Talking to Your Kids About Race

In light of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, many people are asking, “What can I do to take action and prevent this from happening again?”  Well, a great place to start is in our own families, with our children.  About a month ago, I started reading a book called NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children, which is comprised of journalistic studies and articles about parenting. When I got to the chapter about race, I was dismayed that the point of the article was that parents, particularly white parents, do not talk to their kids about race, because they believe that if they don’t point out differences, their children won’t be racist. This is the “colorblind” approach, a truly naive way of looking at race, like when you are playing hide and go seek and you just close your eyes tight, thinking “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me, and I won’t get caught.”  It is also a very privileged approach, because the white families can choose not to have the hard conversations with their kids about race, while parents of kids of color have to tell their children to be careful everywhere they go, even when they are just walking to the store to buy candy.

The study found that if white parents did talk to their kids about race, they were waiting until the children were around 10 years old, and by that time, the brain has already made distinctions and attached meaning to them. The parents were horrified to see the results of their kids’ answers to questions such as, “Do your parents like black people?” The kids said no, as they had never heard their parents say anything about black people, but had heard a lot of negative things about black folks in the culture. There were also many families that dropped out of the study when they realized it would involve them talking directly to their kids about race.  These were not bigoted, racist people, but they are people that truly believe that if we ignore this issue, it will go away.

My psychotherapy training taught me that when you don’t discuss something with a kid that they can see with their own eyes, the children think it is a secret, and therefore shameful. This is like when parents get divorced, and are shocked to learn that the kids think it is because they were bad kids, instead of something that occured between their parents. Left to their own devices, a child’s brain will separate people into categories, attach meaning to them, and start to live out their lives that way. And if you don’t teach them by talking about it in your family, they will learn from the culture at large. I think we are all seeing, this week, how dangerous that is. At worst, you get a person who is willing to kill a child because they feel threatened by the color of their skin. But the more insidious responses are from all the folks who have been reluctant to say that this is racial profiling, and want to continue living in a world where white privilege is upheld as the norm.

I’m not judging you if you have been unwittingly doing this. I’m just calling to you imagine what it would be like if you started talking about race, first with your partner, your friends, me, your therapist, and then, with your children. It will take some messiness, some starts and stops, some missteps and personal realizations. My favorite part of the study in NurtureShock was when a mom just vaguely told her kid all the time, “We’re all equal!” Then finally one day the child asked, “Mom, what’s Equal?”

I’m no pro at this — sure, I talk about race all the time with my husband and family, but I am a new parent and I could use some guidance myself. So, I asked several of the parents I know and trust, trying to get an idea of how they talk to their kids about race. Some people I asked said they don’t really discuss it, for various reasons. One family, in which the parents are both from non-U.S. countries, said they talk more about national identity and ethnicity, rather than race, which makes sense for their family.  She talks to her son about how mama is Japanese, papa is Indian, and he is Japanese and Indian.  My questions to her about race made her wonder if race is a construct that Americans think about more than non-Americans.  It is certainly one we need to work on as Americans, so let’s dig in.

One of the first people I asked was my friend Michele, who I know from dance class, but also from the Multiethnic Playgroup she and I are a part of.

Michele, Wayne, Sadie & Sully

When I asked Michele to define her family’s the racial/ethnic background, she said: “my husband Wayne is white, I’m Black/Chinese/Jewish(white), so our kids are all of that and a bag of chips!”  She talks to her kids about race.  At first, she said, “I was gonna take the route of waiting until Sully brought it up. The reason is, when I was growing up, I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t race conscious. From my mother and her family it was framed by ‘you know how white people are…’ or other negative perceptions. With my father’s family, (especially my grandparents) there was always anomosity towards my mom and I’m sure race was a part of that. Or they ask me things about Black people, because of course I’m the national spokesperson for all African Americans.
Anyway, I didn’t want my bullshit fucking up Sully being able to form his own views. I was also curious when he would notice or say something about my mom (his Nana) being black.
Anyway, Wayne and I went to this great psychologist, Loma Flowers, that runs a program called Equilibrium Dynamics. She is either light skinned African-American or mixed. We were seeking help with behavior for Sully, and she asked us how we were dealing with being a multi cultural family. We said we didn’t bring it up, and she suggested we be the ones to frame things for our kids. She gave the example of her son coming home asking ‘What’s a nigger Mommy?’  She said, why do you want to know? He said, so and so called me one at school and he got into a lot of trouble.

Anyway, she helped us to frame things just by talking about our family. And saying we are a multicultural family, and we have people with lots of different skin colors, etc. Its been nice giving Sully some vocabulary to use, and now he often will say, so and so has brown skin like you Mommy, or so and so has light skin like me.

When I read Nurture Shock, I was surprised that people waited so long to bring up the topic, but I didn’t want to do it in a bad way. One thing that happened with Wayne and I was we let Sully watch the Wiz, and he’s also seen the Wizard of Oz. Sully was asking something about which movie was which, and I said, the Wiz has the black people, and the Wizard of Oz had the white people.  My intention was to state facts, but Wayne felt like I was excluding white people from watching/appreciating the Wiz and vice versa with the Wizard of Oz. (Funnily enough, growing up, I thought the Wiz was the Wizard of Oz, and I was always confused seeing a white Dorothy, because I kept thinking, she was not in the movie).”

So, as Michele’s story tells, talking to your kids about race is not always a straight road — there are twists and turns.  The important thing is giving your children a vocabulary for what they already see.  If they have lots of friends of different races, that’s great!  But they can see that they are different from their friends, and that makes them wonder, “Am I okay?”  It is your job to let them know that it is normal to notice differences, and that they are okay.  In fact, they are great!  Michele and I dance to a song in class that says, “If everybody looked the same, we’d get tired of looking at each other.”

The second person I asked was my own sister, because I knew for certain she talks to her kids about race, because I’ve heard it, and admired how she handled an outspoken and inquisitive child!  She and her husband are both white, with European/North American ancestry.

Cousins: Molly’s son Liam, my daughter Olive, and Molly’s daughter Teagan.

Me: Do you talk to your children about race?
Molly: Yes, I think it’s critical to discuss race with my kids. First of all, because they need to see that race is a form of difference but it doesn’t make another kid or parent strange or any better or worse. It’s okay to notice difference, but not to treat people differently.

Me: How do you discuss it with them?
Molly: Liam asked very early (maybe 2 years old?) about why some people (his uncle, his cousin, the guy walking down the street) have “brown faces”. He asked me when I was pregnant with Teagan if she was going to have a dark face or a light face. We discuss the kids at his school and his daycare, and he notes which kids have dark/brown faces as a descriptor. One time he did horrify me because he said he “didn’t like the dark-faced kids,” but he was talking about a specific couple of big kids at his previous daycare whom he thought were mean. He’s never said anything like that since. He thinks his cousin Olive is really pretty. He did ask if Rhea’s next baby would have a light face, though! 🙂

Me: Do you wait for him to bring it up, or do you raise the topic?  I guess you never have to wait long, with my curious nephew!

Molly: I wait for him to bring it up, but I do try to get him to talk about it more if he starts, so that we can be open and I can start to get him used to social construction and ideas like that from me. TV does help, because I point out things like, “Look. That’s our president.” and we can talk about him in a way that seems normal.

Me: Does this differ from the ways race was or was not discussed in your own household, growing up, and/or in your partner’s household?
I don’t think it differs that much, except I don’t think a conscious effort was made in my house to discuss race until we were much older. I certainly don’t make the kind of jokes my dad made about race in our house!

Me:What do you hope these conversations will yield for your child and your family?
Molly: I want my children to know that race is socially constructed and yet it is a marker of difference that is meaningful and linked with oppression. I want them to know that race has a very loaded history, and yet that they can transform that in their generation somewhat. I would like my children to be the ones who reach out to anyone and everyone, and who see it as totally normal to have people of color as relatives, friends, teachers, religious leaders, bosses, etc. I think Liam has a really healthy approach to racial difference right now, so hopefully that will continue.

When I got Molly’s answers to my questions, I couldn’t help but feel so lucky to have her as a model for me as a parent and as a person.  It has been really great to watch Liam develop a nuanced understanding of racial/ethnic differences, and he is only 4!

The other person I knew I had to ask was Olive’s godmother, my cousin from my husband’s side, Fabienne, who I introduced in my last post.  She is a constant source of inspiration, parenting advice, and real talk for me.  I hope you’ll appreciate her perspective as well.

Fabienne, Jean Luc, Soraya and Brent.

Me: Do you talk to your children about race?

Fabienne: Yes, I do. My children are 6.5 and 4, and race has always been a natural conversation in our home. My husband is white and from North Carolina, and I am black and from Haiti. My children have very light skin and my son, in particular, used to refer to his skin as white. It was important to me that he understand that he is biracial, even though he could easily “pass.” My daugther, on the other hand always asks why she can’t be more brown like I am.

Me: How do you discuss it with them?

Fabienne: Up until this point, our conversations about race have been factual: why do people have different color skin? Because of a chemical called melatonin. (We also read books from this perspective). Why do the kids have light skin, and I have brown skin, and their father has even lighter skin than they do? Because of genes, and mixing, and because there was mixing in my family too….those kinds of conversations. Until yesterday. I was bawling in my kitchen because something or other made me think of Trayvon Martin, and my son walked in and wanted to know why I was so upset. So I told him. I told him it was because this boy, this black boy, was killed by a white man even though he did nothing at all. And I said that some people think that black and brown people are bad, and steal things, and are dangerous JUST because they are black or brown. No other reason. My son looked like I had just told him some people believe trees walk at night. His face was a puzzle—who in the world would believe something so stupid? I would like to know the answer to that question myself.

Me: Do you wait for them to bring it up, or do you raise the topic?

Fabienne: It goes both ways in our household.

Me: Does this differ from the ways race was or was not discussed in your own household, growing up, and/or in your partner’s household?

Fabienne: No, it was the same for both my partner and I in our childhood households.

Me: What do you hope these conversations will yield for your children and your family?

Fabienne: Although I believe that racial categories are socially constructed, differences in the way people look are not. I want my children to feel comfortable noticing and asking about differences rather than fearing them or feeling confused about them. I think fear of difference and silence around it is toxic. I refuse to allow that kind of poison in my home, and I will not be complicit in the project of white supremacy, which is to normalize whiteness and exoticize, demonize, and “other” anything else.

All of these parents have young kids, and that is when it is important to start the conversation, because from children’s development standpoint, you may miss your window if you wait until the 3rd grade or later.  If you are still not convinced, and really believe it is better to leave all discussions of race alone, in the hopes that your kids will grow up without seeing race, I urge you to do more research.  Read the chapter in NurtureShock, take a critical eye to the studies.  But if you have read this today and you are interested in furthering the discussion about talking to your kids about race, leave me a comment and let me know how you speak to your kids about race — we need to share these stories, to normalize the discourse!

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21 thoughts on “Talking to Your Kids About Race

  1. Another thoughful entry rhea! Have you ever read “Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” a great read developing the ideas about ‘reverse racism’ and ‘self-segregation’ and talking a lot about how kids get raised into very different realities.

  2. This is very interesting to me. Growing up mixed race, I never really started to explore my racial identity until early in middle school, when the kids around me started to notice, too, and question me about it. I think if I would have talked about these types of things when I was much younger, it would have prevented a lot of confusion and anxiety for me down the line. Well written!

  3. My parents didn’t talk about race because I think a lot of immigrants don’t know what to do with America as a whole. They learned as they went. I come home and say, “Hey Mom, my social study teacher said a racial slur to me,” or “I was called into the principles office because there was Neo-Nazi propaganda found and my safety was a concern.” Big learning curve! At the same time, I had no idea what it meant to be Black in America because I think my folks sheltered me from some of that experience. It wasn’t until my twenties where I experienced the all too common rites of passage for most non-white folks: being pulled over by cops, wrongly searched by cops, followed by cops, feared while walking past white people (in San Francisco!!). It’s a trip. i hope that my experiences will be helpful to Olive even as I continue to work out my ever changing quest to figure out this experience.

  4. You are putting this out there in such a thoughtful way Rhea!! Thanks for including our family’s story in this piece! I’m honored!

  5. Thanks for this. I resonated with Fabienne’s comments about being bi-racial and that it’s important to her that her kids know that. Lili’u (who is six) has said a couple of times that our family is white. In each instance, I have explained that although we all have pretty fair (“white”) skin, I don’t actually think of myself as White. I remind her that her Papashida is Japanese and her Nanamai is White, which means that I am both, and so is she.

    We were at the library recently and Lili’u found a set of plastic dolls that she wanted to check out. We were in a bit of a hurry, so I didn’t look at them closely. But when we took the bag of dolls up to the reference desk, the librarian sorted them according to the picture on the package. I didn’t realize it until later, but apparently, the bag Lili’u happened to pull down from the shelf was “The White Family,” but a few dolls from “The Black Family” bag had gotten “mixed in.” The librarian explained that when kids play with them, the different sets get mixed up and the staff check them to make sure the sets are “right” before they check them out. It wasn’t until we got home and Chris and I looked more closely at the packaging that we realized that each family set was categorized by race. There’s a “Native American Family,” an “Asian Family,” and a “Hispanic Family,” too.

    Prompted by Rhea’s blog, we got the dolls out tonight and talked about how lots of families, including ours, are combinations of two or more of those groups. We talked a bit about how “race” is a made-up idea that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that “racism” is a real thing that happens when people think one skin color is better than another and treat people differently because of it.

    We pulled down a few of the Christmas cards from friends that are hanging on our fridge. Several of them are multi-racial families. We talked about how kids get half of their genes from their dad and half of their genes from their mom and the genes combine to form a unique person. We talked about how even siblings with the same mom and dad can have different skin colors because of how different genes combine in different ways. I think she got it.

    I suggested to Lili’u that the next time we go to the library, maybe we can ask the librarian if Lili’u can make her own family of dolls. Lili’u said, “Yeah…and we can tell her about racism!”

  6. Hi. I’m a friend of Christine’s and came across your blog from her fb feed recommendation. I read NurtureShock a year or two ago and was also quite struck by the idea that kids will categorize however they need to to make sense of things, so we’d darn well better help them categorize with proper labels! We talk about race very matter-of-fact with our 5-year old. Conversations like, “Your friend Sam’s parents came from a country in X where most people look like Y so that’s why he has Z.” Then repeat the same pattern for ourselves, other friends, etc… We talk this way about disabilities and obesity, too, because those are often stigmatized and kids don’t always know how to approach people who are in wheelchairs or severely overweight without being perceived as rude. We have also talked about racism (and other -isms) pretty concretely like this. Always in bite-sized chunks. I do wonder if there are some really good basic books that model how parents should talk to young kids about race based on the research. Does anyone know?

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  8. Sorry I didn’t comment last night when I linked – but I thought your article fitted in so well with what I was trying to say, I really had to add it there and then!

    Thank you for visiting us too.

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