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
friendsacquaintances 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.
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:
- White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack — Peggy McIntosh
- Nurture Shock - Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race — Multiple Musings
- Talking to Kids About Race — About.com/Race Relations
- Talking To Your Kids About Race — BlogHer
- Inquisition Monday: Race — the bee in your bonnet
- Multiculturalism Carnival — Bicultural Mom (lots of reading here)
- And from that, these next two: I Am a Racist — Let's Take the Metro
- And the rejoinder: Why Amanda Metro Is Not A Racist — Hybrid Rasta Mama
- How Parents and Teachers Should Teach Children About Slavery — BlogHer
- Quick hit: Race affects everyone — Raising My Boychick
- A Tale of Two Slayers: on speaking race and white-as-default — Raising My Boychick, from which the following three links:
- Anti-racist parenting: It’s for everyone — Love Isn't Enough
- White Noise: white adults raising white children to resist white supremacy — Love Isn't Enough
- See Baby Discriminate: Kids as young as 6 months judge others based on skin color. What's a parent to do? — Newsweek Magazine
- Quickie Soapbox: The Waah-Waah Brigade — Navelgazing
- And, finally, a really cool craft and early-childhood-education experience to try out with your kiddos today: Multicultural Paper Dolls — No Time for Flashcards — with some ideas for children's books to read at the end
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 really stupid and oh-so-white?