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Trying Not To Raise a Racist

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Does everything really have to be as plain as black and white?


Momlogic's Andrea: I've been prepared for the fact that my three-year-old is going to start asking me questions that I don't know the answers to. So far I've done OK. But the other night my daughter had a query that stumped me. No, it wasn't "Why is water wet?" or "Why don't animals talk?" or "Why are your boobies so saggy?"

It was simply: "Mommy, what color is my skin?"

Hmm. Now that is a brainteaser.

My kid's sudden curiosity about color is pretty normal. She's becoming more aware of the world around her. And her new preschool teacher is African-American ... or black, but that's not politically correct. Which makes sense, because her teacher isn't black. Black is the color of licorice or "sharp" and "flat" piano keys. Using the same logic, my daughter's skin tone isn't really "white" -- the color of milk or snow. Should I tell her she's Caucasian instead? Kind of a mouthful for a three-year-old.

I wracked my brain to try to come up with an alternative to white. Peach, I suppose, is another possible choice, but I'd hardly describe her olive skin as peachy. Incidentally, "peach" is what the Crayola Crayon company changed their politically incorrect "flesh" to in the early 60s in response to the civil rights movement. (Sadly, no one's ever bothered to change the color "puce" to something that sounds less sickening.) Should I break out the paint chips for a more accurate match? How about a "Trellis Green" semi-gloss or a flat "Light Linen"?

Luckily, my daughter's attention span is short -- so she changed the subject to another pressing topic: telling me key plot points in "Monster's Inc." for the millionth time. But I still didn't have an answer. When I took her to preschool the next day, I told her teacher our dilemma. She suggested the color matches of chocolate for "black" and vanilla for "white." But do I really want to dilute multicultural awareness into ice cream flavors?

The truth is, I loathe this discussion. I want my daughter not to care one whit about skin tone. Am I going about it all wrong?

More from momlogic's Andrea

next: A Partridge in a Playboy?
18 comments so far | Post a comment now
v May 14, 2009, 5:57 PM

My sons friend who comes over once a week happens to be African American, my son (Logan) is half hispanic and half caucasion. I never really thought the boys payed attention to difference in skin color until it was time for dessert one evening. I asked the boys if they wanted chocolate ice cream and the friend said he didn’t like chocolate and asked if I had another option. My son, without hesitation, asked: “how come you don’t like chocolate if you are made out of chocolate!” I was shocked and didn’t know what to say. I said “LOGAN! That is not true! He’s not made of chocolate!” Logan then said “yes he is! And I am made of peaches!” By this point both boys were laughing. I realized that maybe the chocolate idea was just how he identified with his friends skin color. I joined in with their laughter when I asked what I was made of. Both boys looked at eachother and said: “MARSHMALLOWS!!!!!”

Miranda May 14, 2009, 10:13 PM

I remember one time when I was talking to my young cousin. She is truly mixed (mom is half white-half Puerto Rican, dad is half black-half Hispanic blend) and she was talking about how she had one white friend and one black friend at school. I asked her what she considered herself to be, and she replied “I’m milk chocolate!” I couldn’t help but smile at her innocence.

Melinda May 14, 2009, 11:39 PM

I think that adults are far more sensitive about these things than children are. Healthy self-respect and respect for others would erase fear of identifying ourselves and each other. Some people are light, some dark, some short, some tall, some have straight hair and some have kinky hair. These are descriptive terms that young children can understand. Behind closed doors, I think people still say, ‘black’ and ‘white.’ It’s when kids get older and the adult prejudices start coming into play that the descriptions start to matter.

My experience (I am black - yes, that term is still ok) is that when parents are uptight and unsure kids become that way. These days, it is unusual for any adult to have one exclusive race of friends, therefore most kids should grow up being exposed to a diverse group of people. If parents do not have friends of other races (I’m talking about all of us, now) then how will children develop a healthy respect for others who do not look like him/her? Perhaps parents have an added responsibility to expose their children to more than what’s in their neighborhood or in their family. Mix it up a little. Demonstrate respect for others and self-respect. The kids will be just fine.

MarMar May 15, 2009, 10:01 AM

My daughter (just turned 6) and I are both Caucasian, and once I had another Caucasian mother shoot me a dirty look when my child said “I’m going over to the other slide and play with the girl with the brown skin.” She was referring to a Hispanic girl she had just met a few minutes prior and hadn’t learned her name yet. This little girl was the only non-Caucasian girl at the park, so it was, in my child’s mind, the best way of pointing out who she’d be playing with - like if she had been the only red-haired child there, or the only one wearing glasses, or the like. I’m still wondering who was right in this situation - me, for not making a big deal out of it because my daughter doesn’t think it’s a big deal (we live in a racially diverse neighborhood and she has friends and classmates of many races)? Or the woman who shot me the dirty look, indicating I should make skin color a taboo subject to talk about and should’ve corrected my child right there on the spot?

Uly May 15, 2009, 1:34 PM

I remember the first time this came up…

Ana, at the tender age of almost-five, was in the playground with her almost seven year old friend. It was a special day out, no little sisters. (Well, technically I am a little sister, but in this context I was the aunt.)

Her friend, who is white, was chattering away about things that are the same and different about the two of them. “And my skin isn’t brown, Ana, but your skin is brown!”

And Ana looks at her, and looks at me, and yells in consternation…


(Alas, not a year and a half later I can’t even get her on the old “epidermis is showing” joke. “Is it my arm? Is it my skin?” Sigh. She’s too smart by half.)

Sascha Bush May 15, 2009, 1:59 PM

I have to agree that adults are tainted when it comes to our views on race. Often times, our perspectives and level of comfort on the race issue manifests itself in our children. I read this interesting article about the “race card” that people feel black people always use.
Racial sensitivity must be taught to our children, because as parents, we are their first teachers. I think that we can do this by not pretending that race does not exist, but try to strike a healthy balance for them.

Kirstie May 15, 2009, 4:34 PM

I have a few friends at my college who get genuinely UPSET if they’re referred to as African-American. Their reasoning is that they are Jamaican, they have never been to Africa, and they would much prefer to be called black. Just food for thought.

June May 15, 2009, 6:09 PM

When I took my 3 year old grand daughter
to see her new swim school the other day I pointed out the teacher and she said ” you mean the black guy?” As he was, indeed, African American. “No, I said, I mean the guy in the red shirt.”
“Oh, she said.”

Raven May 16, 2009, 9:46 PM

I agree more with just letting the children play around with the flavors idea. Let’s allow this generation to fade out all of this race relations crap.

My kids always correct me when I say “Black”, they say “African-American”. They are Mexican-Americans (direct descendants - born here, of Mexicans - both parents from Mexico)…I am what Americans call “Black/African-American”…I don’t like either term to be honest. My skin is light brown or caramel and my parents are not African…

And most African Americans don’t look either African or Black..The cultures are totally different. If you are born in America, to American parents…darn it you’re American.

The races are so mixed these days, you really can’t even tell who is what…or maybe that’s just me.

* I don’t have children of my own…I am a mentor/tutor for three families - 2 Mexican kids; 1 American “Brown”(?) kid*

I don’t like the word Hispanic either…the Mexican culture is totally different from the Cuban culture we should discontinue lumping them all together as if they are the same…We don’t call bananas apples…or maybe some people do - lol

Pansy Moss May 18, 2009, 4:56 AM

“Race” is a social construct used to divide people. Period. Doesn’t exist. When my kids are little and they ask that question, I answer “beige, peach, brown etc.” They will catch on quick enough other people’s definitions.

My husband is Puerto Rican, my father is Italian, and my mother is black, Scottish and Chinese. People spend all their time telling us what race they feel we should categorize ourselves into. It’s annoying and even hurtful because many can’t just have a relationship with us until they smooth out that one detail.

Ju May 21, 2009, 6:57 PM

I’m half-Korean and part black and part Cherokee. I look like a Pacific Islander (Samoan, Philippino, Thai …) and my darling little girl has pretty peach skin leaning toward olive. The only other “colored” person she really knows is my Daddy who has been dubbed Choco-Harabogi (Chocolate Grandfather). He absolutely loves it. It sets him apart from every other grandpa out there and makes him special in my daughter’s eyes. Unless parents (adults) make a big deal of it, I’ve found kids really don’t seem to care. I didn’t understand why the other Korean children would call me “Black African” (the term they used was actually pretty offensive, guess where THEY learned it from?). I was 7 at the time. This type of stuff is not limited to just the USA, it’s sad and it’s not fair, but if we teach our kids that color is only on the exterior, I think we’ll go a long way to making our world much better. I love my year-round full-body tan, thank-you very much!

theycallmejane June 3, 2009, 11:17 PM

If your daughter asked what color her hair was, you’d tell her. Same with her eyes. So when she asks what color her skin is, say something like “brown” or “peach” or “olive” as though it isn’t any different than naming the color of her eyes or hair. Because it isn’t.

Lyris June 8, 2009, 4:46 PM

I am black, my husband is white.
I remember asking both of my children when they were pre-school age if they knew what color my parents were and what color my husband’s parents were. They had no idea that there was a difference :)
Today, my son refers to himself as biracial or simply as a person.
My daughter declares, “I am black, white, just right”(also a children’s book). They are both very proud of who they are and have friends of every color.

Chris November 22, 2009, 4:50 PM

Tell her she’s American.

We are a people of different colors. :-)

- David November 22, 2009, 5:20 PM

You could simply say the colour of the skin just represents where you originated a couple hundred years ago, but it doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just a skin colour, but maybe teach her not to identify herself by just her skin tone. The colour of the skin will never cease to be some kind of factor in identification, but you don’t have to label it in anyway, just give it a general background or origin. And in the end just say everyone is American.

Tracy Hahn-Burkett November 22, 2009, 7:55 PM

Race can be a scary thing to talk about, but we’re not doing our kids any good by pretending it doesn’t exist. Race certainly doesn’t mean everything, but the reality of our world is that people of different races often have different, race-based life experiences, and it’s important for our kids to know that so that we can work toward a world where what race you are matters less than a whole lot of other things.

I’m a Caucasian mom to one Caucasian child (age 7) and one Asian child (age 4). Do we talk about race all the time? Of course not. But we do discuss things as they come up and I look for opportunities to teach them that while people are different races, what truly matters is what’s in people’s hearts and minds, and you can’t determine that by looking at the color of someone’s skin.

I think the most important thing I can do as a parent is make clear to my kids that they can come to me anytime with questions about race (or anything else). No matter how much I wish it wasn’t so, the fact is that my Asian daughter will inevitably hear some remark or be treated in some way she shouldn’t at some point in her life because someone will make a judgment about her just because she is Asian. I don’t know if this will bother her or not, but I don’t want the shock of it to blast the breath out of her and I want her to feel comfortable talking to me or my husband about it when it happens. And my son also needs to know about the world in which he and his sister are living.

Education about race is just as valuable as education in other areas. Studies have shown that many children DO notice race, even if they don’t talk about it, and isn’t it better if we can talk to them about what they see and instill the values in them regarding race that we wish we saw more often in the world? The trick is that in order to have these conversations, we parents need to get comfortable talking about race. That may be the hardest part of all.

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