One month into starting full time preschool, my older daughter Lysi said to me, "Mommy, I want to have another mommy with dark skin." After a pause I asked, "Do you want another mommy with dark skin because your favorite teacher has dark skin?" She answered yes, and went on about the teacher-in-question's wonderful attributes: she gives hugs, compliments, and is funny. The conversation concluded with me saying, "That's nice. I'm glad you like your teacher so much."
Lysi had opened up Pandora's box. She had shattered any delusions I had that she was colorblind. After our short exchange, I wondered, should I be pleased that she's associating African American women with being warm, affectionate, and humorous, or should I be dismayed that she's associating race with any character traits? I knew that this was just the beginning of a much larger conversation about race and racism.
I wasn't ready, not yet. How do parents talk to very young kids about racial identity and discourage racism? It just seemed like something really important, and really easy to screw up.
The young age was only part of my hesitation to talk about race explicitly with my kid. Another part was because we're white. White is the majority. The race of privilege. The race that doesn't tend to make a big deal about our own racial identity because we're the default position (and we don't want to be associated with white supremacists.) Racial minority kids can be told to be proud of who they are despite adversity. But white kids won't face that kind of discrimination. On the contrary, we're the ones who will benefit from racism, and thus have an incentive to perpetuate it. There's guilt to deal with, and the huge blind spot of being unable to understand racism from the perspective of its targets. Perpetuating the myth that children are naturally colorblind is a huge temptation for parents like me. It gives us an excuse to stay silent.
I had reasons to suspect that the colorblindness of kids was a myth. Before my daughter was even three years old she pointed out an Orthodox Jewish man at the hospital and whispered in my ear, "It's Joseph." She was referring to the title character in the book Joseph Had A Little Overcoat by Jewish author/illustrator Simms Taback. That same year she pointed out a goth girl in a restaurant and whispered "It's the real Ruby Gloom" (a character from a cartoon). And again, hearing jazz music in a waiting room she commented, "This music is like Little Bill." (A children's cartoon with a jazzy opening theme song.) If my toddler could pick up on subtle similarities in clothing, hair, makeup, accessories, and even musical styles, how could she not be noticing race?
Research is increasingly confirming that the colorblindness of young children is indeed a myth. There are findings that children are able to categorize faces by race before they can even talk, and that even toddlers begin making predictions about peoples' behavior based on race. A lot of this research has been brought to public attention by journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their best selling book NurtureShock (Chapter Three: Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race.) Similar research is also summarized in the article Children Are Not Colorblind: How Young Children Learn Race by Erin N. Winkler.
In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman report on research by Birgitte Vittrup at the University of Texas that reveals that unless parents speak explicitly about race and racism to their children, the children basically guess what their parents think and form their own views based on other environmental cues. In other words, vague platitudes such as saying "Everyone is equal" and watching tv shows with racially diverse characters does absolutely nothing to teach racial tolerance.
Where did this leave me with Lysi? According to the latest research, I've already screwed up. Watching Sesame Street and reading books like The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats apparently wasn't enough. My eyes scan the shelf of board books that my four-year-old daughter has now grown beyond, and I'm kicking myself over the countless lost opportunities. I remember being pleased in my purchase of a copy of Molly Bang's Ten, Nine, Eight, a charming book which features a dark-skinned girl going through her bedtime routine with her daddy. I virtuously pointed out all the similarities between my white daughter and the book's black character: They both had loving daddies, black cats, similar cribs, toys, and pajamas. Countless times I had Lysi stick out her feet to count her toes alongside the coffee-colored feet of the girl. My daughter pointed out that the girl had short hair like a boy, and I pointed out that I, too, have short hair, and that many girls have short hair. Yet we never once discussed the most obvious difference: the colors of their skin. Here I thought I was doing my part to improve race relations for the next generation. But along came research to tell me that I was going about it all wrong.
As I sought more information on the topic of kids and their attitudes toward race, I came across the CNN study Kids On Race: The Hidden Picture. The results suggest that many children, especially white children, have racist attitudes without even realizing it. For one televised report on the study, CNN featured Mikayla's Story. Mikayla, a white girl, is shown two pictures of the same ambiguous scenario, but with the black/white races reversed. Mikayla interprets these two images differently, first assuming that a black character intends to steal from the white character, and then assuming that the white character intends to return lost money to the black character. In her explanations, Mikayla never mentions race and seems unaware that race is playing a role in how she interprets the images.
Such implicit racism was found in many kids who attend racially diverse schools and are being raised by parents who abhor racism. The CNN study reminded me of another, well-publicized study from over a decade ago called Are Emily and Brendan More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? in which fictitious applicants with white-sounding names were fifty percent more likely to get called for an initial interview than applicants with African-American-sounding names. It was assumed that the (mostly white) employers were not practicing explicit racism, but rather, as they sifted through countless applications, their subconscious preference for coworkers like themselves became a factor in their quick decision making. Subconscious racial bias is the racism of our time. I shudder, wondering how improvements in racial equality can be achieved for Lysi's generation.
One step in the right direct is parents and teachers discussing race and racism directly and specifically with kids, especially white kids. Researchers Rebecca Bigler and Julie Milligan Hughes from the University of Texas at Austin published a study that found that white children's attitudes toward blacks improved after they received history lessons about racial discrimination. In NurtureShock, doctoral student Birgitte Vittrup struggled to get reluctant white parents to "talk openly about interracial friendship" with their kids for five nights in a row. While Vittrup only managed to get six white families to do so, all six of the children from those families significantly improved their racial attitudes.
Now seeing that I should have been addressing race and racism with my daughter in the same way that I've always addressed gender and sexism, I'm scrambling to correct my error by turning to the most quick and obvious solution: books. Oh, glorious books! Reading to kids is the one thing kids enjoy and that everyone agrees is great for them. I simply had to track down age-appropriate books on the topic. As it turns out, there really aren't many books that directly address race and racism for preschoolers. But with persistence, I found a few good ones.
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz provided a vehicle for me to re-start the conversation about race. Katz is a white author/illustrator who adopted a Guatemalan daughter. In her book, she as an artist explains to her daughter that there are many shades of brown. She illustrates this point by observing all the different skin colors of people among their family, friends, and neighborhood. The various shades are all vividly described with phrases such as "chocolate brown, like the cupcakes..." and "the color of honey" alongside bright and cheery illustrations. In the end the daughter learns to mix her own shades of brown so that she can paint portraits of all the people in her life. Lysi adored this book and wanted to read it again and again. Without any prompting, she made connections between the people in the book and her friends at school.
Now that we'd broached the subject, I moved on to All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger and Wernher Krutein. This book takes a scientific approach by explaining race in terms of melanin, the sun, and the geography of peoples' ancestry. It isn't the sort of book you read over and over since there's no plot and the illustrations are all documentary photographs. But it presented the scientific facts in a way that was simple enough for Lysi to comprehend, and so was sufficient for my purposes.
The Skin I'm In: A First Look At Racism by Pat Thomas isn't great children's literature, but it was one of the very few I could find for young kids that directly addresses racism. I can understand why there are so few books such as this. At first I felt uncomfortable about reading it to my daughter. The first page opens with, "Imagine a world where only people with blue eyes could go to school. Or a world where only people with brown eyes could get a job." As far as I know, my daughter has not yet witnessed racism, and so by reading this book to her, I'd be breaking down part of her innocence. But I realized that the time to address racism is before Lysi sees it in action. If we talk about it in plain terms beforehand, she'll recognize racism in real life and understand that it is wrong. Unfortunately, while I agreed with the message, this book was dry and a bit dull in how it presented it. That said, there were a few good parts, such as an illustration of subtle racism where a white ice-cream vendor has given a large scoop of ice-cream to a white boy, but a small scoop to an Asian girl. On the following page, a white woman points out the discrepancy to the vendor, who wears a contrite expression. Unfairly-sized servings of ice cream is something my four-year-old cares about.
Let's Talk About Race by Julius Lester personalized racial identity, racism and acceptance. Throughout the book the award-winning Lester engaged Lysi. He offered her a lengthy list of information about himself (he was born in 1939, he's Jewish, black, does crossword puzzles and takes photographs, and so on.) This was intermixed with invitations for Lysi to talk about herself. By giving so many often mundane details about himself, Julius Lester became a real person, and one with whom she could relate. Lysi's eyes lit up as I read the line, "I like pancakes and macaroni and cheese..." and she blurted out, "I like pancakes and macaroni and cheese, too!" The book called attention to racism, saying plainly that some people tell the "story" that "My race is better than your race." which is not a true story. Lester went on to say that he wants to tell a true story. He asked her to press the skin and feel the bones beneath, and to also do this to someone else. All people have the same hard bones. Turning to playful hyperbole to drive his point home, Lester wrote, "I'll take off my skin. Will you take off yours?" The colorful, dramatic illustrations of Karen Barbour brought Lester's message to life with dramatically stylized portraits, colorful surrealism, and after the skins were shed, what looked like a Day of the Dead celebration.
Lysi is now three months into the school year. She speaks freely about race. One day she offered a rundown of all her classmates' races. So-and-so "is called black." And this other friend "is called white." And another "is called black, even though her mommy is white." I no longer feel uncomfortable with these discussions. It helps to know that race is addressed directly in school, too. Recently the class read and discussed the book black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff, a story about an interracial family told through poetry and lovely watercolor illustrations.
As it so happens, my daughter's best school friend is both black and a boy. She talks about him all the time, and his mother says he talks about her all the time too. They sit together at lunch and circle time. One of their teachers told me about how they patrol the playground together making sure other kids "play nice."
I'd like to think that the books I read and conversations I've had the last couple months with Lysi about race have made a big difference. But I suspect that at best it has merely re-enforced what she really learned from living in a neighborhood and attending a school which are both not only diverse, but truly integrated and full of people who explicitly express positive attitudes about race and race relations. I might not have been talking to Lysi about race until she turned four, but she was apparently getting the right messages from somewhere. After all, she started the conversation, and her first statement about race was to wish for another mommy with dark skin.