Talking to kids about race and physical appearance

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist, Amber, originally published at American Family

Ever since the Chinese school incident M has been struggling to wrap her head around the idea of race. While she seemed to have an ok understanding of skin color (people with dark skin, people with brown skin, people with light brown skin, people with pink skin), she is having a harder time with what “Chinese” looks like.

After her appearance was critiqued at Chinese school, we tried to explain to her why some people might not think she looks Chinese. The conversation went something like this:

Hair comes in lots of different colors. There is red hair, black hair, blond hair, brown hair… We both have brown hair that is a similar color. Daddy has black hair. Can you think of any other people you know who have black hair? (M names her Aunt, some kids at school, and her uncle.) Right!

Did you know that many people who come from China have black hair or very dark brown hair? They also might have eyes that look more like Daddy’s eyes than Mommy’s eyes.

Did you know that Daddy and Aunt R are Chinese? They are Chinese because Amah and GongGong came from Taiwan and people from Taiwan are Chinese. Because their mommy and daddy are Chinese, daddy and Aunt R and Aunt J are Chinese too.

…Yes, I know that GongGong has white hair, but when he was younger his hair was black. No, I didn’t see it myself, but that is what daddy said GongGong looked like when he was younger.

Because daddy is Chinese, that means you are also Chinese.

…I know daddy doesn’t speak Chinese, but you can be Chinese even if you don’t speak it. Well, daddy doesn’t speak it because Amah and GongGong didn’t teach him. Yes, I know *you* can speak some Chinese. Yes, I can speak a little Chinese, but no, I am not Chinese. Both Nana and Grandpa are not Chinese, so Mommy isn’t Chinese.

Can you think of any people you know who are Chinese? (M names Mr. A, E a friend from school, her chinese tutor and her Uncle.) Well, daddy and E are Chinese. And your chinese tutor is Chinese. Yes, I know her hair is a little brown, but she is still Chinese. (she has highlights). Uncle S isn’t Chinese, even though he has black hair. Uncle S’s family is from Korea. Korea is near China and many people from Korea also have black hair, so that was a good guess.

Do you remember at Chinese school when that lady was surprised when I said you are Chinese? You do remember? I think maybe she was surprised because your hair is brown, not black like most Chinese people.

You look a little bit like daddy and a little bit like mommy. Your eyes are shaped like Daddy’s eyes, but they are very large like Mommy’s eyes. Maybe that lady thought you looked more like Mommy and she knew Mommy isn’t Chinese, so she was surprised that YOU are Chinese, but you are! That is what I told her. The next time someone asks you, if you want to, you can tell them that you are Chinese. Or, if you want, mommy or daddy can explain it to them. It is up to you.

We have come back to this conversation and had it in many variations over the past month, sometimes at M’s suggestion, sometimes at Mr.A or my suggestion. We rehashed it again with a little more focus on skin color when they were talking about Martin Luther King at school. We talked about how people come to the US from other countries and how people look different in different parts of the world.

It is interesting, watching her little mind struggle to sort it all out. Heck, there are still a lot of grown ups who don’t have it down yet.

The funniest conversation we have had about this topic so far was this weekend. We were in a Chinese restaurant and Mr. A and MIL were having an in-depth conversation in Chinese with the waitress as they were trying to order something that wasn’t on the menu. M was listening intently.

After the waitress walked away, M turned to MIL: “Amah, your hair is brown not black. I think you don’t look Chinese.”

The look on MIL’s face was priceless.

Amber is currently underpaid and overworked as the full-time parent to a three year-old daughter. Currently, she and her husband are in the process of adopting a child from China. Amber blogs about motherhood, adoption and life in her Midwestern multiracial family at American Family.

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