Monday, February 3, 2014

the one about race

do you talk to your kids about race?
i've written here before about identity, and how matt and i have really tried to be aware of and talk openly about identity with m, mostly in light of her deafness. those discussions were initially rooted in me way back when i was in middle school and head over heels for a boy who was not white, (but he was living in a family and (overwhelmingly) neighborhood and school that was white.) his own experiences and angst made me internalize this thought deep down inside of myself: someday when i have kids i need to talk about identity. (you know, because i was 13 and probably thought i'd marry him someday.) i never forgot that, and when m was deaf i thought "we'd better talk about who she is from day 1 so that at least a conversation is happening, even if i say the wrong things." 

i don't recall having many conversations with my family about racial identity, although i remember that when i was young and i asked why my cousins- who are bi-racial- had darker skin and different hair? some adult told me they were half black and half white. i wanted to ask which half was white and which was black. i thought maybe if i lifted up their shirts they would have a dividing line bisecting their belly.

matt and i are both white, and we live in a neighborhood where that puts us in the minority. we are in a neighborhood and schools where lots of different kinds of people are mixed all together. (that doesn't mean one automatically has conversations about race; a parent at one of the girls' schools, who is white but whose spouse is not, told me that their six year old bi-racial son had no idea what ethnicity he was. when someone was described as being asian he asked his mom, "what's an asian?" she said, "he had no idea that he and half of his family are asian.") 

What parents say depends heavily on their own race: a 2007 study in theJournal of Marriage and Family found that out of 17,000 families with kindergartners, nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of the latter never, or almost never, talk about race.  (from newsweek)

i read nurtureshock a few years ago, and in that book the authors challenge many of our commonly held parenting beliefs. one of them? that when we teach our kids to be "colorblind" that it backfires. kids are recognizing the differences in ethnicity at a very early age whether we talk about it or not. since many parents don't talk specifically about race then they begin to make their own logic up about ethnicity by piecing together their own experience with things they overhear. the authors encourage parents to takl about race early and often. so we have. i don't think we always say the "right" things, but we do try to talk about ethnicity often so that it is an open and ongoing conversation. 

Several studies point to the possibility of developmental windows—stages when children's attitudes might be most amenable to change. In one experiment, children were put in cross-race study groups, and then were observed on the playground to see if the interracial classroom time led to interracial play at recess. The researchers found mixed study groups worked wonders with the first-grade children, but it made no difference with third graders. It's possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it's safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed...

To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, "Remember, everybody's equal." She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?" 

Is it really so difficult to talk with children about race when they're very young? What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. The same way we remind our daughters, "Mommies can be doctors just like daddies," we ought to be telling all children that doctors can be any skin color. It's not complicated what to say. It's only a matter of how often we reinforce it. (from nurtureshock excerpt in newsweek)

tomorrow night, our preschool is having the author of this (very good) article come to talk about race, identity, kids. we were encouraged to read her article before the meeting, and i found it to be helpful to think through. take a couple of minutes to read it. or read the excerpt from nurtureshock here. regardless of whether you live in a neighborhood like mine, or in one that is more homogeneous, i think that thinking through and having conversations or making comments about how people are alike or different is valuable and worth the time and effort.

and i'd love to know if you have talked about race with your own kids. if you haven't, is it just because it isn't on your radar? or because you want them to not notice differences in race? or wait until they are older? have your kids made embarrassing comments about race or skin color in public? (mine have.) did your own parents talk with you bout your ethnicity or other ethnicities? thoughts?

(ps i highly recommend reading nurtureshock if you haven't already)


  1. We live in a mostly white area, but try to talk about differences in race, family make-up, etc. one thing I read about race that I keep in the back of my mind is that where a group originates, and the environment they dealt with, is not enough to explain our differences. That groups look like they do because that was what was attractive within the group. So now that we have a bunch of people from different areas as ancestors we are all a mix of different ideas of beauty. And we are all beautiful.

  2. We talk about it! We took our oldest to India for 2 weeks when she was 13 months. We lived and worked at an orphanage. And it has not failed that every year in preschool she has become fast friends with the only Nepalese/Indian child in her class. Now she is in a Spanish Immersion Kindergarten class - filled with people from all sorts of cultures and countries. She loves it! When she brings up someone having different color hair or different skin - we talk about how God made us all, and loves us all and thinks the differences are beautiful!


Hi friends! This is where you talk back to me. :) Easy peasy: write your comment, then scroll down where it says "comment as" to identify yourself (if you want to just write your name click Name/URL or just click anonymous. xoxoxoxo