February was black/African American history month. Thanks Disney Junior for bringing up a whole can of worms for me to deal with in the middle of the day, you know when I have nothing going on..! My 6 year old looked at me blankly, said “Doc is African American?” and.. silence. Talk about having to think fast. I slowly looked up from what I was doing, turned my head, smiled, nodded and blithely said, ‘oh yes, that’s just a fancy dancy way of saying that her ancestors came from Africa and have darker skin rather than European ancestors like ours.’
“So she’s not regular like us?”- from the 3 year old.
That was a fun one.
Since I know my 3 year old doesn’t always come up with the best way to say what they mean- how many do? I took that to mean that she needed the words. Typically the case.
My reply was. “oh honey the fancy dancy way of saying what our ancestors are is ‘European or Caucasian American.'”
She smiled her understanding and life went on…though my heart was racing and I was terrified I’d messed it all up.
My 3 year old’s favorite TV show is Doc McStuffins. If you’re not familiar with it, it features a cartoon stay at home dad who cooks and does laundry, a doctor for a mom, and an expressive bouncy girl who ‘checks up’ her stuffed animals and toys and shares life lessons with all the kids listening in at home- the family happens to have dark skin. We’ve never commented on it, didn’t see a point. So when my 3 year old pointed to a doll she wanted in the store, she was concerned that it was wearing blue, not the color of its skin. I think this confused our family (who got the snapshot of the doll she wanted for her birthday in email) a lot. They don’t get why white kids would want a ‘black’ doll. I was raised in a family that although wasn’t racist, still told stereotypical jokes without thinking through the message that was being sent out. Living in a small town in the mid-west, anyone of color was an oddity. Quite frankly, I’m pretty sure there was a Kcubed element in our town, too. No one ‘different’ lasted long there. They soon moved away. Which meant I had never even touched anyone of color until college. I had a lot of hand shaking opportunities in college, and while I knew that people of color were no different than me, it was different (and interesting) to hear the speech patterns, see the flash of white teeth in a huge smile against coffee colored skin, and the loping grace of the young men (and women) who towered over my 5′ build as they went about their daily lives. Soon it was no longer strange to see people of any color, race, country of origin or hear about their religion, habits, and so on.
I’d thrust myself from a white town of under 2,000 to a campus of 20,000 that was the proverbial melting pot. Being a face in a varied crowd became normal. Then on to other towns that were still mostly white, and later, a city that was a breath of fresh air, most of our neighbors were African American in our apartment building, the stores we shopped in had AA shoppers, managers, and employees, and then to 2 smaller towns where we ended up, again firmly entrenched in small town USA with still very little in the way of diversity. Although we love the vibe that small towns give, it saddens me that my kids are mostly growing up with people of the same color. I want them to have the diversity in their lives that I never did. Thankfully most of the larger neighboring towns and the city are diverse so they will have some chance of not being as sheltered.
A decade after college, with young kids first learning to talk, seeing other people, and asking questions… it’s TERRIFYING to someone like me. One of the first things a child learns is color. They are proud to point out differences and show off what they have learned. If you haven’t been through this, it’s good to prepare ahead of time as to what you’re going to say, or NOT going to say. My (then) very verbal 2 year old points to the man behind us in the grocery line. He’s smiling at her. You smile back as she points frantically. You have no idea what’s going on in her head, but manage to coo ‘yes he’s wearing all red, isn’t he, it’s your favorite color’…after all, no one wants to be painted a racist especially when they couldn’t care less about it. You see sometimes the most loving thing you can do for your children is just to teach them to accept everyone for who they are, and not point out culture-perceived differences or stereotypes until they’re old enough to deal with them. Realize of course that I can speak only from my own experiences as stated above. I don’t want my kids to grow up believing stereotypes, but to hear them and realize their falsehood before it even enters their subconscious. In short, I wanted my white kids not to see color as a factor in life. While this can be seen as a viewpoint of white privilege, and persons of color might find this to be a useless post, I think it might be helpful for anyone struggling with the same thing I am: how to raise kind (white) kids to treat everyone equally. After all, even young kids of color or ethnic background have most likely already had to deal with mistreatment of adults and children who don’t feel how we do. So they have already been exposed to these concepts before my kids even had to consider it. I can’t change that, but I can parent my children to be kind and consider people as people, so that’s what I try and do.
Remember that color is all about how our brain perceives light as it is hitting an object, and if you’re reading this soon after it’s posted, you’ll remember ‘the dress’ picture online where part of the people looking at it see blue and black and others white and gold and still others as a different blue and gold. Perception reigns, and if we’re all focused on how our easily manipulated brains view color? Then we’re not a very highly evolved human being are we? The mind plays tricks, so we need to prepare our kids for the world we want to live in, and not the one that’s past. Being prepared with something to say helps keep the stress out of your voice and lets the kids know that it’s okay to continue asking questions. Kids are curious. But they really don’t need a lot of information, because they are smart and tend to work things out for themselves. I’m sure we will come up against a lot harder questions as they age, and hopefully the way we’ve dealt with the topic so far will have made a good foundation for the more difficult discussions to come. There are a few things that we’ve tried with our kids that seem to work fairly well:
1. Color wash your speech: Deliberately do not mention race or color when describing someone. We would use the ‘color of shirt’ to describe someone we didn’t know, until we knew their name. Thereafter, we used their name. If that didn’t work, then we’d use the color or style or texture of their hair, or so-and-so’s daughter/friend/mom. Or use ‘the one who laughs loudly’ or some other descriptor. I found it was almost never necessary to use race to describe someone, I could work around it completely. We did this in person and for people on TV, too. You could try and practice on kids shows where the kids always wear the same clothing every day. When it came right down to it, one day I had to describe something to my husband, and for whatever reason, the color of their skin was important to the discussion– I’m guessing it was about something in the news where it WAS factor to the news bulletin. As I said, this was rare, but I finally referenced a famous actor or politician. Whether my kids understood that or not, I don’t know. But the point was that we were no longer using race as a speech shortcut the way our families did.
2. Highlight casual differences: Something as simple as a trip to the eye doctor (we start at around age 3) can be a springboard for later, more difficult discussions. Both my husband and I wear glasses. Most adults and a lot of kids around us also wear glasses. It is a natural topic jump from mommy and daddy’s eyes need help to see, and other people might need help to hear and use a hearing aid, or help getting around and use a wheel chair. By the time most kids start asking awkward questions, they have at least BEEN to a doctor or know that you get help when you are sick. It’s an easy way to say, everyone’s different and that’s okay.
3. Come up with a clever tag line: Remember ‘because I said so?’ Good, think along those lines. Now we’re religious (but not the nut job type) so anything that’s related to a personal nature we just say ‘that’s just the way God made you/him/her.’ When our third child ended up with red hair…. oh the questions from every.single.person.. where did she get the red hair? One day someone stopped us in a store with the same question and my 3 year old said ‘she was born with it’ and just looked at the person in the store like they were silly people that needed a THREE year old to tell them how people get hair. I did not snort unladylike at all. I wanted to really badly, but I just agreed with her smiled at the person, and moved on to the rest of the shopping. I was actually surprised she didn’t say ‘that’s the way God made her’ because that’s their pat answer for everything like that. Something as simple as hair color, freckles, glasses, or crutches can all be reasons to insert your tag line. If you don’t go with religion, you could always say that when people are born, their ancestors and genetics/DNA determine what you look like– and we have discussed this before with the 6 year old– but for tiny kids, that’s how God made him/her/you or that’s how you were born works really well. It’s a simple answer and lets the kids think about things without bringing up topics that might be too difficult for them to understand at a young age.
4. Color with them: When you color with your kids, pick out a page with people on it, and diversify your skin color choices. When kids start to color, they scribble with anything, and then at some point, they start to color block blue pants, red shirt, etc. This is the point when the question will arise. When they ask ‘what color do I use to color’ …and it’s the skin parts, then you can show them how to line up the crayons against the inside of their wrists if they want it to be more like their own, or show them a variety of colors that are in the ‘skin’ range and let them choose. I personally never colored with the regular black crayon, because most people of color around us aren’t ‘black’ they’re some shade from tan to coffee, to sienna. But on a coloring page the ‘black’ crayons completely negates features printed in black ink. If I’m helping them pick out crayons, I always ask ‘what skin color would you like?’ That may seem odd, but they choose a variety, including blue. There are no mistakes in art, which I repeat heavily, so I smile no matter what color they use on anything, talk to them about complimentary colors, give them a thumbs up over technique, and hope that the ‘non-lesson’ sinks in–heart deep, not skin deep.
One day my husband noticed how pale our middle child’s skin had gotten over the winter, and said ‘you’re so white’. She looked at him, called him silly and said, ‘daddy, my skin is PEACH, not white’….. I guess maybe it’s working?
I hope that if you’re like me and you walk the fine line between white privilege and guilt and an open and loving soul, that you find this a helpful ‘shortcut’ guide to navigating the waters of talking about race with your young kids. If you don’t find this helpful, then I hope you leave here knowing that other people in the world are trying to be better, loving people, and parents at the same time, and working on raising the next generation to be aware of the value of every human being, regardless of how our brains perceive the color of their skin.