When my kids were 3 and 4, we began talking about race with our kids, especially when they noticed differences:
Vivi (age 3): “Mommy, Ana Maria has brown skin.”
Me: “Yes, she does. Who else do you know who has brown skin?”
V: “Um…. Olivia?”
Me: “Yep. How about in our family?”
(Thinking really hard, she can’t come up with anybody).
Me: “What about Tonito? Or your tíos?” [referring to her brother (China), and aunts and uncles (Mexico and Peru)].
V, after deliberating in her head and trying to picture them and imagine their faces, a light bulb goes off and she is excited at the realization: “Yes!”
From this day on, Vivi began to talk about skin color. We had celebrated our cultural heritage, but hadn’t made a point to talk specifically about the beautiful rainbow array of skin colors surrounding us. Her favorite question “why?” was the impetus of our quest to discover the reasons of skin color. This was my attempt to explain to a 3 year old that our physical traits existed because of our ancestral background– without getting in over her head about the human migration out of Africa, dominant and recessive genes, melanin, natural selection, etc:
V: “Why is her skin brown?”
Me: “It helps her to not get sunburn. Her relatives probably come from a place that is very sunny.”
V: “But why?”
Me: “Well, people who are from very sunny places by the equator have darker skin so they don’t get burned by the sun. The dark skin protects them from getting too sunburned.”
V: “Why is your skin so peachy?” (i.e. why are you so darn pale mommy?)
Me: “A long time ago, my relatives lived in a colder place that didn’t have a lot of sun, so their skin didn’t need to be protected.”
Me: “The people in the cold place didn’t need to have dark skin to protect them from sunburn, because it wasn’t very sunny… So they needed to get some sun.”
Me: “Everyone needs to get vitamins from the sunlight. The vitamins help us to stay strong. So our lighter skin helps us gets the vitamins faster, when it isn’t very sunny. But then we have to be careful not to get burned.”
V: “But why do some people have different skin?”
Me: “It just depends on where their families came from a long time ago. If they were from a sunny place, like in Kenya, they had dark skin so they wouldn’t get sunburned. But if they were from a colder place, like Poland, they had light skin to suck up the vitamins from the sun.”
V: “Can I go play?”
She listened intently, absorbed what she needed, and then went off to play. Researchers have found that talking to kids about race at their level and in explicit terms, helps kids to process what they have already noticed, and teaches them that it is OK to talk about race (at least with their parents). They also recommend starting this conversation by age 3! Weeks later in the supermarket my daughter loudly proclaimed while pointing to a fellow shopper “She must be from where it’s really sunny!” (we later discussed yelling and pointing in public!). She had been listening, and was using her new-found knowledge to make an observation. Noticing ethnic differences is not racist; labeling the differences as superior/inferior is. The research and experts say to throw out the idea of color blindness and melting pots, and open the communication lines with our kids: we need to stop thinking of race as taboo, and start talking about it- directly with our kids.
One sunny day at the park, a little girl (white) saw my son (black) playing in the sand. She excitedly shouted across the sandbox “Mommy!!!! He has brown skin just like Sammy!” I smiled at her as her mortified mother apologized, grabbed her by the arm, while hushing her and telling her it was time to go.
Unfortunately for my son, the little girl, and other kids playing nearby, the message that was sent was clear: race is an unspeakable, taboo topic. In fact, the little girl was only making a very excited observation- no one was offended, and the only thing my son wanted to know was “Who’s Sammy?” How would it have been handled differently if the girl had shouted “Look, she has red hair like Carly!” or “He wears glasses like Jacob!” The mom might have smiled, and said “Yes, he does.” When parents are uncomfortable, children witness the subtle changes in parents’ behavior and internalize it.
Is it because we don’t know what to say? Or we don’t want to say the wrong thing and “mess up” our kids? Are we so worried with offending people that we prefer to not talk about race at all? What should we be saying about race to our children and at what age?
1) Start young and “normalize” the conversation. Kids will naturally notice skin color, even if it is never pointed out to them. Many parents ask when is an appropriate age to begin the conversation. Research show that parents should open the communication around age 3, when their minds are at the developmental stage of forming opinions and conclusions about race. Studies done by Rebecca Bigler show that physical characteristics such as gender, skin color, and weight are plainly visible, and kids will use these categories to make assumptions about the kids in each group. Before their assumptions are set into stone, it is important to have conversations with our kids. I realized that my children had only ever seen female dentists when one of my girls was telling my son that boys couldn’t be dentists. “Boys and girls can be dentists” was followed by a general “Anyone with any skin color can be xyz,” and was brought up again during the election of 2008 that brought Barack Obama into power.
2) Be proactive and point out skin colors in books and toys: “Ooh, the boy is going to play in the snow! See his orange sled? Look at his red snowsuit. Look at his brown skin. See the white icicles?” or “This story is about an Asian-Amerian family that is celebrating Lunar New Year.” Make sure that your children have books, dolls, action figures, and movies that show a variety of cultures and physical characteristics.
3) Give them the language to talk about different races. When your child identifies another person as peach, or tan, or “like me,” use language that is appropriate in your country to accurately describe the people. For a while, my children were calling anyone of African ancestry “Ethiopian” (because of my son’s heritage). One day my son was frustrated because somebody called him “black” and he couldn’t understand why, since “my skin is ‘brown.'” We taught them “African-American,” “Asian-American,” “Hispanic,” “Latino,” etc.
4) Expose your children to diverse environments, including situations where authorities are of a minority race. For example, choose an African-American doctor or dentist, visit an international festival, attend Korean church one Sunday, or sign-up for a basketball team in a Hispanic neighborhood. Your children will observe your positive, respectful interactions of the Korean pastor, or the Latino coach and get the reinforced message that our racial background does not determine the quality of our character.
5) Instill ethnic pride. Because we are a multicultural and conspicuous family, it is especially important to speak openly about race. We need to arm our children with the ability to speak out against discrimination, it is our duty to instill ethnic pride and racial identity in our kids. Studies show that minority children are more likely to be engaged in school and attribute their academic success to their effort and ability when they are proud of who they are and have self-confidence in their ethnicity.
6) Finally, talk about historical discrimination. Discrimination exists, and it shouldn’t stop our children from achieving their goals. In a recent study, Dr. Harris-Britt warned not to overfocus on “predictions of future discrimination,” so that the children are not hyper-defensive. However, reading age-appropriate books about civil rights movements or apartheid for example, will teach children about mistakes from our past when people believe they are superior to other humans.
It is wonderful to expose your children to people of other races and cultures… but this is the beginning of the conversation, not the final solution. Continue the discussion about race and ethnicity and emphasize our connectedness as humans. This may be one of the most important lessons your children get from their parents.
How do you talk to your kids about race? When did they first notice differences? How do you instill ethnic pride? Start the discussion in the comment section, and let’s learn from each other..