One day a few years ago, I was standing in a long line on a busy day at Costco, waiting to pay for our groceries. I had three little boys at the time and was pregnant with my fourth. Suddenly—and very loudly (at least it seemed that way to me)—one of my boys pointed at a woman in line two lines away and said very loudly, “Mommy! That person doesn’t have any underwear on!” I wanted to sink into the floor. I quickly pulled him close to me to stop the pointing and to talk to him a bit more privately as I tried to explain that the woman in the super short dress probably did have underwear on, she was just wearing a dress that wasn’t very modest. I reminded him that we don’t point and I hoped that my face wasn’t as bright red as it felt. This was a conversation I kept quiet–underwear is a private thing after all.Sometimes our kids say things we wish they wouldn’t say and I think we could all agree that we know deep down our children are not trying to embarrass us. They are genuinely curious and are trying to understand the world, so they make observations and ask questions. We want them to come to us with their questions because if they don’t come to us, they will seek their answers elsewhere and that could be far worse than a little inconvenience and embarrassment now. We’re investing in our kids, remember?
Like it or not(I personally love it), we live in a world of diversity. Chances are, however, you are not an expert on every culture and your expertise may lie with your own skin color/culture/religion/region and stop there. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to acknowledge. Sometimes we try to pretend something we don’t really know, especially to our children. Please remember that it is OK to say “I don’t know,” and fortunately we live in a time where we can easily find answers to most questions by typing a quick search into a computer/phone/tablet or asking Siri/Alexa/Cortana.
Most children notice physical differences in people of different races very early in life. By the age of three, children can verbalize many of these differences and may start to ask questions. Sometimes these questions happen at very public, inopportune moments, so it is important to be prepared in advance so you will how to best teach your child.
(Disclaimer: I am including within this article a couple of embarrassing questions that kids often ask regarding race. Please do not misconstrue these examples as me making jokes about other races. To me, the only thing funny in regards to race is the laughable idea that some people truly believe that race could make you superior in any way. That is the only race joke I’m laughing at.)
1-Don’t ignore the question/statement.
Ignoring your child when he asks or observes something about another person’s race does not do anyone any service. Most people will understand that children are curious and may be unfamiliar with people of other races, especially when they are young. They will excuse a child’s behavior, especially if they see a parent genuinely educating her child. For example, if a child says loudly in the checkout line, “Mom! Why is his skin so dark? Did he drink too much chocolate milk?” Your gut reaction may be to just shush your child and sink into the floor. I get it. This reaction, however, teaches children that there is something wrong with talking about race. Instead, you can keep your cool and respond openly, “No. His skin is brown because he has something in his skin called melanin. Melanin is very important because it helps protect your skin from the sun. I have melanin in my skin, too. Remember when we went to the beach last month and my skin got tan? It was the melanin in my skin that made it get darker. Everyone has melanin, though some people have more than others.”
Giving a response and explaining a situation in the moment gives your children the tools they need to move forward toward successful adulthood. Showing them that race is nothing to fear or be ashamed of is invaluable.
If you are White, be prepared. Many White children associate brown with dirt, so logically, a question like, “Why is she so dirty?” might arise while in the confines of a grocery store (Doesn’t it seem like you end up shopping alongside the same few people the whole time you’re there?), combined with pointing and embarrassing volume levels. Breathe! You’ve got this! Instead of “Ssh!” and a dash down the closest aisle, a constructive response could be: “Honey, she isn’t dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different color. Just like we have different hair color, people have different skin colors, too.” Keep your cool. Don’t even flinch! If she is still interested, you could go on and explain the melanin thing from the paragraph above. Please keep in mind that children’s questions don’t go away, they may temporarily go unasked and simultaneously we are sending the message that race is just something that is wrong to talk about.
2-Take opportunities to teach your child.
One of my favorite ideas comes from Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race (This book, btw, is one I love and highly recommend, particularly if you are a parent or educator). Place a brown egg and a white egg out on your kitchen counter. Ask your child what he sees. Acknowledge that yes, they do have different-colored shells. Then crack each egg into a bowl. You can point out to your child that though they look different on the outside, they are the same inside. Explain that people are like eggs: we may look different on the outside, but we are all the same inside. You can do similar things with M&Ms as long as they are all the same type! The idea here is to make the “lesson” a natural part of conversation, not something you are ashamed or scared of.
3-Expose your child to different cultures.
You may live in a very culturally diverse area or you may live among a very monochromatic population. Regardless of your situation, it is so beneficial for your child to learn and understand that there are different cultures and different races and different religions all over the world. This can come from conscientiously choosing diverse children’s books to buy or check-out from the library (One of my favorites that I started reading with my boys very early on is Mama Says).
Exposure to other cultures doesn’t have to be globetrotting (although if you can swing it, that’s an awesome idea…), but can come from looking up different countries on the Internet and learning new things about the people who live there. A fascinating website for people of all ages is ThePlacesWeLive.com. I found this was also a great way to teach my children about gratitude since most of the locations shown are full of challenges of which my children knew nothing.
When I wrote The Nace, I was very intentional to include people of different skin colors within my pages, even though I knew that there were only a few pictures with people in the first place. Seek out books and stories that include diversity, even if that is not the main topic. If you hear of appropriate art exhibits, concerts, or cultural festivals, consider taking your child. Research has proven that children who are exposed to other cultures are more successful, both in the classroom and in the workforce. So beyond the moral implications of teaching your child to be a responsible member of society, there are additional benefits to help your child be the best he can be.
4-Have “the talk”.
Even though it is painful, it is important to explain the truth of racial history to your child. If you live in the Unites States, our story is the one I am most familiar with, but I know that other countries had similar pasts that they are still working to overcome. Don’t leave this for your child to learn in school or from a movie or from his peers. If you need some ideas for how to say this to a preschool-aged child, Beverly Daniel Tatum gives a simple example you can use or adapt:
“A long, long time ago, before there were grocery stores and roads and houses here, the Europeans came. And they wanted to build roads and houses and grocery stores here, but it was going to be a lot of work. They needed a lot of really good, strong, smart workers to cut down trees, and build roads, and work on farms, and they didn’t have enough. So they went to Africa to get the strongest, smartest workers they could find. Unfortunately they didn’t want to pay them. So they kidnapped them and brought them here as slaves. They made them work and didn’t pay them. And that was really unfair. … This was a really long time ago, and the Africans who were kidnapped did whatever they could to escape. But sometimes the Europeans had guns and the Africans didn’t, so it was hard to get away. But some even jumped off the boats into the ocean to try to escape. There were slave rebellions, and many of the Africans were able to escape to freedom after they got here, and worked to help other slaves get free. Now, even though some White people were kidnapping Africans and making them work without pay, other White people thought that this was very unfair, which it was. And those White people worked along with the Black people to bring an end to slavery. So now it is against the law to have slaves.”
Above all else, acknowledge that talking about race is important and beneficial. When I was fresh out of college, I went to a job interview in our college town where the interviewer was very detailed in his questions regarding my resume. I had worked hard with an amazing college professor to implement Black History Month presentations throughout the local school district because they had not previously done anything. When he got to that area in the “Volunteer Service” section on my resume, he asked me if he understood correctly, that that was what I had done and I proudly said, “Yes!” He then furrowed his brow in genuine confusion and asked, “Why?” I was dumbfounded. I interpreted his question to mean that since we lived in a predominantly White area, what was the point of teaching about Black History. I can’t remember my exact answer (it probably included some stammering because I was still in a bit of shock), but if I could go back and answer the question again, I would say, “Because people’s lives are better when they see the bigger picture and understand that heroes and villains come in all different shapes and sizes and colors and cultures. Those people whom we celebrate during Black History Month should be celebrated all year round. Recognizing the importance of other cultures and races and religions brings joy to our lives, makes us better people and makes the world a better place. Ignoring and classifying them does not.”
Do you have any additional resources you would recommend to parents/educators? Books? Websites? TV shows? Please share in the comments below.
I am currently working on a middle grade novel that discusses racism in a way that is educational and enlightening (I hope). If you are interested in updates, please be sure to subscribe to my newsletter.