30 Sep
Don’t Raise a Bigot: Talking to Your Kids About Race

Dear Mouthy Housewives,

OK, here’s one for you: my son said to me out of the blue: “I don’t like dark-skinned people.”

It freaked me out. How did I give birth to a racist? He’s only four, almost five. One of his favorite preschool teachers is African-American (a woman who I’ve considered asking to adopt me, she’s so wonderful). He absolutely adores her so when he said that, I asked, “Really? Even Miss Denise?” and he thought for a minute and said, “Well, not Miss Denise. I love her. But everyone else who’s dark-skinned.” I’ve been told I shouldn’t lecture him about it, because that will make him dig in his heels. But I want to exorcise this racism demon that has possessed my kid!

Help!!

Freaked-Out White Liberal Mom (FOWLM)

P.S. He also lately drew a stick-figure man, complete with striped tie and American flag, and told me it was “Daddy. No, ‘Rock’ Obama. No, daddy. No, Rock Obama.” If he’s getting his dad mixed up with the African-American president, obviously his feelings about African-Americans can’t be that bad. Or am I grasping at straws?

_________________________________________________________________

Dear FOWLM,

As a white person who grew up in Alabama in the 1970’s, a time when some people still thought desegregation was a bad idea, I feel I can say with some authority that no, you are not grasping at straws. I don’t think you need to keep count of your white bed sheets just yet.

I do understand you freaking out though. Four years ago, I received a phone call from my son’s kindergarten teacher because he absolutely refused to stand by an African-American classmate during pictures, to the point of throwing a tantrum over it. (Just so you know, it’s impossible to die from mortification because if it were possible, I would be writing this from The Other Side.) Of course, this is the same kindergarten teacher that I showed penis drawings to and blew off classroom volunteer work for a nooner. I don’t know what keeps her from nominating us for family of the year.

To think I prided myself on my sons’ seemingly natural acceptance of skin color. And in Alabama too! My husband and I never talked about race because we thought it to be a non-issue; our kids just accepted differences with what we thought was modern open-mindedness. (Really, where is that family of the year award?)

As I found out the hard way, young children do get to an age where they begin to notice differences and can form their own weird hypotheses to explain it. I agree lecturing will not help the situation (when does it ever?), and sometimes these crazy ideas pass on their own, never to be thought of again.

For us, though, I decided to discover what misconception was underlying my son’s sudden issue with race rather than hope it would go away on its own. It was a painless process and, thankfully, reverse brainwashing was not needed, nor was exorcism, which is good news in this economy since either treatment would be expensive. Once we knew what was going on in his head, we easily proved his thinking false and he immediately came back around to the truth, which is that we’re all a part of the human race.

Namaste,

Heather, TMH

P.S. My son declared last November that if Obama didn’t win the election, he would defect to the Caribbean. Obviously I don’t need to watch my white bed sheets closely either.  I think we both can relax.

This week on The Mouthy Housewives, we are giving away a simply divine diaper bag from Baby Star. It’s so gorgeous, you don’t even need a baby to use it. Trust me, the other moms will be silently stewing in envy. Click here to find out about the giveaway and how to enter.

17 Responses to “Don’t Raise a Bigot: Talking to Your Kids About Race”

09.30.09#1

Comment by LZ @ My Messy Paradise.

I agree that not making a big deal about it is the way to go. My daughter made a comment about others being darker than us, and I just said that skin is like eyes and hair, it comes in lots of colors. When she gets older and can understand different cultures, I’ll explain more, but I know that making a big deal of it would ensure that she would run to her African-American or Asian friends and discuss it ad-nauseum.

09.30.09#2

Comment by Amo.

THANK YOU for posting this! On the day of the election, my son casually walked in and announced, “I don’t like black people,” and then walked out. Fortunately, we were the only one’s home, but I freaked out. He’s said it twice since then, too. I’ve been ignoring it and making a point to point out people who are of color that he likes but not in a , ‘See, Jimmy is your friend and he’s not white!’ kinda way, but more of a ‘wasn’t he a nice boy?’ It’s not easy to navigate those waters, so I’d love to hear how others do this…

09.30.09#3

Comment by Becky.

They were just talking about this issue on Anti-Racist Parent, and posted an article about how children will naturally segregate themselves by any visible differences (there was a study with preschoolers in 2 different colored shirts who told researchers that the kids in the different color from them weren’t as nice or as smart or whatever as their group, even though they had never been grouped by shirt color in class or anything). It was super-interesting, and basically made the point that you can’t assume that not talking about race will make your child grow up not racist – just like you talk to your kids about other things, you need to talk to them about race.

Anyway, interesting topic!

09.30.09#4

Comment by GrandeMocha.

My son came home from a friends house talking about a movie about “yellow people”. I was mortified. After much discussing I learned he had been watching “The Simpsons Movie”.

09.30.09#5

Comment by MommyTime.

I think it’s really important to realize that “not making a big deal about it” and “not talking about it” are two different things. In my son’s preschool class, they had multiple conversations about skin color in a neutral, “people come in lots of different colors” kind of way. It led to him asking me questions like “how come all the people in our town are peach?” I think if you use the opportunities your children give you, when THEY bring up the topic (in whatever context), you can talk to them about markers of racial difference like skin/eye/hair color while making it clear that these are not markers that should make us pass judgment on people. This same child came home from school with a story about how one child wouldn’t let another play a game because “brown people weren’t allowed to play,” and so at the age of four, my son got his first lesson in racism. I didn’t use that word, but I did talk frankly with him about why it is hurtful and cruel to make claims about what people can/can’t do or be on the basis of how they look. He understood, even at that age. I think ignoring those moments, or refusing to engage in real conversation over them, implicitly can reinforce the opinions. One thing I learned from my conversation with my son is that he didn’t see why the other boy’s comment could be hurtful because in fact, the child in question “did have brown skin.” Children SEE difference, obviously, but they have to LEARN to judge people on the basis of those differences. I think it’s only if we don’t pretend they can’t see that we can teach them how not to judge.

09.30.09#6

Comment by Karin.

my kindergartner was constantly making similar comments about race. I tried a lot of things – ignoring and lectures mostly and lists of black people that she loves including her cousin who is biracial. Finally, I said, “You are entitled to your opinion but now, I don’t like blue-eyed girls.” She has blue eyes. She’s been a lot quieter about it lately. My oldest NEVER did this. She always told me how beautiful different skin was and how she wanted her (pasty white and freckled) skin to be darker.

09.30.09#7

Comment by Keyona.

Great topic. I had to explain “race” a little early for my young one. Us being a black family but having a bi-racial stepdaughter she was confused by the skin differences.

09.30.09#8

Comment by Liz Jenkins.

Our 7 year old daughter went through a period of this last year as well – complete with utter mortification in the entry to camp this summer where she proceeded to inform the registrar that while she was excited for camp and made friends easily, she didn’t make black friends. Hello, she HAS black friends. But not the dark black friends. Light brown friends were ok – just not the dark ones. I wanted to sink through the floor.
I realized the mistake I made was not bringing up, more often, the differences in people – in everything from color to religion to beliefs to food preferences. So now, these types of things are daily discussions – usually in the car or in front of strangers in crowded public areas.
It seems to have subsided and I suspect it was more of testing out MY feelings to see where hers should be. Now we get to discuss private parts and menstrual cycles in public. Oh, joy.

09.30.09#9

Comment by Olya.

There JUST was an excellent article over an NurtureShock about exactly this: http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/archive/2009/09/11/is-discussing-race-with-a-3-year-old-too-young.aspx

And, apparently, latest research shows that the right thing to do is to talk about race more, not less. Kids do notice the differences, and when it’s not talked about, they begin to think it’s taboo (which, let’s face it, it sort of is). It would be helpful to discuss race more like we discuss gender: to recognize it, talk about it and say that differences are there, but that they should not be used as stereotypes.

09.30.09#10

Comment by Heather.

Olya: That’s a good article. Thanks for sharing it. It does seem like a taboo to even talk about it and that’s something we need to overcome.

Liz: My son tried to get me to discuss tampons in a public bathroom after he read the vending machine. Fun times.

09.30.09#11

Comment by Brianna.

I guess I was lucky. I was raised as “color-blind” as humanly possible because two of my cousins are mixed race. Most of my family is pasty ass white, but those two cousins are much, much darker, and when I was like, 4? I asked my mother why those cousins were dark skinned and we were light skinned. My mom said basically the same as LZ: it all boils down to genetics. Their daddy had dark skin, so they did too, just like I got her blue eyes. The “race” thing got explained later, but by then, I’d been exposed to so many different people that it really didn’t make an impact on me. People belong to different races? Oh, that’s interesting. Can I go play now? LOL

Also, the diaper bag is The Awesome, and I would love to win it! The weirdest thing I ever carried in ours is our TV remote. I stashed it there to get it out of sight of the kids (because they refused to leave it be) and totally forgot to take it out for three days.

10.01.09#12

Comment by Michelle.

Hi, new reader here.

Great post, and thank you for it. Fortunately my son’s at the age where he’s not noticing the difference in skin color, BUT I know he’ll be at that point soon because he’s noticing ‘differences’ and already asking questions about them. This is a great blog because it’s helped me to think on how I’ll have to deal with this one day.

10.01.09#13

Comment by Stephanie.

Olya – I was just going to post the same article! It was very interesting, no?

10.01.09#14

Comment by Lady Fi.

Great post. My kids have brown skin and they have returned from school in tears when people say things like, “I don’t like brown-skinned people.” It’s important to remember that comments like this hurt and that is why you should talk about it with your kids, no matter how young.

10.01.09#15

Comment by Mary.

As a conservative on the order of Right of Rush Limbaugh, I kind of have a thorn in my ass that this was signed “…Liberal Mom”. What? Conservatives can’t be concerned about racism? Maybe the white kid isn’t racist at all, maybe the black kid is just annoying.

10.01.09#16

Comment by L.

Mary,
Yes, but her son said “I don’t like dark Skinned people.” He didn’t say, “I don’t like Johnny. He’s a pain.” There’s a vast difference.

10.05.09#17

Comment by Mary.

I was referring to Heather’s kid. All I’m saying is that sometimes it isn’t about race at all. Sometimes, it’s the parents’ oversensitivity and overcompensation that makes it about race. If the original writer’s kid said he didn’t like black people, I’d be inclined to ask why and then take it from there. Maybe he’s just confused and not racist at all.

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