One of my dear friends grew up in small-town Tennessee. His grandmother (who had never heard of “politically correct”), explained to him one day when he’d been playing in the dirt, that he needed to wash himself very well so as not to turn “black”. Didn’t he know? That’s how black people got the color of their skin. Long ago when man was created and emerged from the earth, the ones who hustled to the river to wash themselves and did a thorough job became the white-skinned people. The ones who lazily ambled to the river only had enough water left to rinse the palms and souls of their feet and hands, and they became the black-skinned people. This is how the subject of race was handled with him. My husband grew up in a little town called Miami, OK where there were literally almost no people of color. He remembers seeing his first black person in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart when he was 6 or 7. He said excitedly, “Mommy, that man is made of chocolate!” No one had ever spoken to him about race, about the fact that people can have different color skin. My guess is that you don’t make up offensive folk tales about people of other races to explain skin differences to your children. My guess is that, if you are white, then like 75% of white parents, you just don’t talk about it. We all want our children to be un-intimidated by difference and have the social skills to integrate in a diverse world. Here’s what NurtureShock has to say about this important topic…
Chap. 3:Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?
Lesson #1: Young children need explicit conversations about race so that their minds do not “lock in” negative generalizations out of ignorance. If they do not see you interacting with friends of other colors, it is natural for them to assume you do not like them. Children are NOT “color-blind”, and their young brains naturally categorize and assign characteristics like “nice” and “smart” to their group. If we don’t say anything, they will be left to form their own conclusions.
Lesson #2: If they say something inappropriate, we should not “shush” them because it sends the message that the topic of race is unspeakable. (They are just expressing the categorizing and labeling that is going on in their brains.)
Lesson #3: We need to talk to our children at a young age about race (and expose them to cross-cultural work/ play), when their brains are naturally forming conclusions. It’s possible that by 3rd grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to talk about race, the developmental window has already closed.
Lesson #4: Sending your child to a diverse school does not instill better racial attitudes.The more diverse a school is, the more children self-segregate, and the less likely they are to develop cross-racial friendships.
Lesson #5: We cannot rely on multicultural curriculum in schools to teach healthy racial attitudes to our children. It has little impact because the message is too vague: “We’re all friends” or “everybody’s equal”, and children don’t know it refers to skin color. The curriculum must be supplemented with explicit conversations w/ parents.
Lesson #6: Minority children benefit from discussions of ethnic “pride”, but frequent “preparation-for-bias” warning can be destructive.
Reflection: Before I read this book, I prided myself on making little efforts to encourage racial tolerance and “We are all children of God”-type messages with my own kids: My kids have both played with the same little dark-skinned baby doll (though Ellie calls it her “purple” baby because she is wearing purple clothes, of course), I have been intentional about buying and checking out books with characters who look different from us and about different cultures (our favorite baby board book is Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee), every January we rhythmically recite, “Martin Luther King said, ‘ I have a dream’!” and I tell them about how this American hero reminded us to love everyone, even the people who are different from us, just like Jesus taught us. But now I am intentional about pointing out and discussing the actual physical differences we see in people instead of hesitating to do so. So when we read the book with the African-American family, I say, “Look, she has pretty brown skin like President Obama!” or “Look, she has light brown skin like our friend Lana.” And I can only hope that my children will not only be prepared to integrate positively in a diverse world, but will actually live in a more integrated and equal society than we do now. Because, to tell the truth, our friends are mostly white, our neighbors are white, their teachers, doctors, and classmates are white. I don’t want it to be this way, it just is. Let me know…how do you counter-balance this whiteness in your family’s world?