Talking to My White Child About Race

"Mommy," he piped up from the back seat in his sweet little voice, "I don't like people who have different skin color than mine." My brain sort of froze, but I stayed on the road as I gulped in discomfort.
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I still haven't figured out how to speak with my 6-year-old son about the violent, racial injustices that have recently occurred. I wrote this a couple of years ago and it offers a place to start for talking to your child about race. We must all keep doing this.

Different Is Good
My son said something today that truly shocked me.

"Mommy," he piped up from the back seat in his sweet little voice, "I don't like people who have different skin color than mine." My brain sort of froze, but I stayed on the road as I gulped in discomfort.

"Why is that, sweetie?" He explained how he hadn't liked someone he'd recently met. He attributed his dislike to her skin color. Apparently, 4-year-olds make sweeping judgments and generalizations. I continued to play it cool and tried to broaden his view by validating that it was fine for him to feel unsure of new people, but also suggesting that his hesitation may not have had anything to do with the color of her skin.

In a light tone, like I was just letting him know, I said, "It's actually important to not decide things about people based on the color of their skin." Then I spent a few moments reminding him of the non-white people in our lives -- noticing what a short list it was. How did that happen? Well, we moved to Maine, I guess that's how. Maine is one of the whitest states in the country. When I first lived here in the mid-eighties, my rural high school was 99.9% Caucasian. Arriving from California, I found people to be downright racist.

I grew up in the Bay Area. I spent my childhood interacting with people of different backgrounds, colors and sexual orientations. When I first moved to San Francisco at age 19, I once found myself in a classroom where I was the lone Caucasian. That was an eye-opening experience. It did not feel particularly comfortable to be the "only" in that situation -- a place many people of color find themselves every single day.

In a Women's Studies class in 1991, I was introduced to Peggy McIntosh's essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Ms. McIntosh's clear naming of the "package of unearned assets" that those in the dominant class and culture possess was appalling. I was floored, and deeply embarrassed to have simply not noticed. I was oblivious to huge variations in the not-at-all-level playing field. I remain blown away by the long lists of things I won't experience just because my family is white.

This is a painful mirror we need to both face, and help our children look into. A few things to keep in mind when discussing color, differences, and discrimination with young children:

Don't ignore color. Research shows that aiming for a "colorblind" culture is misguided. You lose the opportunity for many rich conversations. Plus, kids aren't blind. If they see differences and we ignore them, it creates an incongruence that is puzzling. Point out differences and talk about them. We are not all the same. And sadly, our world is not one where all are treated equally -- don't ignore that either.

Acknowledge discrimination and privilege. Point out injustice. Promote media literacy by highlighting just how many white people are represented in the mainstream media. Question the poor representation of racial and ethnic diversity. Notice and discuss the demonization of dark-skinned people in Disney movies. Speak up about the unfairness that is pretty much everywhere you turn.

Embrace diversity whenever possible. Don't assume that white is the norm. Look for toys and picture books that include people of color. (Unfortunately, it is harder than it sounds.) Also, remember that history can always be told from multiple perspectives. When you tell children "facts" about our cultural past, try the caveat, "This is the commonly told story."

Small changes in awareness and action can make a difference. Big shifts can be made incrementally. The other day we were driving again, this time listening to the radio. The DJ came on and made some announcements, finishing up with their station tagline -- "Different is good." My son perked up and asked me, "Why did that man say that 'different is good?'"

It may have been overkill, but this is what I said: "They said different is good because lots of people in our world think that different isn't good. They're talking about music, but it's true for all kinds of things. Some people believe that those who look or seem different are scary or bad. It's important to notice when things are different and embrace them anyway." He gave me a long look and said, "Okay Mommy."

This post originally appeared on Find Sarah here on Facebook.

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