How we talk to our kids about race

It is often said that kids do not see color, that noticing race has to be taught.

I have not found this to be true. From the time my kids were pre-schoolers, they have asked questions about skin color and have included race in their visual descriptions of people.

White Americans like me are not used to talking explicitly about race, and it can feel very awkward when our kids start asking blunt questions about it. Why does that lady have dark skin? Why are his eyes that shape? Can I play with that brown boy on the slide?  

The temptation for white parents is to Sssh the child and ignore the question. It can seem easier to just gloss over the issue, feeling as uncomfortable with it as we would a question about sex. We can even be tempted to scold the child, communicating to them that we just don’t talk about these things.

Rick and I have tried not to take either of these routes. For one, we have endeavored to receive all of our kids’ questions openly, wanting to communicate that all questions are welcome and that Mom and Dad are a safe place to bring them. Secondly, when our kids mention race, we believe they are noticing something important, something that bears discussion and careful teaching.

We do not adhere to the colorblind theory of race relations, the idea that the goal is to not see ethnicity and to pretend it does not exist. We feel strongly that pretending is exactly what such thinking is, and that such dishonesty serves no one. Rather, we believe that to truly know people, you need to be willing to see their skin color. It hints at both their culture and their life history, after all. No person is solely their race, but race certainly makes up part of the mosaic. Even for a white person. That is our part of our struggle, isn’t it? We feel very unaware of our own ethnicity and culture. We wonder if we even have one. (Answer: we do.)

I believe that to deny culture and history is to refuse to truly know a person. And that to pretend to be colorblind is to deceive oneself and to perpetuate  a destructive myth, the believing of which is the privilege of white people, alone.

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My daughter and her lifelong best friend. It would be absurd to ignore all the ways her South Korean ancestry plays into her identity, and absurd to ignore the way my daughter’s northern European ancestry plays into hers.

So, how have we answered when our kids have queried us about a person’s race? The first thing we have done is to link the person’s color with their region of origin. If the question is, Why does that kid have dark skin?, we answer with something like, Because their grandparents probably came from Africa. Just like your grandparents came from Europe. (We found the concept  of distant ancestors too difficult for young children, and so we simplified it by calling them grandparents.)

We make sure that every time we bring up another person’s likely country of origin, we also bring up our own. Otherwise we risk implying that we are native to this country (and the owners of it), while the other person is not. No, our ancestors, too, came here from someplace else. Of course, If the person in question appears to be Native American, we make sure to say that their ancestors, unlike everyone else’s, were here in America originally.

We also try, when discussing a region, to give several possible places therein that the person’s ancestors might have originated. We do not routinely say that Asian Americans came from China, but rather that they may have come from China, Korea, or another country in Asia. Is this complicated for 3 year olds? Yes. But after listening for years, my ten year old is starting to get it.

Again and again, we have had this conversation. Over and over, we have had to explain these historical and cultural facts. And we will continue to do so until my children stop assuming that white people are “normal” Americans while people of other ethnicities are foreigners or interlopers. Whether they hold this assumption because it is the default belief of all white Americans or because we spent four years in their early childhood living among international students who were actually foreigners, I cannot say. Whatever the case, it is an assumption we must root out deliberately.

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As our kids have gotten older and become able to ponder difficult issues, we have begun to talk about the differing histories of people groups in the U.S., as well.  So, for example, now when we talk about African Americans, we don’t just say Their ancestors came from Africa, but instead Their ancestors were most likely stolen from Africa and forced into slavery here.  Our kids have shown themselves quite able to grapple with these facts. We have also begun to talk to them about the varying degrees of respect and power different ethnic groups receive in our society, and how wrong that is. I believe that the sooner my white kids perceive their power, the sooner they will be able to wield it justly.

Stumbling along, doing our best, these are a few of the ways we have found to discuss race with our kids. How do you do it? Friends of color, do you have tweaks to recommend?

© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2016

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7 thoughts on “How we talk to our kids about race

  1. Thanks for the post. I especially like that you link race, color and ethnicity to yourselves and your own kids. White, ethnically and racially, to so many people, means boring or empty. Not true! Thanks too for the honest yet unusual statement that skin color does hint at things about a person’s culture and history. Of course, it isn’t the entire story. But it is a bit of it.

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  2. Kim Upton

    I love the truth in teaching children that we are all immigrants to this country, that whites were once as new to this soil as those arriving today from every nation, and that we are not original ‘owners’. Thank you for courageously sharing your voice on this often feared topic and for raising your children with a mature and safe place to bring their questions. Love your blog and welcome back! Hope your summer was insightful, but most of all, FUN!

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  3. As always, I enjoy your writing and your discussion of heavy topics. On a lighter note, and in response to your intro, I invite you to read a blog post of mine from January 10, 2015. (The blog doesn’t show years, but it’s like the 4th post down, as I haven’t written a whole lot in this blog.)

    *https://punkyandcurlysaid.wordpress.com/ *

    On Wed, Sep 14, 2016 at 9:19 AM, Thinking about such things wrote:

    > Laura Goetsch posted: “It is often said that kids do not see color, that > noticing race has to be taught. I have not found this to be true. From the > time my kids were pre-schoolers, they have asked questions about skin color > and have included race in their visual descriptions o” >

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