So how do our kids learn to make either positive or negative associations to being “black” or “white”? How are they introduced to the concept of discrimination? They learn from parents, teachers, neighbors, friends, the media. Here’s an example for you. My kindergartener comes home from school in tears. When I ask him what’s wrong he breaks down. They had taught about Martin Luther King in school. He asks me if I knew that MLK died because he was black. That he got shot and killed because he was black. He asked if Etta could get hurt one day because of the color of her skin. My heart was heavy. How do I explain this to my 5 year old son? We knew we needed to one day have the conversation about prejudice, injustices but so soon? This was too soon. Spencer was not mature enough to understand. I don’t believe a 5 year old is mature enough to have that conversation.I share this because I believe as parents we play a huge role in ensuring our kids are taught the right messages about race and discrimination, at the right time. Taking the MLK example, there are so many positive messages to share with young kids about him as an incredible human being and what his life stood for. He was this amazing leader who brought people of all colors, ages, abilities together to make the world a better place. Instead of only teaching our kindergarteners from a biographical perspective (where our kids will only cling to the fact he was discriminated against and that he got shot), why don’t we focus on what he stood for and what we can learn from him?
I thought about next year with Blake and Meskie entering kindergarten. I think about what messages she may internalize if her teacher is teaching about MLK being discriminated against because he was black. She is proud of her brown skin. At age 5 do we really need to tell her that some people might treat her differently because of her brown skin? She is too young to understand discrimination.
So I decided it was an opportunity to open dialogue with the school’s Principal. We shared perspectives and had a great conversation. We came up with ideas on what guidance to give teachers, including taking the age of the student into consideration when deciding how to teach about MLK. One idea is to build context around time when describing events. When you say it happened a long time ago, that could be yesterday or last week to a 5 year old. But if you say it happened before your parents were even born, it helps to provide some context.I’ve also decided I need to play a more active role in connecting with the teachers and having open dialogue about what is going to be taught so I can ensure I’m influencing what my kids take away from the learnings. All teachers and educators have the best of intentions. It’s really just about being thoughtful in how we teach about race or discrimination based on the age of the child.
Marguerite Wright, in” I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla” writes that children ages 5-7 can begin to make distinctions based on skin color, but that most are not able to identify their race/ethnicity. She says it isn’t until age 8-10 that children can accurately identify their ethnicity using terms like African American or Caucasian. So if our children are too young to even understand the concept of black and white in the context of race, then aren’t they too young to learn about racial discrimination?
Some of you reading this may think I’m in some way advocating raising kids to not notice color differences or ethnic differences. That’s not what I’m saying. I believe we are obligated to teach about our differences, to celebrate diversity. We do in our family. But we need to be mindful of what we’re teaching at what age. Children begin to notice skin color differences starting at age 2. So we should be talking about it then. But introducing the concept of a race and that people may judge you based on the color of your skin takes a more mature audience. We will be having those conversations with our children. I know it's just a matter of time before we need to explain to our girls they will be judged by the color of their skin. I just want to give our girls a little more time before they believe someone may consider them anything less than lovable because of the color of their skin.
Under the topic of celebrating our differences, here are some great books our family loves to read:
Lastly, my two cents on the term “race”: Race (how we classify humans) is about biology. But biologically, humans are 99% alike. Color doesn’t define someone’s biological identity or race. So there really isn’t a black race or a white race. We are essentially one human race. Ethnicity is the more accurate term to use since it reflects one’s ancestral background, culture, traditions, traits.