Kids have to be taught how to be racist. I have heard this over and over, and for the most part I believe it to be true. However, my own personal history, and my years of teaching preschool, taught me that kids will also look for ways to be divisive and to exclude others, and sometimes, even those kids with forward thinking parents, will use skin color. This leads me to the other thing kids have to be taught: how not to be racist.
My own mother did not talk to me about race, opting instead to go the “color blind” route. Sure, I knew the “N” word was bad. I knew I was half black. I knew slavery had existed and it was an abomination and I knew Martin Luther King Jr. was to be revered. But it wasn’t until I was 12 years old and some television program on skinheads was playing, that I actually saw my mom get angry about racism. My mom, on the whole, was the ultimate justice seeker, always rooting for the underdog, and she made it her life’s work to improve the quality of life for others. But not once did she sit me down and talk to me about racism, and this was particularly problematic since I was on the receiving end of it. I do not fault my mother for her naivety. I realize she thought not bringing it up was best, and she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, it being race.
I have heard parents, friends even, say that their kids don’t see color. I do not think these people are stupid or that they are being dismissive. I think in some cases it may even be true of their children. The thing is, sooner or later kids do see skin color, just like they may notice hair color, size, or any other descriptive feature. Why some people deny this ability exist within their children is beyond me. Perhaps they feel it reflects how non-racist they are as parents? Perhaps the fact that their kids don’t mention race is proof that they aren’t raising bigots? I want to give these people the benefit of the doubt. To honestly talk about race is to share an incredibly ugly history and an admission of modern day racism. It’s not easy stuff to talk about. But I believe it is necessary.
I remember when I first became aware of the fact that my own child had noticed race. She had confused a woman on the playground with a friend of mine that had recently moved away. She came to me wanting to know how my friend could still be here when she moved so far away. It took me a while to figure out what she meant and then it occurred to me that both women are black. We went home that night and had our first conversation about race. I told her that her grandfather was black, making me half black. I told her blacks had been treated badly just because of the color of their skin. We read a picture book on Dr. King. She had questions. Lots and lots of questions. It wasn’t always comfortable, but that night ended with her knowing that it is never OK to be unkind to someone or to treat someone differently because of the color of their skin.
Since that first day, we have had many conversations about race. We talk about things that are happening in our country right now. We talk about President Obama and how it’s a really big deal that he is president, but that even that doesn’t protect him from racism. We talk about my dad and how he was 13 years old before he had the same rights as others. We talk and talk and talk. And we will keep talking. While I do think she would have eventually picked up on our feelings about race (her father and I discuss these things a lot), I think there is something more valuable in just telling here explicitly what we believe. I don’t want for her to ever feel uncomfortable or embarrassed to ask about racial issues. And more importantly, I want to teach her how not to be a racist.