Book review: “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla”

written by Liz of Inventing My Life; also crossposted from Eyes on Books 

I just finished reading “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World” by Marguerite Wright, and I found it tremendously informative and helpful.

What I found most useful about the book is that it takes a developmental approach; each section covers specific ages, from early toddlerhood through the teenage years, and describes what children at those ages are able to understand about skin color, race, identity, and racism. Each section also includes suggestions for parents to help their children develop healthy attitudes about race in general and a strong sense of themselves at each stage of development, as well as resources for teachers and parents to address issues of race in school settings. There’s also a great chart at the end of the book that summarizes the main ideas from the book for each stage of development.

The stage of development that I found most interesting was the early toddler/pre-school years. In the first few chapters, Wright explains that young children do not understand that skin color is a permanent feature, and also do not make the same association between the words for certain skin colors and specific racial or ethnic groups that adults do. As Wright puts it, “Just because a pre-schooler can tell us the color of her skin, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she is also aware of her racial identity.” Every so often on the adoption Yahoo groups I read, a parent will ask what they should do when their young Ethiopian child says something like “I want to be white like Mommy” or “When I die and go to heaven, I’m going to be white.” Reading “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla,” I finally understand that statements like this don’t mean children hate their own race/color or have low self-esteem, but that they still have some “magical thinking” about being able to change their skin color. I don’t know why this explanation didn’t occur to me sooner – I mean, I read Piaget in college and know all about the development of object permanence, etc. – but I’m glad to understand it now!

The chapters on the teen years were also interesting and helpful. Wright explains that teens are exploring their identity and this is why race seems to become so important during high school, with black students feeling like they have to “choose sides.” Again, I found it very helpful to think about race as just one component of a normal developmental stage, instead of the single most important factor to consider when raising a child from Ethiopia. The chapters on the teen years also included a list of ways to react to racist comments or behaviors that parents can teach their teenagers, and I thought I could use many of the techniques myself when dealing with insensitive or outright bigoted comments that people might make about my transracial family when my child is still young.

Another really helpful part of the book for me was the section on choosing a school. Wright doesn’t say that one particular type of school is best for black children, but gives lists of questions that parents should ask when considering a predominantly white school, a predominantly black school, or an integrated school. Wright makes the point, for example, that “integration does not automatically produce racial harmony unless such harmony is actively pursued,” and suggests that parents look at factors such as whether the staff is integrated and if the curriculum includes black history and literature before deciding that a school with equal numbers of black and white students is the best option for their child.

The primary intended audience for the book seems to be black parents raising black children, with some time spent addressing the specific issues of biracial children being raised by one black and one white parent. Only once does Wright discuss transracial adoption, in a very short section dealing with the question of whether race should be considered when placing children with foster or adoptive families (Wright thinks it shouldn’t). This isn’t a criticism of the book; I learned a lot that I can use even as a white parent raising a black child, and I knew before I started reading that I wasn’t exactly the target audience. But I couldn’t help thinking that there is also a need for a similar book written for white parents raising transracially adopted children, because such parents are usually going to face somewhat different challenges. If anyone has any suggestions for books like this, please do let me know about them.

My one major criticism of the book is with regards to how Wright deals with the issue of single mothers. Throughout the book, Wright describes how many of the negative stereotypes about black children which influence how they are treated in school, for example, are due to people conflating race with socio-economic status; there are certain behavioral issues and challenges that children who live in poverty tend to exhibit, and when teachers or school administrators make the assumption that all black children live in poverty, they come to expect that all black children will behave in a certain way and therefore need to be placed in remedial classes or be disciplined strictly and in general have lower expectations placed on them than on white children. But Wright makes the same mistake when she writes “research shows that children who have two parents who are involved in their lives do better in school and are less likely to get in trouble than children who come from single-parent homes,” and then goes on to say that the rise of female-headed single-parent homes in the black community is due in part to the way the welfare system in the US is financially more favorable to families in which the father is absent. I have a very strong hunch that the research showing kids from single-parent homes get into more trouble is based on single-parent families who live in poverty, not on the families of the many single mothers by choice that I know, both black and white, who would laugh at the assumption that they must be on welfare because they are single parents!

This one criticism aside, I highly recommend “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla” for anyone who wants to learn more about how to deal appropriately with race while raising (or teaching) children of any race or ethnicity. This quote from the Epilogue sums up where I believe we need to go from here: “We need to work for comprehensive cultural changes so that a person’s worth is not determined by skin color or race. We need to redefine what it means to be black or African American in a way that allows our children to grow up free to be their true selves, rather than be pressured to conform to some stereotype. We must reject the racist notion that being black means having certain inherent abilities, preferences, lifestyles – and limitations. Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison observes: ‘When you know somebody’s race, what do you know? Virtually nothing.’”

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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