In honor of the upcoming Martin Luther King Jr Day, I wanted to share some of my preliminary thoughts about race and parenting. The King Holiday began in 1983, the year before I was born. Now that I have a daughter, I’m thinking about how I will help her grow into a rational, empathetic and caring young woman. It may be too soon to start talking to her about race (at 16 months I don’t think it is developmentally appropriate to expect her to understand such concepts), but it is never too early as a parent to start thinking about how I will handle the situation when the time comes.
What qualifies me to share on this topic? As a white mom, with a white husband and biological child, living in a rural, mostly-white part of the country, you may be skeptical. Alternatively, you may be able to relate to me as a mom if you are a parent with a similar background. Either way, we all need to be open to talking about challenging social issues. I’ve been fortunate to have a loving network of friends to learn from. Lynn, one of my closest friends growing up, is mixed race, with a white mother and black father. She was always open and honest in talking with me about her experiences. I was fortunate enough to attend a private high school for two years, where I established diverse friendships with peers from around the country and the world, many of whom I keep in touch with today. I went to college in Boston where I also had a diverse group of friends, and spent a couple years living in Europe where I studied, worked and lived with young men and women from around the globe. I minored in French and later studied Spanish, which helped immensely in getting to know people of different backgrounds (a fringe benefit to my love of languages). I don’t claim to be an expert here: just a mom who cares for her child and the world she will grow up in.
One of my favorite quotes about racism comes from Ayn Rand, who was known for her strong and controversial statements on many topics. She said, “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.” And “Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.” Her sharp tongue often makes me chuckle to myself, in an ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ sort of way. You can read the full quote here.
We honor Martin Luther King Jr. every January because he showed America that men (people) are not to “be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” And he did it in the spirit of goodwill and non-violence, in spite of the many ways he suffered for his work. He did it for his four children in hopes that they would inherit a better world. Talk about a role model for parents everywhere!
So what should parents tell their children about race? When should we talk about it and how? For white parents who don’t have many non-white friends or acquaintances, this can feel pretty uncomfortable. We don’t want to say the wrong thing and we are afraid of offending anyone. No one (who isn’t racist) wants to be labeled as racist. First let me say: don’t be afraid. We all make mistakes and put the proverbial foot in the mouth from time to time. Show your kids that it is important to continue learning throughout life. The worst thing would be to let your kids get the wrong idea because they simply don’t know what you think. Research cited in the Washington Post indicates that around half of white kids whose parents don’t talk about race were unsure whether their parents like black people. Your kids will bring up this topic when they are curious and that will be the right time to talk about it. Don’t shush them if they say something that isn’t politically correct in public. Kids are innocent and curious. A simple answer is all they need.
Lynn gave me a great example of this. Her husband is white and they have three children age 8 and under. Two look more like her husband and one looks more like her. The kids talk about who looks like who, but race is basically a non-issue in their house. They are just a family. Lynn volunteers at her oldest son’s school and one day, a boy in the class asked her “Mrs. B., how come you have darker skin but Collin has light skin and you’re his mom?” Lynn explained to the boy that her husband has lighter skin and while her oldest looks like his dad, his brother looks like her. A class discussion ensued and they discovered that some of the other kids had mixed race families too. If someone had shushed the boy, the entire class would have been deprived of an opportunity to better understand the world they see around them.
While it may feel warm and fuzzy to talk about being “colorblind”, it is not realistic to pretend that we don’t see color. If we acknowledge skin color as a (trivial) fact, and focus on the content of a person’s character as the most important determinant of who they are, kids will understand what we as parents think about people who look different from us and have the tools to judge rationally who they want to keep as friends in their own lives.
Surely this is a big and very nuanced topic worthy of greater discussion, but for now I’m thinking about how I might react when my daughter starts to see differences and similarities in people around her and ask questions. Some of her teachers at daycare are black and she plays with a diverse group of children there, so I feel confident that she will have a positive network of people she can talk to about race in addition to me. My strategy will be to pause, consider the intent and origin of her question, and thank her for asking before I jump into my response. Even if I’m not sure what to say to an unexpected comment, I’ll know that I’m demonstrating lifelong learning as a value when I tell her we should find out more together.
If you’re interested in learning more about the King Holiday, you can visit the King Center online.
Do you have any experience talking with kids about race? Share your stories in the comments below so that we can all learn from one another.