race and children in America

Last week was the first time I’d ever heard my daughter refer to someone as Black. We were watching a movie and Felicity pointed to the screen and innocently asked, “Who’s the little black boy?” Liberal guilt ran through me.

Coincidentally, that night an article showed up on my Facebook newsfeed called “The Danger of Not Talking to Your Children About Race.” Reading the article made me feel  ridiculous for thinking that if I never brought it up, Felicity wouldn’t notice race. As the article points out, “Our hope, often unspoken, is that not mentioning it will show our children that it doesn’t matter.”

The article continues, however, by saying: “But research suggests the opposite: that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think about it — and what they think is that it matters too much to talk about. . . It’s the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”

The article points out that nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race with their children than white parents. By not talking about race was I exercising my white privilege? Because race doesn’t effect me personally, I don’t have to talk about it? And it strikes me that I’ve been a bit ridiculous really, because ignoring the topic of race is no longer a luxury I can afford (although obviously it’s one I’m not sure I could ever afford) because Felicity is one of three white children in her classroom. Of course she’s aware of at least cosmetic differences.

I approached a friend of mine who is Black and who has two boys my daughter loves to pieces. Does my friend talk about race with her boys? Do her boys refer to Felicity or other white people as “white”? Yes, indirectly, to the first. No to the second. If anything, she said, they’ll notice the opposite. They’ll say, “look Mommy, that boy has brown skin like me.”


Right now I’m reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. It’s about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, who comes to the United States. In Nigeria she never had to think about race. In America she is constantly bombarded with the intricacies and contradictions and ugliness of America’s racial codes. She and a friend go shopping and they’re checking out. The cashier asks who helped them find their purchases and they don’t remember her name. The cashier asks a series of questions trying to discern who helped them: was she the one that had dark hair (they both had dark hair)? Did she have long hair (they both had long hair)? The cashier gives up. As they leave Ifemelu laughs and says, “Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?'” Her friend, also Nigerian, responds, “Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things” (p. 128).

So I’m currently re-evaluating my parenting strategy when it comes to discussions about race. And it seems to me it is a very complicated strategy to discuss.

So my question is, how do you, or do you approach the topic of race with your children? OR how did your parents broach the topic with you? Please be honest with your comments, but also kind and respectful.

Update: a friend pointed me to The Race Awareness Project with an app specifically designed to “open a dialogue about human physical diversity and racial identification between children (3+) and parents or caregivers. Research shows that even though many parents wish their kids to grow up “colorblind,” kids as young as three-years-old are actively learning about categories of race and ethnicity that they hear in everyday language. Therefore, it is critical that parents learn to responsibly talk about these issues and not leave children on their own to learn about race from the media or from others. The Who Am I app not only presents an easy and fun vehicle to get parents and their children talking about race, it also offers age appropriate tips on how to discuss race with your child. This app will help revolutionize the way we teach our children about the world in which they live, making them more knowledgeable, thoughtful, and empathetic.”

I’m downloading it right now to explore with Felicity later today. Thanks, Liz!

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4 thoughts on “race and children in America

  1. I’ll have to think a little more about this, but that experience in the book reminded me of something. I was watching Hollywood Game Night and at the end of the show the contestant gets a chance at more money if one of the celebrity players can help them guess 10 different celebrities. Most often the celebrities playing (who are American) use different clues about what work the people did, or how they were made famous. Minnie Driver, who is an English actress, used race as a description along with other clues. She helped her contestant win quickly. I wonder if the other celebrities on other episodes would have won if they had used race. I did walked a way with a sense of, “is she allowed to do that?” I don’t know, maybe I’m just not used to people talking about race.

  2. I have never believed in the idea of being “colorblind,” after all I love African American women’s lit and their race/color brings a perspective to their work that educates and moves me. At the same time, I wasn’t really sure the best approach to take with teaching Addison since it’s hard for me to put myself in the mind of a young child (even when I was a young child, so they tell me :). I highly recommend NurtureShock for a number of reasons, but the chapter on race is one of the ones that stuck with me the most. After reading it, I immediately started pointing out more specifically when people she saw were African American, Native American, etc. They make a good case for the fact that “all people no matter what they look like are equal” and similar sentiments are too vague for young kids to internalize. I have tried to point out these different races doing a variety of things (“Do you see that bus driver? She has darker skin than we do.” “This is the President of the United States; he is African American.”) She obviously sees the differences, but she still doesn’t know all the common terms for different races, i.e. she refers to others as having brown skin rather than being “Black.” I am going to check out that app, though, because I know there’s a lot more we could do with this — especially if we decide to go for an interracial adoption.

  3. Today in church Nona Slim was one of the speakers. She told how President Kimball performed their marriage sealing, and as he looked around the room he said “I see only two brown skinned people here…what’s the matter with the rest of you, are you all anemic?” She went on to express how much she loved President Kimball. I may be way off base, but I don’t think using descriptive terms such as blonde, brunette, black or white, is disrespectful, especially when coming from a child. I do think it is extremely important to learn the cultures and historical background of different ethnicity’s, and teach our kids to appreciate the similarities as well as the differences. Our attitude as parents has the biggest impact.

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