Friday, March 16, 2012

At what age do we introduce the concept of racial injustices to our children?

Our children do not yet understand what it means to be black or white in the context of race or ethnicity let alone know about discrimination. And I’m good with that.  This does not mean we are teaching our kids to be color blind. On any given day you may hear these words from our kids: “I love my brown-skin,” “You are a peachy color mom,” “My sisters look a lot alike except they have a different skin color, Etta looks like chocolate and Meskie looks like caramel.” It’s about describing the color of skin. That’s it. Nothing more. No racial stereotypes. No identification to being black or white from an ethnicity standpoint. They are too young to get it.

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.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Cami. As a mom of biracial children, and growing up in American, I think it's different for me than for you. I've always know that people will judge me for my skin color without knowing me, and I knew that my kids would get the same treatment. I remember the first time it happened with Samuel, playing at St. Edwards, some kid came over and yelled to his dad, "that gook kid is playing with the digger". That gook kid. The kid must have been four or five, and Samuel wasn't even two. Broke my heart. I think the best thing we can do is teach our kids to be proud of who they are, but also teach them that yes, some people will judge them based solely on what they look like. You can't blame kids, they are just parroting what they learn from their biased elders. I think talking to the school is a great step.

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    1. Hi Alex, thanks for sharing. That is awful that happened. I agree with you.I know we will need to teach our girls they may be judged negatively by the color of their skin...my question is when. At age 3 and 5 when they have no belief other than that they are beautiful brown? They have not yet faced any negative reactions or judgments. Unless they do, we believe in waiting until they are a little more mature (not to mention that Meskie is still learning the language). We are raising them to be proud of their heritage and brown skin. Thanks again for your comments.

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    2. Our approach is actually an amalgamation of the above. We aren't engaging in in depth conversations about race (we have biracial kids) but work to respond to his inquiries appropriately so as not to avoid talking about what is happening in real time for him either. It's a balance.

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    3. Thanks Marcus! Appreciate your thoughts. We are always talking about their Ethiopian heritage with our girls. They don't consider themselves "black" in the racial sense. They will tell you their brown and Ethiopian (and very proud of both).

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  2. Cami, I am so glad you spoke to the principal about this. As an educator of elementary school age children, I believe most teachers have the best of intentions, but may have limited life experience and may not realize (unintentionally) topics from a different point of view. Hopefully your conversation will educate.
    Being "biracial" and having a husband who is "biracial" gives us a unique view into the racial topic. We now have three "multiracial" children that all look uniquely different. Skin color has been spoken about in our home from the kids since they were all little, probably like your house. I have yet to hear any conversation like the one your son came home with after MLK day. I am waiting for the day we hear something and am prepared.
    When my parents first got married there were places that still outlawed interracial marriages. My parents moved to WA because my father didn't want his children discriminated against in the community where they lived in CA. Filipinos and Caucasian did not marry in her hometown. Other than my mom's best friend teaching me to say I am half Filipino and half honky (she was Filipino), I felt okay with my ethnicity. My father instilled in me without saying it that I was positively different. Love that man!! Communication, communication, communication and emphasis on what makes us all unique is important. Having different skin colors, excelling at math, being an artist, being an athlete, getting people to laugh, being a good reader among many more things are what makes us unique... skin color is one small part to the whole person. Confidence in who you are as a person makes it easier for us to deal with any kind of discrimination (not being a good basketball player, have a learning disability).
    Your children have an advantage in that they have parents that communicate, acknowledge their fears, answer their questions and love them. I don't know if we introduce racial injustice, but counter it with education and love.

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    1. Love this dear friend! Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Thanks so much for this post, Cami. I've been wrestling with some of these same issues. Our bio son is 5 and has been talking about skin color a lot lately. He says that his skin is "gray" and his brother and sister have "brown" skin. He occasionally likes to talk about what color of skin others have, but I do see him seeking affirmation about his own skin color (maybe because he's the only white kid in our family). He has no idea about prejudice. I try to accentuate more than skin color by saying things like, "You have green eyes like Grammie; Josiah has brown eyes like Daddy. Evy and Josiah both have curly hair, Evy's a girl like mommy; you and Josiah are boys like Daddy." etc. I hope that will help him notice other characteristics besides just skin color and find things he has in common with people from completely different ethnicities.

    We live in the South, and while we haven't had any trouble as of yet, I'm dreading when my children learn about the painful history in our part of the country.

    I love the way they see race in Ethiopia. I've had some really interesting conversations with friends there about racism.

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    1. thanks so much for your post Mary Beth. We also do the same in talking about similarities and differences as it relates to traits beyond just skin color.

      It's hard because you want to protect your children as long as possible, or at least until you know they are mature enough to understand. Thanks for sharing....

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  4. One of the many things I admire about you is your courage to never sit passively by but to be pro-active but with kindness and grace. I so love that you went and talked to this teacher, realizing that there really is good intentions at the core. Thank you for being this kind of a person, as well as for this post.

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    1. You are too kind Beth. Thank you for your sweet words. I know you would do the same :-)

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