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Race: Whose Problem Is It, Anyway?

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When I tried to have a discussion about race, the idea completely flew over my kids' heads.

amy brenneman

Amy Brenneman: My 8-year-old, Charlotte, had an assignment to do a book report on a President of her choice. She chose Barack Obama. She loves Barack Obama, gets excited every time she sees his picture or a news story, got REALLY excited when her dad and I were lucky enough to go to the inauguration a year ago. It doesn't hurt that we love Barack Obama, too. We are a loyalist family.

I told Brad to go to the bookstore to get a simple biography of Obama. The one he found was still relatively sophisticated, but even so Charlotte and I dove in one night and read it. Typically, I chose the wrong time. She was elbow-deep in imaginative play with trains, princesses and castles, but said she was open to talking about it, so I started plugging away.

I swear, the first chapter lost her. The biography began with his birth in Hawaii, and how he had a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. It talked about how unusual this was in 1961, and how the departure of his father left Barack with no role model for how a black man was to behave. It talked about his schooling in Hawaii, and the confusion over his racial identity that hounded him into college.

Charlotte listened to the story as Pocahontas boarded a Thomas train bound for the castle. I put down the book.

"Do you know what they mean when they say 'black' and 'white?'" I asked.

She shook her head slightly. Bodhi, from across the room (where he was building an airport to rival O'Hare), looked up, too.

"They're talking about different races. How people have different color skin, and that makes it hard for them sometimes."

My children looked at me with no response. I stumbled for more.

"Like Samantha?" I volunteered. Samantha is a dear friend of Charlotte's from church who is a dark-skinned African-American. "She's 'black.' And you guys would be 'white.'" Bodhi and Charlotte stared at me, waiting for the point. What was the point that I was trying to make?

I thought about all their friends. I thought about Charlotte's friend Jamie (who is Filipina), and Samantha, and Tommy (who is Thai) and Cole (who is in a wheelchair). I thought about my nephew, Granger, who is half Filipino and a quarter Jewish and a quarter vague WASP/Irish/Swiss combo (the polyglot being the Brenneman side of things). I thought about growing up in suburban Connecticut, in a town which put the lily in "lily white" -- so much so that in high school the "Project Concern" bus would roll in from urban Hartford to deposit 30 bewildered African-American students on our doorstep -- whom no one spoke to, and who spoke to no one. "Here are some kids who are totally different from you," the System said, "but we're not giving out any tools to help with the bridge-building. Good luck to you!"

I thought about the recent polls about gay marriage, which showed that most people under the age of 30 consider it an utter nonissue; we will look back at this moment of discrimination with shock, the way we do at the pre-civil rights and pre-suffrage eras. I thought about the wonderful polyglot of Los Angeles, where my children are being raised, where they have friends of every stripe and are at ease with differences in a way that I, as an adult, had to learn to be.

But still, those questioning eyes waited on me.

"Anyway," I murmured. "In the olden days, being half black and half white was hard. It's easier now, I guess."

They returned to the trains and planes. I wondered if what I'd said was true. But what I saw clearly was this: Bodhi and Charlotte are not at all interested in the color of someone's skin. Why would I ever want to change that?

next: 11-Year-Old Fights for Health Care Reform After Mother's Death
40 comments so far | Post a comment now
Black Iris March 12, 2010, 5:03 AM

I wonder if your child is actually afraid to talk about race?

I think an 8 year old is aware that some of her friends are black and some are white. Even if she doesn’t think in terms of race, she should be able to say that so and so has brown skin or is African American.

Most kids have heard of Martin Luther King and segregation before 3rd grade.

Concepts like racial identity are a bit over her head at this age, but she should know about race.

I think it’s good that you are talking to her about the issues. Kids need to learn history.

chris March 12, 2010, 5:25 AM

I don’t think race is an issues with younger kids these days. My kids knew when they were 8 that they had white skin and some of their friends had brown skin but it was never an issue of who they chose to be friends with. It’s the adults who make it an issue. My kids have friends who are all over the “race rainbow” and why not. Skin color doesn’t make the person the person themselves is what should be the deciding factor if you want them for a friend or not.

Anonymous Mom March 12, 2010, 8:30 AM

Agreed, chris. My daughter is the same. She sees a difference physically, but she doesn’t care. Her Barbies and baby dolls are the same way. She has black and white babies, and her Barbies are white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Middle Eastern (her Jasmine doll), and a few of indeterminate race - and we’ve left them that way. Who cares? They all play together, just like her and her friends, and that’s all that matters.

michelle March 12, 2010, 9:46 AM

Thanks for this post, Amy. I wrestled with this issue as well and wondered if I was doing more damage by bringing race up. But then my kids’ school discussed it with them, in Pre-K (age 4), during Martin Luther King’s birthday week. The teachers discussed the concept of race in age-appropriate ways, but they still felt it was best to begin discussing it. Why? Because my kids’ school is diverse. And in America today, black children and other children of color still don’t have the same luxury of being “color-blind” as white children do. In this society they are still often reminded of their blackness and are seen as black before they are seen as an individual. It is for better or worse a constant state of hyper-awareness. And on the flip side, many white children are raised to be “color-blind,” but sometimes all this means in practice is that their parents are extremely uncomfortable bringing up race (as you were). If white children are raised with only an inkling of these issues, with an uncomfortable silence around them, and gleaning what they can from friends or the media, they grow into adults who are inclined to hold unexamined assumptions and to deny and perpetuate the existence of racism, and no desire to change anything (because, after all, we’re all colorblind, right? So although this sounds counter-intuitive, if we want children of all races to be color-blind in the best possible way, we actually cannot be afraid of or uncomfortable with discussing race. Short answer: it is everyone’s problem and it will only really go away if we can be honest about it. Good luck to you.

someone March 12, 2010, 5:55 PM

I don’t think it’s that these issues do not exist as much anymore, I just think that it manifests itself in far less visible ways— racism kind of hides itself. Another thing, too, is that while young kids tend to realize differences in skin color and learn about things that happened in the past, it is hard to make a connection to the present, especially prior to middle- or high-school where more visible things tend to happen and they become more aware of political implications and unequal treatment in a big way. It also depends what type of environment they grow up in. Race issues are still very much a visible issue in white-dominant suburban areas in small ways, whereas in more diverse areas, they tend to be more volatile.
It is also a result of privilege that, perhaps, your children receive the luxury of being color blind based off of the fact that they receive white privilege. When and if they are present at a time when institutional or personal racism unfairly discriminate against their friends in a big way (and likely they receive the privilege that their friend was denied) they will be *very* aware of race.
Also, on the topic of Obama— his mixed identity seems to be lost in the shuffle of his blackness. By that I mean, some people identify him as an African-American, and in a way he is, but not in the same way as those who are descended from slaves…yet in most media representations the two identities are treated as one in the same when it comes to him. Why is it that he is so rarely represented as being descended from a white American woman and a Kenyan man?
One last point— they *should* be interested in the color of a person’s skin because the way that the System works in this country is very strongly based off of skin color— as well as sex, sexuality, gender presentation, ability, age, class, religion/spirituality, etc…it is important that people realize which ways they are privileged and in which ways they are disadvantaged because these systems are so deeply entrenched that *everyone* needs to be aware of them (especially those who are privileged) if anything is ever going to change. And because it is uncomfortable to realize that you have a privilege that you do not deserve or necessarily want, but because of societal factors, there is no way of escaping it. (They also need to be willing to risk disadvantage by association and inherently renouncing their own privilege in the name of a new and truly equal system— things can’t be equal so long as anyone receives privilege. Though, arguably, complete equality is impossible because nobody wants to give up what they’ve got)
Basically…they need to be aware of difference and prejudice because it is out there…and it hurts to realize how pervasive it is.

Julia  March 12, 2010, 10:48 PM

I was amazed by your article. It’s great to see that for some of the kids nowadays different skin colors are just what they really are: a mere difference in the amount of melanin present in the body.

Momma2Nico March 13, 2010, 8:42 AM

My son is biracial, half balck, half white. But he’s only three, so if you ask him what color a person is, he’ll usually tell you the color of their shirt or hair. I hope he grows up not thinking about the color of people’s skin first.

Confused March 13, 2010, 2:03 PM

I don’t understand why people compare discrimination against homosexuals to discrimination against non-white individuals…or gay marriage to interracial marriage. There is NO connection! I’m not here to argue if being gay is a choice, but I think every (intelligent) person can agree that ACTING on being gay is a choice. Your skin color is not a choice and therefore no one should be judged on that. In my opinion, gay marriage is more comparable to, say, marriage between siblings. Opponents of gay marriage say it’s, “not natural.” One main reason that is said is b/c a gay marriage cannot naturally produce children, just like a sibling marriage cannot naturally produce healthy children. Of course, child bearing is not the only issue, but I only have so much room here. Basically, I really really wish people would stop comparing homosexuals to African Americans.

Christina March 13, 2010, 3:48 PM

Dear Confused,

If procreation were really the basis for marriage in the US, then all married couples who are either infertile or child-free would have “unnatural” marriages, so that argument is really quite silly.

Not so very long ago this country had anti-miscegenation laws barring blacks and whites from marrying. The term miscegenation came from the Latin terms miscere (to mix) and genus (kind). I will not go into an explanation of the breathtaking offensiveness of the term miscegenation. Suffice it to say, the argument was that marriage between blacks and whites was “unnatural”. People are NOT comparing African Americans to homosexuals. They are comparing the current arguments against gay marriage to the historic arguments against black/white marriage.

Carolyn March 13, 2010, 11:04 PM

I think the idea of seeing people’s “colors” is learned from the parents. When I was growing up we had a black babysitter but I swear I didn’t even realize she was different until I heard my mother say something one day about her being black and I almost fell over. I said, “She is?” It never occured to me to even notice. My kids are the same way. They have friends of all different colors and the only time I have heard them mention it is when they are trying to describe someone to me and they say, “You know Mom, the brown girl.” My kids don’t care and I know that comes from my husband and I not talking about it. Who needs to talk about it? People are people. Period.

Uly March 14, 2010, 2:41 PM
Yasmine Bedward March 14, 2010, 2:59 PM

This blog brought tears to my eyes as did Pocahontas. The best one yet!

Anonymous March 14, 2010, 3:00 PM

Hey Amy: tell your 8 yr old what a loser Obama is.

Christina March 14, 2010, 6:51 PM

Unfortunately, the only people who can afford to “not see color” are white.

Anonymous March 16, 2010, 8:05 AM

Unfortunately, the only people who can afford to “not see color” are white.

- Christina”

Or those folks who are not prejudiced/racists. My kids don’t see race and I make sure I raised them that way. I was brutally picked on, prejudiced against, etc because I was the only white family in the neighborhood growing up. I don’t blame all black people, I blame racists. So I made darn certain my children would not grow up with a racist attitude such as Christina’s

chris March 16, 2010, 12:28 PM

Christina, you are wrong and your comment shows that racism can go both ways. By judging all white people as not having to be judge by their skin color, you are doing the exact same judging.

Micky March 19, 2010, 10:04 AM

@Michelle, when I had read your comment and came across the comment about black children not being raised to be “color-blind”, it had caused me to lift an eyebrow in curiousity. I do think that your comment was generalizing.

Kathy May 10, 2010, 3:35 AM

I think its great that my daughter sees the difference between one child’s skin color and another as being just as insignificant as whether or not one girl is wearing a pink dress or purple dress.

My daughter is only 5, but the only major difference she seems to notice between children her own age is whether or not they are a boy or girl.

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