My husband and I have been trying to make more connections with families in our area – a task somewhat difficult given that so many of our family members live so close to our house. Weekends are usually spent hanging out with the same brothers and/or sisters along with their kids. But, we realize that we and our children need to also get to know more people outside of that small circle — no easy task for introverts like my husband and me.
Recently, we met up with a friend of mine and her husband who have children in the same age bracket as our kids. They are both white, though the mom grew up and was educated outside of the U.S., and have biological white children. We joined them for brunch at their house which gave the kids time to play and the grown ups time to talk.
It was our first real get-together, so we kept the conversation pretty light. We talked about work, where we lived prior to our current location, things we did over the holiday, etc. At one point, though, the discussion touched race, diversity, and our children. Both sets of children go to racially diverse schools. We began talking about how important it was that our children played with kids from all different racial backgrounds and family situations. The mom then said something that surprised me: She said she doesn’t encourage her children to use racial descriptors when referring to people. Yet, on the flipside, she doesn’t discourage it either. She said she pretty much waits and sees how her child will talk about a particular person.
Sharing parenting tactics, my husband brought up how we talk about race in our house. He said, “For us, we always bring up color and encourage our kids to do so. When our kids describe other children in their classes, one of the things they talk about first is whether the child has ‘brown skin’ or ‘peach skin’. There are two boys named Tyler in the school, and when we ask for clarification, we ask if it’s the Tyler-with-the-brown-skin or Tyler-with-the-peach-skin.”
For my husband, who is Puerto Rican and who, too, has worked in predominantly white environments, he has always expressed frustration in the practice of using every single other descriptor about a person other than race, especially when race is the only thing separating someone from all others. So, it’s the “see that guy over there… kind of athletic build .. with the brown hair… with the book bag… standing up straight… with the nice smile….” rather than, “The Puerto Rican guy in that group.”
The mom responded with, “We don’t bring up race because we’re afraid of doing it wrong.”
Her response got me thinking about ways in which parenting and race intersect. In her defense, I definitely didn’t get the “colorblind” vibe from her. Not at all, in fact. She has lived in enough places and knows enough not to live in a whitewashed world. I got the sense that her issue honestly was “I don’t want to mess it up”.
But I got to wondering, how many other diversity saavy parents out there have chosen not to talk obviously about race? Is there a right way? More specificially, is there a right way for white parents? Is there a right way for parents of color? And, is there a right way for parents of transracial adoptive children?
Most parents of color I know always talk about race with their children. We see it as a part of our lives. I remember when my daughter had just turned 2 years old and we were walking along a city street. We walked by a tall Black man, and she said, “Mommy, he has brown skin.”
“Yes,” I responded. “He does.”
That was all. No big deal. I didn’t “shush” her. I didn’t falsly patronize a stranger by saying how beautiful his skin was, how smart the man must be, how nice he is, etc. My daughter’s statement about brown skin was just an observation. She noticed his brown skin in the same way she noticed the red car that we walked by a block ago; color was just a part of her vocabulary.
A few weeks ago, one of my colleagues came to me asking for advice. She said that she picked up her 6-year old son from school and asked about his day, his friends, etc. Her son mentioned a few names of some kids, and then said, “There is also David. But, we don’t like David because we don’t like Black people.”
My friend said she nearly drove off the road in shock.
“What do you mean we don’t like Black people? Where did you hear that? Who told you that??” she screamed, later admitting that she probably shouldn’t have reacted so strongly at that moment. “Oh, never mind. Sorry, Mom, I mean, yes, we like Black people. We like Black people, right, Mom??”
My colleague — again, another person who I consider diversity saavy — realized her reaction had just simply scared him into not talking about it anymore rather than engaging her son in the conversation. Now, when she tries to revisit the conversation — even weeks later — her 6-year old son clams up and says, “I don’t want to talk about it, Mom. I’m so sorry. I like Black people. I really like Black people.” She says she has tried to bring up race and the color of skin in very nonchalant ways since the incident, but her son immediately flies into apology mode and wants to end the discussion. I encouraged her to buy some children’s books that have kids of color in it, etc. Her son likes to hear a bedtime story each night, and so I suggested this might be a good way to introduce the discussion back again without obviously talking about the comments in the car.
My colleague asked questions that many of us hear often: “Where did he learn that? Why did he say ‘we’ don’t like Black people? Am I doing something that is sending him messages about Black people? Is it school? Kids at school? Television that we watch?”
“Probably a little bit of all of the above,” I replied.
Was this the “we-don’t-want-to-do-it-wrong” example that my brunch friend was talking about? Did my colleague do something wrong by reacting as strongly as she did with her son? Or, was she just sending a clear message that the sentiment of “we don’t like Black people” is unacceptable?
So, back to my question — is there a right way to bring up race? Is there a wrong way?