Keeping the silence about racial issues is often the response of many white educated American families in genuine hopes that this alone will be teach our children that there is an inherent equality among all people. Parents have convinced themselves that by saying nothing to our children they will grow up in a colorblind world. It turns out this is untrue. Studies have revealed that children make up their own understandings of race if parents aren't brave enough to have a conversation about racial differences. It's not easy to do. Race is a touchy subject. Adults can barely muster up the courage to discuss race with other adults. The idea of having to navigate these types of conversations with a 3 year old is mind-boggling.
It turns out; it's not that hard. You are literally pointing out the obvious. Your child already knows that their friend is black. Chances are the friend knows she's black too. Here are 3 tips to discussing, exposing and teaching your young children about race and racial differences.
1. After school or after a play date, on the way home ask your child if they had fun? What was the best part of playing with Camilla? Simply ask your child what is something different about their friend? They may say anything. You can always just ask directly, what color is Camilla’s skin? Is that the same as yours? Is that okay? Your child will point out the differences and come to the conclusion on their own that they like Camilla and her skin color doesn't change that. At the core of what we want our children to learn is that people are good regardless of race. Walking them through those connections is the goal.
2. Read books with your child that have people of color in them. On one hand just having protagonists of color will create the implicit message to kids that those stories are important too and that those stories are fun and funny too regardless of the color of the character. Reading to your child makes a difference, not just because it increases literacy, but it opens up new experiences and opportunities for your child. A universe were little girls can be the most powerful leaders in the world, where little black children play crochet and dislike basketball or a planet where no one is ever without food, or shelter or love. The idealism of childhood is reflected in board books and pictures books, as parents we can show our kids those stories with people of color. This will place people of color in roles of power, thus changing the traditional power paradigm.
3. Be intentional about picking various experiences for your child. If your children are white, live in a mostly white neighborhood and attend a mostly white school, then consider when it’s time to pick a week of summer camp to pick one that may have a more diverse group of participants. Consider taking your kids to play at different parks around town in hopes to expose them to different communities. Attempt to expose your child to kids of other racial backgrounds. It will be through relationships that kids will experience equality in imaginative cooperative play. Young kids will become friends quickly and fiercely regardless of race.
This morning a friend at work who is in an interracial marriage with two kids shared a story with me. She is biracial and her husband is white. They have two girls. One little girl is tan with coarse very curly dark locks, the other that is white with wavy blond hair. They don’t even look like sisters however they act like sisters. The girls were fighting with each other over a doll. The younger white sister yelled in anger to the older tan sister, “Well you are ugly! You have tan skin!” Everyone in the house halted. Froze in their steps. The parents immediately sat down and talked to the girls about how we treat one another. The situation settled and the girls continued to play. The parents sat in shock. Why did my kids just do that? They assumed that they know they are sisters. The same two people created them and yet one has systemically more social dominance than the other, even though they have been raised in the same communities and attend the same school.
My advice to her was the same. Talk to your kids about racial differences so it doesn’t stop everyone in their tracks, but rather it is an acknowledged nurtured part of who they are as a family. Become empowered to be the parent that has the tough conversations with your kids. If you start when they are young, it will get easier to be brave. Colorblindness does not exist, but ignorance does.