By Halina Newberry Grant
My three-year-old daughter and I were sitting at a table in our favorite neighborhood restaurant a few weeks ago, and there was another mom and her son—also three—sitting at the end of the table, both white. As they do, the kids were squirming in their seats, eye-balling each other and waiting for the chance to pop up and initiate a lap around the tables. Then the boy asked:
“Mommy, why are their faces different?”
If she had heard the question, my bi-racial daughter would have known what to say. Clearly, this boy’s mother did not, and was speechless, embarrassed and choking on a French fry.
Most white people I know intellectually understand white privilege. They support Black Lives Matter and understand why “All Lives Matter” is offensive. They understand that the nouveau, far-right movement is a group of racists who prefer the name “Alt-Right” to “Nazi” or “KKK.” Many have friends of every hue, and know it’s better to listen than to talk when the subject of race comes up around them.
But most of these well-meaning white people do not talk to their kids about race. Their book shelves lack authors of color. Their children’s collection is equally devoid of faces of color. Their dolls are white. If you are one of the many families who hasn’t had a conversation about the colors of our skin with your child, and you haven’t introduced them to books about other cultures or communities, or given stories with brown faces equal time at story hour, you’re exercising and enjoying the status, luxury and entitlement of a group of people who don’t have to worry about it. By not talking about race, you’re telling your kids it’s a non-issue. What’s worse, you’re teaching them that you don’t believe it’s important to talk about. You are not preparing your child for the diverse world we live in.
When my husband and I started getting serious, we talked about how our communities and country would see us as a mixed-race couple, then down the line, how being bi-racial would affect our kids. My (now) husband pointed out that the trickiest part about racism is that it almost always takes you off guard and confuses you.
“Did I really hear what I just heard?”
“What did he mean when he said…”
“I don’t think my friends are racist, but…”
And these thoughts usually don’t occur to you until much later, when it’s too late to respond. We knew that our responsibility as parents would include regular discussions about race. So from the time she was old enough to talk, we have read one of our favorite books to our daughter, thoughtfully recommended to us by an educator friend: The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. In it, a girl and her artist mother explore the neighborhood they live in, wondering at all the different shades of brown they see—honey, coffee and butterscotch; all equally beautiful and delicious.
Our daughter is only three, but she notices when she sees a face like hers (“that girl has a face just like mine!”) She points out when she sees someone with a “chocolate” face like papa’s, or “vanilla with cinnamon” like mama’s. If we didn’t already have a dialog about our differences, would she say anything? Or would she internalize the experience, never knowing if she could or should talk about it—or how? This is also why it’s imperative that we live in a diverse city like New York or Los Angeles: As parents of bi-racial children, we don’t have a choice. We don’t ever want our children to feel alone in their world, so we have a duty to shape the world around them, making sure that even though they will likely always be a minority, they will also always see faces like theirs.
Think of it like this: if you don’t talk to your kid about sex, who will? YouTube? Their first pushy boyfriend? Especially in today’s increasingly hostile environment around the topic of race and what appears to be a regression to 1950s era attitudes, every parent—especially white parents—must make every effort to initiate and steer the conversation, giving examples of what they might hear and how to respond to it. We must be the first voice they hear about race. We can’t wait for someone else to put negative thoughts or ugly ideas in their heads, leaving them confused, hurt, hateful or scared. Because in this world, you don’t have to go looking for racism and ignorance; it finds you. We must prepare them for the inevitable, so they are prepared to respond and know that they can be part of the solution. It doesn’t matter what color skin your child has or how old they are: we must start the conversation early, so that when they inevitably encounter bigotry they can defend themselves or others.
At the restaurant, the other mom was caught off guard, not at all sure how to answer her son’s question about how different I looked from my daughter. But I was prepared:
“Yes! We’re all so different! Azora’s face is caramel, and my face is vanilla and cinnamon. Her papa’s is chocolate. She’s a mix of both of us!” I said.
The other mom was relieved, clearly wanting to have said something similar, but unprepared and unsure about what she should say. After a minute or two of chatting, I recommended our favorite book to her. I was grateful that I was with Azora this time and able to answer one of the easier questions she’s bound to encounter. While it is my job to prepare my daughter for the world we live in, it is every well-meaning white person’s job to prepare their child for a diverse world. We cannot claim color blindness, because the world we live in is not color blind. We must celebrate our differences, embrace them and talk about them with respect. We must have thoughtful, age-appropriate conversations with our children about the world we live in and all the colors of us. We must be sure that when they see honey, coffee, chocolate, butterscotch, cinnamon, vanilla and caramel faces, that they see themselves.
To help initiate and guide your conversation with your kiddos, here are some resources:
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
All the Colors We Are (featuring Sesame Street characters) by Katie Kissinger
Shades of People by Sheila M. Kelly
The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler
Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue
W. Kamau Bell has a variety of articles, interviews and podcasts dedicated to the discussion of race, both among adults and with his own kids.