Talking to small children about race

September 4

Children hold up protest signs in reaction to the Michael Brown shooting (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In light of everything that has happened in Ferguson, I’ve been thinking a lot about how, as a white parent, I can handle the subjects of racism and inequality with my young son. These are big topics with no easy ways to address them. And to be honest, I wasn’t sure where or how to begin.

Then my 3-and-a-half year old started the conversation for me.

We were sitting down to dinner the other night. My husband and I were in the middle of a long and somewhat involved conversation with our kid about why he should try some of the homemade pizza even if it was different from daycare pizza. But instead of talking pizza, my son looked down and suddenly became distracted by the color of his skin.

“Mama,” he said, staring at his arm. “I have light skin. And blond hair.”

He followed this up with, “But E [a friend of his from daycare who is half Filipino] has black hair and light skin. And N [another daycare friend, who is of Middle Eastern descent] has black hair and light skin. And O [a third daycare friend, who is black] has dark hair and dark skin.”

This is the first time that my son had made any mention of racial differences. Up until this point, he had been very firm on the fact that everyone had the same color of skin; when, curious about how he sees himself, I had asked him if his skin was white, he had very emphatically told me that no, it was not – he had brown skin, and I had brown skin, and all of his friends had brown skin. I guess that, for him, we all existed on a sort of spectrum, where everyone’s skin color is essentially the same even if the shade sometimes varies.

I’m sure that there are many people who would see this as a good thing. “Colorblindness” — the idea that you don’t see skin color, just people — is quite popular among white folks as a method of handling race and privilege. People who say they just don’t see race have found a convenient way of getting out of uncomfortable discussions; claiming colorblindness allows people to not shoulder any responsibility for the role they play in a society that is inherently racist and unequal.

While I understand that the intent behind proclaiming oneself to be colorblind is a good one, the ideology itself is incredibly problematic, especially when a parent is employing it.

For one thing, neglecting to discuss race and privilege with a child — or just leaving it at “everyone is equal, no matter what” — leaves them incredibly vulnerable to outside messages from society, their peers and the media they consume.

For another, touting the inability to see skin color as the best way of interacting with others erases the lived experiences, both negative and positive, of people of color. Parents shouldn’t be working to make race invisible or unseeable; instead, they should be celebrating diversity and embracing the idea of multiculturalism.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas about how to start conversations about race and ethnicity with young children:

1. Take them to cultural events

Make a point of bringing your child to events celebrating other cultures. With very young children, this is one of the best ways to start a conversation about diversity and multiculturalism. Plus, it’s super fun.

2. Teach your kid that people are different, and different is good

Make a point of discussing with your child how great it is that not everyone is the same. Get them excited about other cultures, and talk about how boring it would be if there was only one type of culture. Keep emphasizing the point that while everyone is equal, “equal” doesn’t mean “the same.”

3. Look for ways to bring diversity to your child’s media

Find books, movies, television shows that feature a diverse cast of characters, and make sure that these forms of media aren’t falling into the trap of tokenism, i.e. having mainly white lead characters with a few background characters of different races or ethnicities. If you notice that some of your child’s favorite books or shows involve problematic depictions of race, talk to them about it and try to have a conversation about what you wish was done differently in this particular story.

4. Encourage them to call out racism when they see it

Talk to your kids about what they can do or say if they see something that makes them uncomfortable. Remind them that if a peer says something that doesn’t sound right to them, they can say “I don’t like that,” or “that’s not a nice thing to say,” or go find an adult. It’s important to raise kids who are willing to speak out.

5. Let them be curious, and have patience with that curiosity

Your child will have questions. Lots of questions. And some of those questions might seem inappropriate or strange, because your kid is still learning and figuring things out and might not have a firm grasp on language yet. Just roll with it, answer their questions as honestly as possible, and if in doubt look for outside resources. Your child will sense if you are evading or unsure about answering something, and that will just make it more tantalizing in their eyes.

These are all things that I will start doing with my son as soon as possible. I’ve put off having tough conversations about race and privilege because it seemed like he was still too young and, selfishly, I wanted him to hold on to his innocent post-racial world view for just a little bit longer. But other parents – parents who see their own children in the faces of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin – do not have this luxury. The plain fact is that their sons’ lives are at risk because of the color of their skin; my son’s life is not. I cannot think of a better, more clear demonstration of privilege and inequality than that.

Finding age-appropriate ways to talk to my son about race is one small step that I can take toward ending that inequality.

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and cat enthusiast who blogs about feminism, mental health, and parenting. You can follow her on twitter at @anne_theriault or her blog at The Belle Jar.

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