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What Are You? Teaching Kids To Be Racially Sensitive

When he is asked what he is, I encourage him to proudly state his name because that is who he is.

What are you?

It’s the question that inevitably my 8-year-old son will be asked time and time again. Racial sensitivity is not something that everyone understands, as my son will no doubt experience.

I cannot count the number of times that I’ve been asked this question. My family is of Puerto Rican descent, but my appearance has boggled the minds of many.

My almond-shaped eyes seem to throw people off and has had some guessing that I am


Asian and Black,


Native American,

and even Eskimo!

My boy is mixed race. He is half Puerto Rican and both a quarter black and white. While some say that he is my spitting image, I don’t necessarily agree. His beautiful skin is a deeper brown. His hair is a different texture than mine and he has more gorgeous curls than I could ever hope for.

He is a beautiful blend of his father’s heritage and of my own.

And absolute perfection is what he is.

His ethnicity has already come into question. Back in preschool (yes, preschool) it became a topic among his 4-year-old peers. That’s right, 4-year-olds were discussing ethnicity.

This came to light when I picked him up one afternoon. As soon as I walked into the classroom, his teacher pulled me aside and asked, “Is your son Puerto Rican?”

I was caught off-guard by this question.

“He is half Puerto Rican, why?” I replied not really understanding why this mattered. She then proceeded to tell me that my son said that he was black and that the other children didn’t believe him. At the moment, all I felt was shock. How could this already be a topic of discussion?

We left the classroom and in my bewildered state, I tried to explain to my little guy why the other children were questioning his race. But how does one explain this to a preschooler? Gently, I explained to him that he didn’t need to be a certain ethnicity to fit in with those around him. But did he really understand this?

Throughout my childhood, I faced criticism constantly for not being “Puerto Rican” enough. While I am proud of my heritage, I was never OK with having to act a certain way to prove that I was any one thing.

As a result of my stubborn ways, I never became completely fluent in Spanish. I never learned to salsa dance and I can’t make a good pot of rice and beans to save my life. There have been countless lectures from other Latinos who can’t believe that I am “ashamed of who I am.”

There is no shame here but I am Jessica, plain and simple and I get to decide what that means. This is how I want my son to approach life too.

When it comes time to fill out forms that ask for his ethnicity, there will not be one little box for him to check off and that’s just perfect because all of his awesomeness cannot fit into just one little box.

I do understand that people will always be curious about those who are different from them. Other cultures are fascinating and beauty comes in so many different forms. There are just better ways to approach the subject.

Teaching kids about racial sensitivity should be an effort that is made. Have discussions with your kids on how to approach the topic. It is better to ask, “What is your family’s heritage?” rather than asking “What are you?”

Teach your children that there are wide varieties of ethnic groups around the world. For example, I taught Little Kid that the continent of Asia is made up of many countries and that it is not appropriate to assume that an Asian person is Chinese. The same goes for Latinos and Europeans and so forth.

In the end, we are all humans, flesh and blood, and who we are is who we chose to be on the inside no matter what we look like on the outside and that is the lesson that I want my son to carry throughout his life.

When he is asked what he is, I encourage him to proudly state his name because that is who he is. want him to be proud of his family and where he came from but ultimately I want him to be proud of the person he is.

Because that is the true beauty of being uniquely who we are.

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