This post originally appeared on DC Metro Moms on March 3, 2009
When toddlers bring up race
Looking at the drawing in the book My Freight Train of two hands mimicking couplers holding trains together, my son announced, “There’s one brown hand and one regular hand.” My heart sank. “Regular.” My son sees peach-colored skin as regular and brown as other.
Yikes. What am I supposed to do with that? Should I be worrying that my son is going to grow up to think of himself as an entitled white male, or is this just how kids characterize difference? Is this a result of the fact that a lot of our friends are white and both sides of his extended family are white? Or would any almost three-year-old boy call his own skin color “regular” regardless of the crowd he ran with? How does “age-appropriate” language/cognition mesh with – or deviate from – all that social constructivism theory I studied in grad school?
I’ve been used to my son characterizing people by the color of their clothing. “What’s the green man doing?” no longer makes me think of aliens. It’s been almost a year since I bought the “people color” crayons of many skin-toned hues, but since my son is still barely capable of drawing a circle and I’m not one to craft portraits in my spare time, I’ve let those beauties chill down in the basement with the wine. But maybe it’s time.
Should I start pointing out skin color the way I mention that the “red bird is a papa cardinal” and “the brown one is a mama cardinal”?
Should I try to act like color is just an objective reality that carries no social weight? If he’s not ascribing meaning to another color versus “regular,” maybe I don’t need to. After all, it’s not like he said anything bad about brown or started associating stereotypes with it.
My response in the moment was to describe the “regular” hand as “peach” and to try in vain to show that my hand color is a little different than my son’s. (But we’ll have to get at least to April before some sun can bring out the Lebanese olive that apparently skipped my red-headed boy’s gene expression.) I asked him what color skin Barack Obama had, and when my normally loquacious toddler responded with silence, I figured this was not the time to probe a two-year-old on race.
But meanwhile, his mother is intrigued by the angry reaction to Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments to the Department of Justice that we are all afraid to talk with one another about race issues (not to mention the negative online comments to Krissah Thompson’s Washington Post article describing the White House’s approach to Black History Month. Thompson wrote, “Top officials are engaging the subject of race more freely, with a boldness and confidence they once shunned.”) So here is one lowly mama, talking and wondering out loud.
I did lots of reading and talking about race as a grad student and then as a high school teacher, where I co-chaired a committee on race in advanced classes. At my school, almost 70% of the population was black and Hispanic, but the advanced (honors and AP) classes were on average close to 70% white. Some of the teachers of advanced classes resented our committee’s work and claimed that they “didn’t care about” the race of their students. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a problem. I worry about the progress that might not be made by the time my son is there, in just eleven short years!
For now, I am not out to immerse my son in any kind of history about fairness or equality beyond who recently got a turn on the sled or with the fire truck. He is supposed to be living in his own childlike, fantastical version of reality. In that world, he delights in details that I have long learned to overlook. If he notices that I moved an apple out of the fruit basket and laughs when a small strap is hanging off the garbage truck, I can’t expect him not to notice skin color. Heck, I’ve been trying to get him to pay attention to what language people speak.
So, part of me wants to just act like all the various shades of skin are just part of the diversity of people. Yay! Celebrate diversity! But when I find myself pausing at identity-celebrating children’s books — books I’d love to see in the hand of children of color — I remember how complicated things are.
I used bell hooks’ picture book Happy to Be Nappy as a teacher in discussions of identity, but I feel like the language of the little black girl celebrating the variations of her hair is not appropriate for a little white boy to make his own. Words that used to be slights but have been reappropriated by the group can still be a problem when used by outsiders (think “queer.”) So right now, the book is not in circulation on our toddler bookshelf, though it might be if I was mother to a little black girl.
I thought I’d thought a lot about this issue before, but like so many other things, it looks different when you’re actually the parent from day one and not just a teacher or researcher analyzing what you think children and young adults learned in their past.
On preschool race theory or practice, I’m clueless. I had no idea until Googling for a link for hooks’ book that HBO has used its title as part of a video series: “Happy to Be Nappy and Other Stories of Me.” The online trailer has kids all talking about how, in Todd Parr‘s words, it’s okay to be different! I can’t decide if I think it’s heartwarming or creepy to see such young kids easily explaining away the fact that people aren’t all dealt the same deck of cards.
So, along with reading up on how to deal with my son’s meltdowns over random things like too much celery in the crock pot, one of these days I need to seek some advice and do some serious thinking about how to raise an anti-racist but happy little kid.
We live in a conservative rural area – – one of the big drawbacks in my mind is the lack of racial diversity. I was horrified when my 3 year old son once noticed a black family in the car next to us and said – – look, mommy, a football player! Fortunately his preschool had lots of “diversity days” where they celebrated all kinds of differences in people and his now elementary school is more diverse. As with most things, I think the best thing we can do is set a good example and model accepting and inclusive behavior.
“Should I be worrying that my son is going to grow up to think of himself as an entitled white male, or is this just how kids characterize difference?”
Your son will grow to adulthood in the environment that you live in. Yes, he will likely grow to believe himself to be entitled, although, much of that will come down to what you and your husband teach him.
As far as children characterizing differences is concerned, yes, that’s what they do.
I wouldn’t spend TOO much time on this. People are different. What we shouldn’t do is pretend that they aren’t.
This is a very thoughtful blog post and thank you for raising the tricky issue of toddlers, race, and characterizing difference. My son hasn’t verbalized differences of skin color yet, but I would love to read more of your thoughts on the matter going forward. Great post.
I’m glad you are writing about this. I used to wonder whether Kylor thought all black men were Obama. Then I realized that he sometimes called white men in the newspaper Obama too. He recently has used two words that upset me: bad and hate. Where, I wonder, did he learn the word hate and what does he think it means? It is inevitable that our children will learn about hate and witness discrimmination way before we want them to. But I think we, as parents, have the power to teach them to be color blind and free of hate.
Very interesting.. Be mindful of what the kids see on TVs.. they just probably see or hear it somewhere..
Communication is the best solution…
my daughter once said to me about a black man in a book, that he was bad b/c he was black. my jaw dropped. how did she think this. i was so upset. when hubby came home i told him. his first response was “she always talks in colors.” he is write, she says i feel yellow for happy, blue for sad. i chucked it up to the fact that she sees the the color black as bad. So I asked her if Little Bill was bad or his dad, she said NO. I felt a bit better…but it is an interesting topic.