I remember being little and studying the civil rights movement in 4th or 5th grade and having the thought that "when I grow up, my children won't have to deal with racism. By the year 2000 (it seemed so far away to me back in the early 1980s) we will have really understood that all people are just that - people." Fat chance!
The other night my three-year-old asked me:
Mommy what color is her face?
He was referring to my 4-year-old cousin (daughter of my first cousin with whom I am close) who lives in Mexico City. I am half Mexican, born in Mexico City, with lots of family still in Mexico. My son has seen pictures of his 4-year-old cousin, and can't wait to meet her and play with her when we go down to Mexico for Christmas. I honestly did not know quite how to answer the question. Despite the fact that my Mexican heritage is a very big part of who I am, and I spent the first 6 years of my life living in Mexico, with lots and lots of trips to Mexico over summers and holidays throughout my childhood. My son doesn't identify me with his cousin because I happen to be blonde and light skinned (yes, Mexicans can be blonde). I didn't know how to answer him because I felt that there must be a "right" answer and a "correct" approach when your child asks you a question like that in order to early on promote the idea that color is not an important attribute when describing a person. I want him to know that what matters is whether they are nice, honest, good listeners, friendly, happy, sad, etc.
I ended up just dismissing the question and focusing on the idea that he gets to meet this cousin for the first time. We talked about where she lived, how old she was, and what types of things they might do together over the holidays.
Ironically with this topic very hot on my mind, I read an interesting post at the New York Times Freakonomics blog titled "Do Mothers Pass on Racism More Than Fathers?" There is a lot of controversy in the comments on this post about the research and what it really means, but nonetheless its an interesting article about kids and racism. After reading this article I did a few Google searches, trying to find some good information about how to teach kids about people's ethnic differences. There is definitely information out there. But I find myself questioning the sources and wondering whether they align with my world (read very liberal) view. The top search result on Google from the keywords "teaching, children, race" is from a Christian web site.
So where does this get me? Certainly after reading the comments on the Freakonomics blog I am a little disappointed in our society. Apparently we have made very little progress since my schooldays in the '80s. We are still dealing with people who are "secret" racists, which is why the study asked children and not parents about racism. The researcher wanted to take advantage of the candid and truthful nature of childhood that gets lost in adulthood. There is a lot of talk in the comments about how people are politically correct in public, but not in reality. And I know - I should not be disappointed, as I am a realist. But here we are obviously still dealing with this issue. But then who am I kidding? In 2002 CNN reported on a National Geographic study that revealed that only 13% (a dismal 1 in 7 statistic) of young Americans aged 18-24 could find Iraq on a map. It amazes me, and yes, still surprises me, that our voting population in the US could be this misinformed. But then again, apparently the show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader exists and is well watched because most of the US population is NOT smarter than a 5th grader. Sigh.