There’s a few times when my son asks me a certain question and it’s immediately evident that this is gonna be a pivotal teaching moment. I’m not talking about little curiosity questions like why is the sky blue or how are rainbows made.
I’m talking about the questions about why are we here (on earth), why do some boys like other boys, and why is my friend a different color then me.
These are the questions where I tune everything else out and think to myself: Ok. Whatever I say is going to shape his little brain and his little heart. Like every other loving mother, I want to raise a kind and good person. So I take these questions and my actions very seriously.
My son has a friend who’s been his bestie since he was like 3. It happened by default because his mother and I are besties. 💕
But one day about a year ago, Hunter asks me, “Why does Lamar have a different skin color than me?”
I wasn’t prepared for this kind of question and they always seem to come out of the blue while I’m thinking about something completely unrelated like work or what to make for dinner or how terribly some people are driving.
I hadn’t done any reading up on what to say for when this question might come up. I didn’t think I really needed to talk about race mainly because I thought that racial bias is learned by direct instruction and imitation, and that if I don’t talk about race or act in explicitly racist ways, my kid won’t pick up prejudices.
I did some research recently and found out that this is a pretty common notion. But I also learned that it's actually not the way to handle things and that you should start talking about race when they are really little. Research shows that children take note of racial differences as early as 6 months old, but as kids get older, many learn not to talk about these differences and confusion and stereotypes can fester in that silence.
No bueno if we’re trying to make a better, more equal world and raise good people.
So I’m going to give you 7 ways to talk to your child about race based on what I’ve found, and what better day to do it then in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 💕
1. Talk about differences. This is probably the most important thing you can do. Kids aren’t colorblind. Don’t push them to be color silent by shutting them down when they do talk about differences. Talk to your kids in an age appropriate, positive, and affirming way. Hair, skin, eyes – little ones are noticing all these distinctions and beginning to describe them. It’s normal. If your child points out that someone has curly hair, you can say, “some people have curly hair, some people have straight hair – isn’t that great?”
2. Don’t overreact to comments on race. When your child makes an observation that is clearly about skin color, don’t freak out. Just say “that’s right” and talk about our differences and how beautiful it is. Ask them what made them think about that. Young kids haven’t attached emotional or social meaning to skin color yet. It’s just what they’re seeing.
3. Stick to the facts and don’t overdo it. When kids ask questions about differences in skin color, keep your answers to the point. Though it’s good to talk openly about differences, avoid placing too much emphasis on race. Little ones are too young to process the complexities of racial issues. Keep the conversation at your child’s level.
In my research I found out that we all have something in our skin called Melanin, but some people have more than others. The more you have, the browner your skin is. Simple and scientific!
4. Aim for “color fairness”, not “color blindness”. If I could put a big star next to this one, I would. If you don’t acknowledge differences, you fail to prepare your child to live in a multi ethnic society. The message should be that “your ethnicity is part of who you are, and you treat everybody fairly and equally.” We’re all different, but no color is better than another.
You can even talk to kids about the hard stuff like racism and white supremacy. Just be concrete and age appropriate. Focus on the unfairness (a concept every kid can grasp at a very young age). Don’t give them more information than they can handle and highlight examples of resistance and of allies.
5. Teach the etiquette of when and where to discuss race. Parents frequently worry that their child’s race awareness will be perceived as rude in the wider world, where it’s still not the norm. Explain that we don’t point to people and say something about their appearance or characteristics, just as we wouldn’t do that regarding a person’s hair color or size, even though we notice those traits. We also generally refer to people by their names, not what they look like, whether or not they are present. It’s helpful to distinguish between public and private spaces and conversations, and to make our kids aware that the words we use in the privacy of our home versus in public may sound different. Home is the place to encourage children’s questions about race – although the topic shouldn’t be completely avoided in a crowded subway car.
6. Walk the walk. If we choose to live segregated lives, our kids will likely do the same. Try to expose your child to people of all shades. Make your child’s toy box a melting pot.
7. Celebrate your own families race and identity. Know and love who you are. That means teaching your child about the racial, ethnic, and cultural groups your family identifies with. But don’t sugar coat the past. Talk about their contributions and acknowledge the less flattering parts of those histories as well. Celebrating race is particularly important for children of minority races. When they play down race, as they are socialized to do, it not only allows inequities to stand, but it makes it difficult for them to develop a positive racial identity.
Race can be an uncomfortable subject for a lot of people, but it is so important to push past your own discomfort and to just practice talking to your kids about it, no matter what your ethnicity. Whenever possible, connect the conversations about the unfairness to the change you and your child want to see in the world and ways to bring about that change.
So a year ago when Hunter asked me, “Why does Lamar have a different skin color than me?” I simply said that it’s because he’s part African American and they have a different skin color then you do. I made sure to tell him how beautiful it is to have so many different looking people in this world and how boring it would be if we all looked the same. He agreed and didn’t question it any further.
After doing some more research on the subject recently, though, and when he came home the other day talking about Martin Luther King Jr, I jumped at the opportunity to talk in more detail with what I had learned.
I told him about the Melanin in our skin and we talked about the unfairness that went on during those days and how black people fought against it and even the white people who saw how unfair things were helped fight back too. I reminded him that no matter what someone looks like they should be treated equally and fairly. I told him about how there are brown eggs and white eggs, but when you crack them open, they are exactly the same on the inside – just like people!
We may all look different on the outside, but we all look exactly the same on the inside.