Conversations with Z: the race edition

Z: No school tomorrow!
CBHM: That's right. Do you remember why it's a holiday?
Z: Yeah, the man who gave the big speech, it's his birthday, right?
CBHM: That's right, it's the day we celebrate all he did for our country.
Z: Does he live in a castle?
CBHM: Who?
Z: Martin Luther's king.
CBHM: No, sweetheart, he wasn't a king, "King" was his last name. Martin Luther KING. It's Martin Luther King's birthday that we are celebrating tomorrow.
Z: Oh. Do we get birthday cake?
Z: Presents?
Z: Candy?
Z: What kind of holiday is it?


I have no idea how to talk to my kid about race. So I haven't really. I figured I would shelter her from difficult topics like this until they came up on their own. I thought that was the best way to handle it.

But then last fall, I read this article in Newsweek, which is actually an except from the book "Nurtureshock" by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. In the article, the authors make the case for talking openly with your children about race. They present us with studies showing babies as young as six months notice differences in skin color. Children as young as three start to categorize people based on skin color. Children as young as six already have ingrained assumptions about people based on the color of their skin, even, or possibly especially, when their parents haven't talked to them at all about race.

The authors label the usual, vague "every one's equal" pronouncements as ineffective. So what's a liberal, white, clueless but hopeful mama to do?

How DO you talk to your kids about race?

How do YOU talk to your kids about race?


Marie Green said...

I haven't talked much about it with even my 1st graders! I just... don't know either. The thing is, we live in WHITE TOWN USA, so there is very little diversity and therefore it doesn't really come up "naturally". We do have a small hispanic population, but the few times I've tried to convo about that has been a HUGE FAIL.

Gah. I just don't know. I think perhaps because I don't know how to relate it to their (very sheltered, by proxy) lives, ya know?

Ali said...

I find that my 4yo really needs "rules" to govern his understanding of the world. For example, due to injury I did not drive for some time. He forgot that I had ever driven and piped up one day "Only mans drive don't they, not women". That seemed to fit with what he had seen, it made sense to him. Likewise he has asked various questions about differences in people's appearance. It can be difficult as there are very few people of African descent where we live and he was quite confused the first time he saw a man with very dark skin.

What about reading her stories with characters form different cultures? There are plenty of those about and I find that helps open a discussion. We just try to say that everyone looks different, even in our family and that these are just variations, like hair colour. It seems to work, this is what we did for our 14 and 11yo's also.

Anonymous said...

You know, I would have to disagree that not talking about it would make kids more racist. Race was really never talked about, never made a deal about, and honestly never noticed by me. I mean, I would notice that someone looked different, but I had no idea about stereotypes or derogatory names or any of that stuff. I live in white-land utah, but I think it really has to do with the attitudes of parents. My parents didn't care about race, so I don't.

Then there's my husband, who is asian. When I met him I was so surprised at how racist people can be, like that there are just understood hatreds between races that no one really knows why they exist. His parents hate black people, hate white people, hate chinese people and japanese people, pretty much hate everyone who isn't korean. They also don't trust any product unless it's korean made, I swear they use LG toothpaste, no lie. I am still shocked at how casually my in-laws will just throw in racism to a conversation, "You can't trust products from japan, they're no good, only Korean." or "Don't walk over there, there's a black person."

My husband himself is not racist, per se, but he certainly notices race a lot more often than I do. We'll be watching a show and he'll be all, "Hey that's the same indian guy as on that other show" and I'll be like, "buh?" and he'll have to describe the character because I had no recollection of someone being indian on a show.

So, yeah, just blathering on here.

Grateful Twin Mom said...

I agree that the vague, "everyone's different," is ineffective. Kids definitely know that all people are different, and stating the obvious doesn't really teach them what they want to know when they ask why. My kids were exposed to the dream of MLK in preschool, where they colored pictures of him in various colors. Last year, in kindergarten, they came home saying that MLK worked hard so that dark-skinned people could drink at the same drinking fountains and go to the same bathrooms as light-skinned people. Jim Crow laws in the south are something they didn't even believe when they learned this. "Why couldn't they go to the same bathroom?"

I know we did not bring up any of this history to them, and while they seem to understand the concepts from school, they definitely still have questions.

DO we talk to our kids about race? It's kind of the same as when we talk to them about what happens after people die. "Some people feel...." is usually the way I have approached sensitive subjects. What I really don't want to do is present my children with stereotypes that they might not have gleaned on their own. Rather, I want to give them the facts (We celebrate MLK's birthday to remember all the good he did to help people of all skin colors to be treated fairly) and help them to see the value in individuals. I think even a 3-year-old Z can get it.

Hillary said...

We haven't really talked to The Boy about race, however, one of the things I like most about where we live is its diversity. I grew up in a rural, almost all-white area. I didn't know a black person really until I was in college, so, even though I was raised to not see race as a big deal, the novelty of it sort of made it one. The Boy goes to school with kids of all different skin tones. His teachers, our neighbors and our coworkers are all different. I'm hoping it just becomes his reality.

bat7mess said...

Good post. I think about this a lot. I'm not sure how to broach the subject. I have all of my answers prepared (much of what has already been said about people looking different/coming from different places), but I guess I'm waiting for an opportunity to use them.

clueless but hopeful mama said...

parkingathome- I hear you and I wonder how much of not noticing race is a privilege of being white? Maybe we feel we don't notice race because we're not the ones usually being discriminated against?

Today I started a conversation with Z about how people are different in lots of different ways and it's okay to notice those differences but that we treat all people with respect. And then we talked about how we feel when people look different from us. It was a decent start, I think, but I'm totally still floundering.

Good Enough Mom said...

This is an awesome topic. We live in a racially integrated neighborhood and have an African Am. nanny who watches my toddler when I work. This has helped us a lot with our kids comfort with being around all different kinds of people. In fact, my toddler is drawn to anyone who has dark skin like his nanny. Why? Because she is freakin' FABULOUS! :) She is like a grandmother to him.

I don't know if this is a good way to begin to talk about race or not, but our older son's school has done units on skin color (starting at pre-k). Each child got to do a life-size self-portrait (tracing their body and making a big cut out) and then got to mix colors to make a color that closely resembled their own skin. From there, the kids got to talk about how many colors get mixed together to make the color of their skin. Since this was done in a group, each kid got to see how everyone else's color was different from theirs (because, really, we each have our OWN color, if you look closely...)...

Now this doesn't begin to approach the harder topic of RACISM, but it is a great start, IMHO, for talking about skin color... What do you think?

Aunt Bobbie said...

wow,"units on skin color" skins in school - wonderful - so imaginative.
I had a Black nanny to whom I was very close growing up - when I encountered racism (and there was a lot in the 1960s) I was taken aback - weren't all Black people like my nanny? I now feel something is missing if I don't have Black friends or people in my life; I'm privileged to be close to my nanny's granddaughter since her death. I don't believe there is a substitute for a real relationship with a person of another race, preferably at a young age, not that talking about race with a parent isn't important!

miyoko said...

i consider myself lucky- growing up half japanese and half german, i was kind of race blind. i just saw everything as a giant melting pot. my family's lives were SO destroyed by war and idiotic racial issues (japanese internment, etc) that for me it was more about acceptance of culture rather than 'race'. It was just kind of a non-issue growing up.

i was also lucky because my neighbors/friends were half african american half white, and my best friend/neighbor growing up was also half japanese half german. Many of my school friends were Jewish or Catholic. So we all just thought it just 'normal' to be a mix and to not make a big deal about things in general. THe whole 'celebrate diversity' thing.

I enjoy explaining my kids' Japanese names to them, and I was just explaining what it means to be Japanese the other night to P. We will probably not make a big deal about the fact racism exists until they are older. We will work on teaching acceptance and love, so they can make good choices and decisions in the future. Later I think it will be good to explain racism so they can be prepared with that should it ever arise in their lives.

KG said...

Serendipity! My answer to these questions is always: "Picture books!" and when I walked into work today, a fellow tutor handed me this amazing book: "Freedom Summer" written by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue.


Just a place to start, this book is beautiful and amazing! Gets at the heart of the hatred and injustice that seethed in the South at this time in a way that kids might be able to take in without being traumatized: after desegregation, a town pool is filled in with asphalt rather than allow blacks to swim there. Also has a white ally character and tons of love and hope. Made me cry.

Kader said...

I just read that chapter in Nurtureshock. I haven't talked to my kid about race, as he's only 5 months old and doesn't even know he has a name. Or a face, really.
I will say that, in my experience as a middle school teacher, kids are dying to talk about race and have so many questions about it. They've been taught that it's not polite to mention it, but, when you allow the discussion, they all have SO MUCH TO SAY. So, I certainly agree with Nurtureshock's conclusions.
I would just suggest pointing out that race exists and talking about discrimination candidly. MLK provides some great examples...
Sorry--mostly just platitudes here.

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