As precarious as racial sensitivity is today, it seems almost taboo to talk about the topic of race and the role it plays in our society, let alone magnifying the extent to which it exists.
We’re afraid that even broaching the topic of race, and highlighting dissimilarity in culture and color, will somehow distort the lens our children see differences through, banning their perspective to a ditch of racism that they will never be able to dig their way out of.
With racially charged, and often violent, events around the world happening with increasing frequency, we like to imagine that we’re somehow teaching our kids different ideas, and the right opinions to have, unlike the parents of those in the news stories. “My kids would never be so close-minded as to act that way,” we naively tell ourselves. How much control, over the perpetuation of a stereotypical mindset, do we actually have? Children are more likely to emulate the behavior they observe, than the behavior you verbally tell them they should obey.
Why the conversation is so important
If your kids are anything like mine, they always pick up on what’s different. When grandma gets a haircut; my new shoes; new art on the wall. They notice everything, including the things we wouldn’t necessarily like them to, and this keen observation will help them discover how they fit into the world, later in life, but it seems to only serve as an uncomfortable conversation starter, when they’re younger. Having the conversation now, rather than later, affords you with a creative control that you lose with each passing day. It gives you a jump toward how you would like them to perceive differences, rather than how the world might inadvertently coerce them into seeing differences.
The first step is to prepare yourself
For many parents, even approaching the topic can be as daunting as the talk about the birds and the bees. In an interview with Parenting magazine, Dr. Beverly Tatum, author and professor, cites this overwhelming fear as a byproduct of our own lack of experience with this particular communication in our own upbringings. "There are concerns about saying the wrong thing and sounding racist, even if that is not the intent." says Dr. Tatum. "Sometimes parents naively believe that if they talk about issues of race with their children, they will cause them to notice race in a way that they did not before.”
Listen closely for a chance to bring it up
Your child may make a comment about something as simple as skin color, but watch out for the comments on more sensitive details, like eye shapes, hair types, and descriptor words like “black,” “asian,” or “white.” The most important thing to remember is not to be caught completely off guard if and when these flags are to rise. In all likelihood, the subjects will come up unprompted with your kids at this early age out of their natural curiosity.
You might be petrified if your young child makes a crude observation out loud about someone else being different, but instead of reprimanding them, use those opportunities to reinforce the lesson that different is both normal and acceptable. Mommy Masters blogger and author Ellie Hirsch says, “It can be embarrassing but if you have the right tools, you can turn a weird situation into a beautiful learning lesson. Do not scold your child for being curious."
Express the difference between cultural pride and racial superiority
Parent’s of all colors would be wise to celebrate what makes their culture unique, and allow for the planting of an elementary understanding of equality. Make it clear to your child that being proud of isn’t the same thing as being better than. Help them to rationalize the advantages of every color being a part of the human race, but try to explain the insignificance of ethnicity in the grand scheme.
While it might be sufficient to simply state that people are all different and explain how we celebrate and appreciate differences when talking to a 5 year old, a conversation with a teen might be more substantial, potentially discussing the positives and negatives of historical race relations in America and other countries, or asking your child their opinion on today’s plethora of race-related current events.
Don’t just talk about them, explore the differences
Take advantage of burgeoning multi-ethnic and cultural activities (festivals, arts and entertainment events) in your area and discuss what they are about, ahead of time, with your children. Participate in related activities during Black History Month(February), Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15) or Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month (May) and engage your children in conversation about the importance of these activities, why they’re relevant, and what they mean. Also, consider museum visits, library visits, or internet resources as a means of learning about different races and cultures.
Having diverse friends helps, as does traveling with your kids to other countries, which lifehacker.com’s Heather Yamada-Hosley says can help them "fully understand that there is a diversity in the world that might not be represented in the community that you live in."
Whatever you do, the most important thing to remember is to have these conversations, as awkward and uncomfortable as they might be. Because with or without your initiative, your kids are probably already thinking about and forming their views on race—and those views will affect their interactions with everyone around them, forever.
Little Proud Kid is a place to celebrate all people… one people. We focus on bringing an array of multicultural toys, books, resources and more to help you teach and celebrate the uniqueness in each and every child.
Georgia Lobban is the Founder and Creative Director of Little Proud Kid.