When kids notice race, what’s a parent to do?

written by Anti-Racist Parent editor Tami Winfrey Harris

I know, that’s an odd headline to see around here. Most ARPers would agree that there is nothing wrong with “seeing color” contrary to the still-too-prevalent chorus of “I don’t see color” folks. I’ve said before, noticing race is not the problem in our society, the problem is the judgments and biases that occur when people encounter people of other races.

Still, many a parent’s approach to anti-racism involves encouraging children to ignore benign racial differences. “Shhhhhh…that lady over there is black, but let’s pretend we don’t notice.” This not-uncommon approach leaves children with the impression that there is something wrong with being a race other than white.

A recent post on MomLogic, “Mom, Why Is Her Face Brown?” has caused a bit of a stir among some in the anti-racist cyber community:

When my husband brought my two boys to visit me at work this week, my older boy shocked a room full of Moms when he asked me loud and clearly “Mommy, why is her face brown?” upon meeting one of my co-workers.

I was completely mortified. What was I doing wrong that he would he say something like that? Aren’t we all supposed to be colorblind and not notice the differences in people? Read more…

The post’s writer eventually asks her brown coworker to explain racial differences to the child. A move that caused some uproar in the comments on MomLogic and prompted Macon D at Stuff White People Do to remark that the post belonged in the Chronicles of White Oblivion.

Children are inscrutable little things. Who knows why they say some of the things they do. God help us if we are all judged as parents based on everything our kids say. But I think the child’s reaction to encountering someone with black skin possibly indicates immersion in a not very diverse world. (And I understand that I am making this judgment based on a very short post on a parenting blog.)

It is odd. Racial understanding and comfort are among the very few social issues that parents leave to chance, assuming that children will—despite living in a still racist world—pick up tolerance and racial sensitivity and understand white privilege by some sort of strange osmosis or magic. We don’t assume that children will automatically know not to take drugs or have unprotected sex or touch hot stoves. We are proactive about those parts of parenting. Racial understanding, too many of us, leave to…I’m not sure exactly…chance, I guess.

A parent who wants to raise a child that is comfortable within the rich diversity of our society, proactively discusses race in an age appropriate way. Anti-racist parenting also means exposing children to varying races and cultures through community activities, media (books, film, TV, etc.), food, friendships and other relationships. A child that is exposed to diverse cultures is less likely to respond to someone with a different color skin as if she were exotic game.

 I am also troubled by the OP’s decision to have her colleague field her child’s questions about race.

I asked my co-worker to field the question because I was interested in hearing how she’d like it answered.

This action makes it seem as if race is the bailiwick of people of color—that we must own discussions of racism and race bias, that these things are really our problems. It absolves whiteness of responsibility for correcting an oppression that it originated. Simply in terms of office relations, I think asking a coworker to field social questions for a child is presumptuous and unfair. “Can you explain to Billy why you’re black, please? Thanks!”

This is particularly unfair in an office setting where people of color so often have to bite their tongues when it comes to racial slights. The OP’s coworker may not have felt free to express her real thoughts on race or the situation at hand, especially depending on the power dynamic in the office. The OP made her child’s nurturing regarding race the burden of a person of color who was likely already shouldering her own burderns. It is a function of how far we go to avoid real discussion of race that this parent was hesitant to handle her child’s outburst on her own.

Look, as parents, we all do the best we can. Sometimes our best isn’t good enough. I’m not trying to pile on the MomLogic OP. She has taken a lot of heat already. But the fact remains that she posted an article to a parenting blog positioning this occurrence as a triumph, a learned lesson. Viewing the situation through an anti-racist parenting lens, I fear she missed the lesson of the moment entirely.

I asked ARP’s columnists to weigh in on this issue.

Renee says:

This story really drew my attention as the mother of a bi-racial child.  The colorblindness of children is something we often forget because we have come to associate difference with value.   From the moment children become aware of race it is  we as adults that indoctrinate them into believing that these constructed values say something real and or meaningful.  When my child first discovered that his father was white, his concern was that somehow it was wrong to love him like we do.  It was only after being reassured that we are a family and that the love that we share is natural were his fears put to rest. 

The key as a parent is to reflect the values that we wish our children to grow with as well as stay in a constant state of readiness to deal with racism as it is taught to them by the agents of socialization.  Whether it is the education system or the media, what is certain is that innocence is an unfortunate passing phase in the life of a child.  The only way to ensure that they retain the positive racial understandings of their early youth is to counter act racial ideology each time your child is exposed to it. It is only when ideas are allowed to go unchallenged that they flourish in our society.

Meera says:

I think that those who criticize Jackie are doing so because they assume that she is more culturally sensitive (meaning sensitive towards the culture of others) than she actually is. Her comment about “aren’t we all supposed to be color blind?” speaks to her racial cluelessness as far as I’m concerned. Why should we pretend we don’t see racial differences, as if they are things that should be overlooked on a person, like a glass eye or something?

So, because she clearly needed her coworker to speak for her on subject matter she was obviously uncomfortable with, Jackie missed a key teaching moment with her son. While that was kind of a shame, I think what’s important here was that the co-worker handled it in a sensible way. Her response ended up teaching both mother and son something at the same time. Hopefully, if something similar to this incident happens again, Jackie will know how to deal, because it really isn’t that big of a deal at all.

Bianca says:

I wonder if this mother still employs the “colorblind” ideology. It seemed that only after she could make a connection with differences within white communities (the analogy of her eye color) could she then understand how difference is not wrong or bad. Has she unlearned the colorblind ideology?  Her move seems cowardice: having the woman of color speak to her son and teach him how people come in “all colors,” which for a child of his age, does that literally and/or figuratively translate? 

I’d really like to know the power dynamics between her and her “co-worker.” What rubs me the wrong way about this is that it seems as if she gave the woman of color permission to speak, to answer the question, to do her job as a parent. Is this some sort of privilege—to clean up her mess and the mess of her children? That’s a little too much on the domestic worker tip for my taste. She’s also playing the game of “if a person of color says it’s ok/not offensive/offensive/harmful/painful/happy/etc., then it’s ok. This way of thinking translates to, “I’m off the hook. I don’t need to think about this more and seek more information on the topic.” Why are we seen as experts at the most unusual of times?

She then throws in the “nature” term which was to combat the “nurture” or lack of nurturing she did for her son and has the audacity to ask “what am I doing wrong that he would say something like that?” This now makes me wonder: what does she consider “unnatural” today? What does she mean about “race relations”? I don’t even know how to define that term based on this interaction because it seems the only relations she used was making the woman of color work beyond what is in her job description. Isn’t that a misuse of power, especially power over versus power with her coworker?

Brian says:

While I agree with the summation, I am concerned about what I perceive as this person’s fear, reticence, unwillingness or inability to answer the question for the child. What if the child had asked the question while in the car driving down the road and the brown-skinned person was on the sidewalk–what would she have said then? To pass the buck to the coworker is much like a professor who asks a student for the “black perspective” (for example) on a particular issue in a class discussion.

We must actively take responsibility to make these types of interventions when our children ask them. We are our children’s first and most impacting teachers. Let’s not leave these important questions up to chance.

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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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