will probably be game for answering some naive questions from him in future.

Something I've thought about a bit lately that's related to this is the fact that if you are a white person who drives everywhere, you're less likely to interact with strangers who are different races, abilities, or socioeconomic status than you. We occasionally use a car-sharing co-op, but mostly take transit & I find this to be a great way for my son to meet & interact with a diverse group of people: people in wheelchairs, men wearing turbans, women in hijabs, tourists & immigrants speaking other languages, etc. When I'm alone on transit, I rarely talk to strangers, but my toddler wants to interact with everyone around him so we always end up in a conversation with somebody in the 10 or 20 minutes we're sitting near them. said...

We have this running joke in our family, because my sister calls herself a "woman of color" because we are hispanic. Um, our parents were born in Argentina. My mom's parents are French, and my dad's parents are from Spain.

We are white.

It's hilarious and kind of rude that my sister has referred to herself as anything but.

But I digress... This is a great post. I remember recently when we were talking about colors of things, and we asked Baby T something about what color his skin was. And then we talked about Little M's, and daddy's, and my skin color. And I don't remember what the colors were that he said, but they were different for each of us. I love that. I love just pointing out that everyone is different. It's fun to categorize and make up your own categories.

apfhorn said...

I grew up knowing there were different races and in my area white was the minority. I also wasn't taught racial slurs or even heard them until I was in junior high. My best friends are black and mexican and my god mother is black and jewish. I think it is possible to be aware of race without letting it interfere with relationships that you create. It wasn't until I was in high school that I was getting looks for walking around with a black boy that I realized that this existed. Children don't notice these things. My sister was three and went up to our godmother and said "You're black." She replied, " Yes I am." She then went to my grandmother and said she was green. She wasn't seeing skin color she was describing the shirts they were wearing. Seeing race and being prejudiced are two very different things.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Becky: I seriously am giddy that we have a black president. I really do hope that helps change perceptions for this next generation.

Lauren Wayne said...

@babydustdiaries: What Shannon said. When I said "talk about being white," I really just meant that neutrally. Not as in, Isn't it cool to be white? But as in, Our skin is this color, and other people's skin can be all these different colors. Just stating the obvious. But I also like the idea of talking heritage, which can be separate from or bigger than issues of race.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Shannon Hillinger: I love Ezra Jack Keats's books. I'm really in the mood to start prioritizing more books with nonwhite main characters. I kind of get sad that so many of them (TV shows, too) have only a nonwhite secondary character. I know: baby steps. But I think I'm going to start seeking them out more.

Lauren Wayne said... I loved your response. I mentioned this before to you, but I wanted to say it here since I'm finally responding to comments. :) Only 4 months late, ha ha!

Lauren Wayne said...

@~ Robin H ~: I really get sad about the discrimination against Hispanic and Middle Eastern Americans, too. That stinks.

I do want to say that I think reverse discrimination is overstated. It's still way, way harder to be anything other than Anglo/white in the U.S. (and hetero, cis, able-bodied, etc.) than part of any minority group. If I have to take some guff for being white and having the privilege of not having to question my rights and value all the time, I'm willing to do so, frankly.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Lisa Corriveau: That happens to us every time on the bus, too! Great point. :)

Lauren Wayne said... I love to do that, too. My husband and I have noticeably different skintones, and our kids have variations on our themes. So it's been helpful to show that skin isn't just "white" and "brown" but that everyone has a unique and lovely tone.

Lauren Wayne said...

@apfhorn: Ha ha, the shirts thing cracked me up! I love it. Kids definitely have their own way of seeing the world.

Momma Jorje said...

hahaha, so true! My oldest DD used to refer to her grandfathers as "White Grandpa" and "Black Grandpa." One has white hair, the other wears a lot of black.

Momma Jorje said...

I love your idea for comparing skin tones within the family!

My oldest DD's first baby doll was a 1st birthday gift. I didn't want to get her a peeing doll or anything so complex. The only baby doll the store had that fit my requirements happened to be black. To this day she still sleeps with that doll! My dad's comment when she opened it? "It's awful dark." :-P Guess who got to get it out of the box for her. Ha!

Priscilla said...

@apfhorn I love the shirts thing as well. My kids were watching basketball and asked me who the black guys were. It took me a minute to realize they were referring to jersey color.

Gretchen said...

Thank you so much for broaching this topic - you did it eloquently, much more so than I!

You've given me lots to ponder about my own prejudices and I'm looking forward to implementing some of your ideas with my kiddos.

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