FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): on white kids

Dear parents of white children,

I vote that we strike the following from our parental lexicon:

  1. “Everybody is equal.”
  2. “We’re all the same underneath our skin.”

I realize this is counterintuitive. But I’m completely serious.

These statements are so abstract they’re mostly meaningless when handed to a seven (or even seventeen) year-old. That’s at best. At worst, they’re empty filler—stand-ins for the actual conversations about race, racial difference and racism we need to be having with our kids.

Sugar when our kids need protein.

Yet, if white college students are to be believed, these statements are standard in many white households.

My students write racial autobiography papers. It’s a pretty straightforward assignment: describe the impact of racial identity in your life—not race generally but your race, significant experiences/teachings/thoughts pertaining to that identity at various life stages. Interview two family members about their experiences of and beliefs about being ‘x.’

(As it turns out, this is a really hard assignment for white students for reasons that are important and revealing. More on that later in this blog series.)

Time and again my white students write that “everybody’s equal” is the “most important” thing their parents taught them about race. Time and again a not insignificant number of them then proceed to describe their present trepidation about a) telling their parents they date interracially; b) bringing home a Latino/a or Black classmate; c) Thanksgiving break when everyone will silently tolerate the family member who makes racist comments; or d) something else that reveals how deeply and clearly these students know this “most important teaching” doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to their actual white experience.

Hmmm.

Few notice the contradiction they have themselves managed to describe in the space of only four pages.

I struggled to make sense of these papers for a long time. Then, Nurture Shock (not a book about race) gave me some help. It reports on social scientists’ studies to figure out why so many white kids have such poor facility in engaging racial difference and challenging racism despite their exposure to (liberalish) white culture’s “everybody’s equal” mantras. Turns out our kids, literally, don’t know what “everybody is equal” means. It’s an empty phrase. A numbed out flourish. (Sugar.)

Meanwhile, they are daily assailed by a relentless barrage of anti-black imagery, Native American stereotypes, slurs against dark-skinned non-native English speakers and on and on.

Our happy equality and shared humanity platitudes just don’t stand a chance. It’s sort of like putting your kid in front of a 30-minute television show. The first 28 minutes show children bullying and generally treating each other like crap. The last two resolve into a nice, moral lesson on kindness. Guess which part of the show kids absorb and imitate? (Another amazing study reported in Nurture Shock.)

Note: this is aside from whatever’s going on in families which have somehow simultaneously taught “we’re all equal” while making clear interracial dating is a no-no. (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva documents something similar among individuals. Liberal, conservative, or moderate, whites interviewed insist they don’t see color only to say something overtly anti-black/brown/etc. mere moments later. Incoherence is, apparently, pervasive in white culture.) But, even if we’re assuredly not the parents who convey negative views of interracial dating, there is urgency here. We must figure out what these findings—Nurture Shock’s and my own—mean for how we talk (and don’t and should talk) to white kids.

I know “everybody’s equal” means “we all deserve to be treated with fairness.” And when we tell kids we’re all the same underneath skin, gender, sexuaity, physical abilities and other differences we’re trying to tell them we share human dignity and worth.

Obviously I believe these things.

But, have you ever actually met a “generic” human? Someone without a race or a gender?

Well, guess what? Neither has your child.

And by the age of three our kids are aware of this fact (even though they don’t yet use adult categories to talk about it). If you don’t believe me, pick up The First R. You will be stunned by what preschool children know and do in regard to race.

Assailed. Everyday.

Platitudes are not enough.

One more “stat.” I read a study some time ago (I now can’t find it now, sorry!) comparing white and Black families. It found that on average African American parents start talking about race with their African American children by age 3. White parents with white kids? Age 13.

Is it any wonder my white students are so racially baffled and behind? That they look like deer in headlights when I tell them we’re going to talk about race in their actual lives? It’s not just the fact of being white, and thus insulated from the negative affects of racism**, that works against their developing aptitude about race and anti-racism. We, their parents, are working against them too!

(**Though I believe white children are deeply harmed as well—in different ways.)

Worse, imagine what happens in my classes when students of color describe their experiences of racism, and their white peers stare at them numbly, repeating: “everybody is equal,” “we’re all the same underneath our skin.” Let’s just say nothing about this exchange inspires robust interracial friendship to develop. Nor does it provide students of color reason to think they’ve found the allies they’ve been hoping for: interested peers prepared to help build a more just racial future.

I vote that we strike. Turns out these aren’t teachings at all.

So, if it’s your four-year-old starting to notice darker skin (which happens when we raise our kids in predominantly white environments), the platitude “we’re all the same underneath” implies they’re noticing something they shouldn’t and insinuates there’s something wrong with darker skin we must need to overlook (meanwhile, your child hears remarks about beautiful blue eyes and blonde hair all the time). How about discussions about and images of the many different beautiful shades of dark skin instead?

If it’s your eight-year-old describing a racially-tinged encounter at school, to respond “everybody’s equal” is to hand her/him a passive belief where active, imaginative, strategic thinking about an empowered action is what she/he needs. “How did you feel when that happened? What do you want to do if it happens again? How can I support you in trying that?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a list of pat answers on what we should be teaching. But, that’s not a cop out. That, in fact, is the point.

We don’t assume pat answers are adequate for enabling our children to learn to navigate relationships, nutrition, sexuality, religion, emotions, or any other challenging reality. Nor do we leave them alone to figure it out.

We equip ourselves, so we can enable them.

Why should race and racism be any different?

Pat answers may be evidence of how many parents haven’t ourselves developed the very facility we need to help our children build. As a result their questions, observations and experiences launch us into terrain we haven’t learned to navigate. They make us deeply uncomfortable.

But again, we are able and willing to develop facility and work through discomfort in so many areas parenting springs on us. Race is no different.

So try this. Imagine the conversations that may have taken place between parents and their Black or Latino/a children after Trayvon Martin was killed and Zimmerman walked. I’d be willing to bet that pat answers were nowhere in site  sight.

This thought experiment doesn’t give us the content, but it does show us the standard for what caliber of  conversation is required of us. If we want our white children to live in a world with more racial justice than the one we live in now, we need to figure out how to have conversations with them as real, thick, painful, resilient, strategic and authentic as the conversations those parents had to have. So that our kids can help build that world.

As much as we love our kids, we can not only want to figure this out. We can figure it out.

Yours in Search of Robust Protein,

A fellow parent with white kids

Comments
95 Responses to “FOR WHITES (LIKE ME): on white kids”
  1. Stephanie says:

    I love Nurtureshock! I’ve been thinking about this recently so thanks for writing this. These are two related blog posts that I’ve bookmarked – I’m going to link to yours in the comments as well!
    http://www.hellobee.com/2013/08/01/talking-with-children-about-race-part-ii/

    http://www.hellobee.com/2012/08/03/talking-with-children-about-race/

  2. Julie A. Mavity Maddalena says:

    thank you for this. thank you. I’ve felt utterly alone and bewildered as a parent of two white boys, ages 5 and 2, trying to figure out how to teach them about these realities with something other than the white narrative of colorblindness.

    • This is really hard. And there’s lots of subtle but persistent pressure, I think, from other whites to NOT be explicitly race conscious in our teachings and conversations with our kids. Meanwhile we don’t have tons of models (to say the least). Have you found sources, approaches, etc. that have given you any inroads???

  3. cammeomedici says:

    Thanks for writing this! So neat to still have you as a “teacher” nearly 10 years after taking your class at Drake! 🙂

  4. Felice says:

    How about “treat people the way you want to be treated”

    • And respect people the way you want them to respect you.

    • I actually just talked about this in a piece I put together for my own undergrads. I think it’s a little problematic to tell kids this. I think we should treat people the way those people want to be treated, not the way I want them to treat me. I want my undergrads (and own kids, White and Black) to understand the concept of equity, not just equality, and the idea of giving people voice.

      • Leona says:

        As a teacher, this is what I teach my first graders…. to ask people to treat others the way they want to be treated is to embrace white privilege and all that goes along with it. I believe people mean well when they say it, but I think it’s important to open our minds and understand that we come from different places and we need to embrace that, not sweep it under the rug. I’ll never understand the constant struggle my friends of color deal with, so why should I expect people that struggle in a way that I don’t, want to want to be treated the same way I want to be treated? Equity is not equal. Equity is understanding the needs of individuals and what it is they need to be successful. We need to honor the fact that we have all had different journeys and see the world differently.

        Thank you so much for asking your students to think about things differently and for challenging them to reach outside their comfort zone!

  5. Fred Stevens says:

    I can’t thank you enough for the steps you’re helping me to make in my exploration of white privilege. White privilege is what give us white people permission to hide behind phrases such as the ones you examine. Saying “everybody is equal is code” for “we don’t want to know about our own emotional baggage we carry about race. So, let’s agree “everybody is equal” and we don’t have to talk about it. In the mean time incarceration of blacks replaces Jim Crow. I will read Nurtureshock and I suggest The New Jim Crow by Michele Alexander.

    • John Jackson says:

      I am a white man raised by a Latina. It has ‘colored’ my worldview dramatically. I have always felt like I was on the outside looking in…to all societies. That said, The color of my skin “entitles” me to move about suburban America in a comfortable manner. It is akin to living in a bubble of privilege, complete with unspoken rights and (ir)responsibilities.

  6. DrDesi says:

    Thank you for such courageous expression. As a public elementary school teacher, teacher mentor, teacher leader and future administrator, I am frequently challenged with this phenomenon. It is not only prevalent with students and parents but also with White teachers, especially the youngest ones. They struggle with communication and discipline of our nation’s documented most at-risk population, Black males. Do not get me wrong, not all White teachers, female, young, or otherwise, struggle with this student population but many in our most needy schools do. It is difficult to transform some of the most at-risk schools, as defined by discipline referrals, test scores, and economic status, when teachers perform through the lenses of the fallacy of sameness. The more peoples(of all races, including mine), that gain the courage and remove those lenses to have conversations, the more our nation would positively transform through current and future racial unrest.

    As a mother, of a young black man, recently graduated from college, the conversations about the world we live in did not begin with the verdict of that trial or any other. They began at his entrance to school and are ongoing. I did not allow him to go for his evening jogs after news of the incident and had nightmares about my baby (who is 21). Like all of the other times throughout his life, the nightmares have subsidded but what can I do instead? Thank you for the resources. I will read them and thank you for the post!

  7. Shawnda says:

    I appreciate this.

  8. Shawnda says:

    Reblogged this on Get Up & Walk, Ride, or Fly and commented:
    A good read on race relations in America from the point of view of parenting white children.

  9. seanasbury says:

    Jennifer – interesting read and well done!

    It’s telling that one major reason we cannot have this frank conversations with our kids is that most white adults raised in the post-Civil Rights era have been fed the same lines. We were raised with the two mantras you’re citing — everyone is equal, we’re all the same under the skin. I think this is particularly telling when it comes to adult perspective on racism. A significant number of white friends truly are unable to see active, or even latent, racism in our society. The Martin/Zimmerman issue is a case in point.

    I’ve a slightly different perspective as mine is a multiracial family (white, black, Asian). Race, and the expectations by others for our children, were always issues to be dealt with. Sharing that perspective with other white adults who are convinced that racism no longer exists is often either impossible (at worst) or extremely difficult (at best).

    • I think there’s a ton to be expressed, learned, shared by/from/with multi-racial families….especially (given my own experiences and passion) in regard to how white members of such families learn race and what they learn so differently (kids and parents) and deeply in contrast to whites in all-white families. I am acutely aware of how much my thinking and analysis is formed by reading/study/work in regard to the black/white binary–which leaves out a ton of families. Would love to hear more about experiences likes yours. Thanks.

      • seanasbury says:

        We have a unique perspective as our blended family has two white parents with children from former spouses, one black, the other ethnically Chinese. I think it just makes us a little more sensitized to issues that impact our children than if they were just white. For instance, my daughter (half Chinese) dealt with the stereotype of “oh, you’re Chinese – you must be smart.” For two of my sons, we took pains to explain to them what to do in the event they were caught DWB. Where to put their hands, how to engage with a police officer, etc. Seems ridiculous that we would ever need to have that conversation coming from a white perspective. Fortunately for us, we live in an ethnically diverse, suburban area that at least on its surface is a welcoming environment. When our boys were teenagers it seemed as though every weekend our house was the designated sleepover spot for their friends – black, white, you name it. I’m not sure if that was simply a reflection of the diversity of our community or if it was because we fostered a race-neutral attitude at home and they were empowered to make friends with anyone and everyone regardless of race.

        It was interesting watching their own sense of identity change as they grew up. My oldest son began describing himself as black (even though his mother is white and he was raised with white parents). Neither of our “black” sons have “dark” skin. Watching him going through his own identity struggle was interesting for me – since I had no particular insight or wisdom to offer. Same can be said for my daughter and her own identity of being Chinese. (Interestingly, the younger siblings from both 1st marriages did not verbalize similar identity issues).

        Maybe this is a unique issue for biracial, or multiracial, children must deal with that does not impact children of a dominant race…

  10. Ron says:

    Very well written. I would put the ‘we are all colorblind’ phrase also in your article. As an African American, I know very few white people who get it. Check out my latest blog article ‘Why I Am Not Interested in a National Conversation on Race.’

    • Absolutely agreed….”we are all colorblind” would easily be a third phrase I would to strike. Will definitely check out your blog. Thanks.

    • Lulu says:

      When you refer to yourself as African American and refer to me as white people..that’s racist. When you are African American, I am European American. When I am white, you are black.

      • Just to be clear….I am white. So I am referring to myself with white. And, while I believe strongly that African American is a unique cultural identity that Blacks have created over many decades/centuries on this land base (so it is recognizable as a cultural identity category), I do not believe white Americans have done the same (YET anyway : ) I have hopes). So I don’t see “European American” as a meaningful construction. That’s just me. We can disagree. But, I definitely (even if we disagree about THAT) reject the idea that it’s racist to not use parallel terms. Unless you and I have very different definitions of racism, I guess. But, again, your comments sounds like you don’t realize I’m white. I am and so that’s the term I use for me.

      • Susan says:

        Jennifer, I think Lulu was referring to Ron, but either way, your response is spot on (at least from my perspective).

      • Jocelyn says:

        Just to be clear, a black person referring to himself as African American, and u white is NOT racism. It may annoy you that some blacks prefer to identify themselves that way but unless you WANT to be called European American (do u?) then how is it racist not to call u something u don’t even want to be called? I also worry that the true meaning of racism is becoming distorted and trivialized. Petty disputes r disagreements are being called racism even when theyre not and people are casually throwing the word around just to one up their opponent. It’s demeaning and disrespectful to those who have truly experienced racism in its rawest, ugliest form and lived to tell about it.

      • Karen says:

        Jocelyn, I am white, and I absolutely agree with you. Racism= discrimination+power.

      • sarahjaneb says:

        So you think all white people are of primarily European origin? Look, you can refer to *yourself* as European American if you are indeed European American, but when you refer to other white people, either as a whole or white individuals of unknown ethnicity/national origin, it’s better to use the more general term “white.” It would in fact be offensive to refer to all white people as European American.

      • sarahjaneb says:

        So you think all white people are of primarily European origin? Look, you can refer to *yourself* as European American if you are indeed European American, but when you refer to other white people, either as a whole or a group of white individuals of unknown ethnicity/national origin, it’s better to use the more general term “white.” It would in fact be offensive to refer to all white people as European American.

  11. Manisha says:

    Good article and I agree with the overall message but fear of interracial (and/or religion) dating is not just a problem for white people. Coming from a family with many backgrounds (also black, white, south asian) I’ve seen tensions from all sides on this issue. Many people who claim to subscribe to the ‘everyone is equal’ mantra have a problem with someone from a different background joining the family. You see this happen a lot with black-brown relationships. My approach would be to emphasize that everyone is unique and has something to offer the world, and to also challenge people to dig deeper when you feel an initial tinge of fear or uncertainty when meeting someone who comes from a very different background. Everyone experiences that feeling sometimes, ranging from outright fear to fear of just pronouncing names wrong…the challenge is to examine where it’s coming from and figuring out how to confront and address that feeling. This discussion can’t happen in isolation, whites doing one thing, blacks another, etc, we need to engage in it together, practice connecting and interacting with one another or it’s all a meaningless theoretical exercise (especially for children). Have your children experience interacting with different people, try different foods, learn about different histories and think about how to preserve, celebrate, and transform your own while doing this. Kids from minority families have to do this all the time with white american culture and some white families do this, but many minority families don’t do this with other minority cultures.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Try identifying/describing others according to hair colour rather than skin colour. Hair colour can be changed.
    I grew up in a “white” community in the 50’s and 60’s. But when I look at my kindergarten class photo, there’ an Asian girl, a couple of East Indians, a West indian boy, three carrot tops with masses of freckles, one kid with glasses, one with warts, a few of the blondest, fairest, almost albino children, and me, a brunette with deeply tanned olive skin after a summer outdoors, and English roots.
    We were either blondes, brunettes, or redheads. Some of the blondes were so pale they were almost translucent. I remember being a little unnerved by their colourless hair.
    After a few winters on Canada, everyone has white skin.

  13. Michelle T. Johnson says:

    Freaking love this!!!!!! Will refer to it in my Diversity Diva column at some point AND at the school where I work. (And I despise the term “color blind” with the heat of a thousands suns.)

  14. Sharan says:

    I so much appreciate this thoughtful blog post and the comments (other than the one comment by someone who seems to be in denial of, or confused about, what constitutes racism–but maybe the encounter with your article will yet have a positive effect). Thanks for sharing your insights!

  15. ggbolt16 says:

    Reblogged this on Reflections of a Pastor Couple and commented:
    The topic of race and how we talk about it has been at the forefront of my mind recently. As a white man and a parent of small children I think this will help.

  16. ggbolt16 says:

    Reblogged at Reflections of a Pastor Couple

    The topic of race and how we talk about it has been at the forefront of my mind recently. As a white man and a parent of small children I think this will help.

  17. Jessica says:

    Thank you for this! my 3 y.o white son ( I’m latina, but he looks white) started a new daycare, and there was a black little girl, he pointed at her and said ” she’s black” and then went off to play, the little girl didn’t seem to notice but I felt uncomfortable and had one of those moments of not knowing what to do- so I just ignored the whole situation- what would you suggest I say to my son, should he do this again, we live in a very muticultural neighborhood so I was surprised he said this at such a young age- your thoughts would be much appreciated.

    • You know, I don’t know if my intuitions are the right ones…and if others can comment here they should chime in….BUT, my response in that situation would probably just have been “yes, she is” in an authentically supportive tone (not much different than when a three-year-old notices anything else about anything else in the world). In my experience it’s easy for us to import our feelings of discomfort onto what our young, young kids are saying…and it may very well be that he is noticing, and knowing the language for (which is good!) race because he IS in a multicultural neighborhood. I would certainly not assume at ALL that there was anything negative underlying that very 3-year-old observation. Obviously the larger context of his life, in which he gets a ton of messages about race and difference, matters to what these kinds of observations end up holding within them….so as parents we have to so attend to these as well. But, that would be my impulse in that very normal 3-year-old scene. I have had my daughters (who are 2 and 4) on occasion, say similar things–it hasn’t happened in the presence of the person they were talking about (like “mama, my friend so-and-so has dark skin)–and I have said things like “yep, there are so many different shades of skin, isn’t that cool?” and they have books, dolls, toys, etc. with the range of skin, hair, gender, body types…..and so part of our thoughts (again, I’m no expert on this…I’m a parent figuring this out with young ones too!) have been to just support their observations and try really hard to affirm that we are difference and noticing difference is part of what people do…..and as they get older those messages of course will get more direct in regard to history, and community, and equality (i.e., I know my four year old soon will need to know why MLK Jr had to do what he did, for example). I don’t know if that helps, but my main point here is that it’s easy for us to put our discomfort on our kids, when in fact we WANT them to not only notice difference (even if, of course, we don’t want them doing it so loudly at age 8 as they do at age 3!! : ) ) but to not think there is something “bad” about that. Because they will transpose the “bad” of noticing onto the possibility that there’s something “bad” about the thing they are noticing (which if it’s darker skin we obviously do NOT want)…..IF others are reading this please chime in with your agreements/disagreements/experience!!

    • Susan says:

      Perhaps, something like, “Yes, she is,” followed by something complimentary about her, e.g. “She’s pretty.” “She looks like a lot of fun.” “What a cute t-shirt.” “She reminds me of [someone he knows]. And finally, a suggestion to get to know her, i.e. “Why don’t you go over and tell her your name.” Etc.

  18. @Cindy Alderman I did not see where the author was blaming whites for racism. My interpretation of the article is that white children are not properly prepared to understand, discuss and hopefully change racism. Please note there is a difference between racism and bigotry. Racism is a system that puts policies and laws in place that prevent certain classes of people from having the same rights and privileges as the select group. Calling me names is not racism it’s bigotry.
    That said the point I wanted to make is that black parents face challenges in the racism discussion too. My daughter learned about slavery before she was five and as I answered her questions over a period of time I realized that my answers could unintentionally leading her to hate all white people. I had to explain to her that we cannot hold people that we meet and know nothing about personally responsible for what their forefathers did. I explained that each person that she allows close to her should be judged on their character, their moral compass and how they treat her. If that person happens to be black, brown, white, green, yellow it does not matter. BUT I don’t sweep it under the rug that racism exists and that she will face many challenges because she is BLACK, FEMALE and AN IMMIGRANT. We don’t serve sugar in our household…..We are preparing her for the future…to make a difference.

  19. Gloria says:

    I am a white woman who attended an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). I had always thought myself pretty open-minded even before entering a program of study there. It was about two years in, in a class outside my program of study, when a university professor who had been (still was) a civil rights activist kept saying things that felt like putting white people down–with the pain of her experience clearly upon her–that I had a certain ah-ha moment. I tentatively raised my hand to say something because I felt somewhat assailed by her talking, and I spoke. In response, another girl in class raised her hand to speak, and was the one to respond to me. She was from Africa, and spoke about her experience of racism directed at her from the majority students on campus. Somehow in that exchange, I was freed of the burden I didn’t know I’d been carrying. It was life-changing to be freed of that burden. I have deep cross-cultural (hmm, I typed that while envisioning cross-racial) friendships. Anyone who wants to work on building bridges across invisible lines can do no better than diving in and making friends on the other shore. Parents who want their children to have more understanding that “we’re all the same under the skin” could allow an acquaintanceship with someone of whom they talk equality to flourish into a friendship of equals and build a bridge that their children could easily walk over. Walk the talk. Good Luck!

  20. Karla Huntsman says:

    I completely agree with what you are saying. My husband and I are white, our children are either full- or part-African American. I spoke once at a training workshop for potential adoptive parents about the unique challenges of raising Black children, particularly given the fact that my husband and I do not know what it is like to be Black. After I spoke, the next speaker was a father of biological (White) children and two adopted (Black) sons. He seemed dismissive of the comments I had made about race and discovery, and he said “There is absolutely no difference between raising White kids and Black kids. It is all the same.”

    I felt sorry for his children. I wondered, and still wonder, if they will be nervous about going to their parents when they encounter the inevitable prejudice, racism, and patronizing attitudes that occur in the real world, like it or not. Will they feel obligated to create the facade of “it doesn’t matter” because that is what their dad wants? Will they be confused when they realize that to much of the world, like it or not, it DOES matter?

    I understand that this dad was simply trying to say that in day-to-day life, kids are kids. However, I hope that all potential adoptive couples realize that when they choose transracial adoption, there are important things to learn and consider about the reality that is our world. I would love for race not to matter. I have learned that it does matter. My goal is for my kids to be able to talk about their experiences as a minority with us whenever they need to (they have) and to reach out to others that share their race in order to learn and grow (they do).

  21. My 5 year old biological firstborn son still doesn’t see color. He’s caucasion and his adopted 4 month old sister is african american. I think it is off hand comments by parents or siblings that get preschoolers saying biased things. A couple of my sons friends have said things about the “baby is different” and my son always seems confused by that. Also, he saw a hospital picture of a friend of mine (caucasian) and he thought it was his sisters biological mothers hospital picture. I say things every now and then about how beautiful and brown his sister is, etc etc so he knows what the heck has been going on the whole time when his friends get persistent about it. But I am appalled at the blatant racism in my community. The stares, the wanting to touch her because she’s a novelty, (um, she’s my daughter!), overly sappy comments to prove they’re not racist…ugh. I had no idea it still existed before I adopted 😦

    • Karla Huntsman says:

      I watched my kids go through their recognition of color in stages. The preschoolers don’t see skin color as a major difference…simply as different as the child with brown hair versus the child with blonde hair. I totally understand what you mean when you say that your five year old doesn’t see color. This is why it is so crucial for parents of any race or ethnicity to talk to their kids about race in the most natural way possible. We feel uncomfortable referring to racial differences but this is a learned behavior. The more we talk about race from the time our kids are young, the more comfortable we will be having the conversation later. As my children have grown, I have watched them come to a realization that skin color is a unique difference and that they belong to a group called “Black.” At first, about ages 6 to 11, they wish that they looked like us and the majority of kids that they know. In adolescence they start to embrace who they are and realize that they are unique and special…that their racial identity is something to be proud of.

      Funny story…when our oldest was a toddler we attended a church service in an area that is exclusively white. I did not see a nonwhite person in the entire congregation. My son tried to play with a little girl about the age of three that was sitting next to us. The little girl recoiled and said to her mom “don’t let the little boy touch me, he is all dirty!” Her mom was mortified. But I get it…this kid isn’t racist, she just had no idea that people of color existed.

    • @Lacey — I think there’s a difference between noticing the difference in skin color and assigning the meanings society holds for them. My son is 5 and has a 1-year-old Black sister from the DRC. Oliver clearly sees that she is a different color (Brown, he says), though he’s much more likely to comment on her black and curly hair (he’s a towhead). He says she should be Princess Tiana when they play princesses (something we talk about, that she could be other princesses). So he does notice, but he just doesn’t see it as a big deal. It’s not noteworthy. It doesn’t mean anything. It just is. He doesn’t make the connection and he and his middle sister are White because I gave birth to them (with their White father) and Zola is Black and was born to another mother and father. Research shows that kids usually notice difference — including skin color (which is not the same as race, of course) — around the age of 4, but if they’re growing up in a diverse community, it may just not be of note yet.

  22. Keir says:

    Okay…. Well I’ve always told my daughter that WERE ALL DIFFERENT. We all have different needs and we all are worthy of others respect – until it’s proven to not be deserved,
    I wonder if black parents impart the old same mantra: ” we’re all equal…”
    The discussion about discrimination due to race, religion, gender, sexuality has often been had in our house. But, I also tell my daughter it’s a line you walk between tolerance and understanding.
    You need both. However, if others different from you show you disrespect and discriminate against you- walk away. There are many others who won’t be that way.

  23. Kirk Severs says:

    As a Christ follower, I believe that there is just ONE race, the human race, with many cultural expressions and ethnicities. I also believe that there are white racists, black racists, hispanic or brown racists and asian racists. There’s probably every kind of racist in every people group in the world. The families that make race THE issue seem to see everything through those glasses, and have problems with people who are ‘not like them’. The same is true with people who NEVER talk about differences and seem to never walk to discuss the issue with their kids, walking on egg shells their entire formative years, hoping that their kids won’t notice…they have problems with people who are ‘not like them’.

    Whenever any child is raised with thinking about any group of people en mass or as a whole, individuals are erased and all people in that group are painted with a broad brush. This is wrong! Every person is a unique creation of my Heavenly Father, and I strive to treat each person as such. Just because I haven’t been exposed to any prejudice doesn’t mean I can’t understand ‘racism’. Whatever flavor any person has, there is always someone who is not like them. The families that create an ‘us vs. them’ way of thinking, probably start out doing it thinking they are showing their kids they are special or unique, but what it creates is Monsters who are socially retarded, and treat the ‘others’ with disdain, sadly.

  24. Trella says:

    I referenced your article on my homeschooling site – http://wecanhomeschool.com/prejudice-and-homeschooling-what-are-we-teaching/. Thank you so much for sharing such a provocative evaluation on how we address race and other differences. This is a long overdue discussion.

  25. Mini says:

    From this, I felt a sense of empowerment knowing that more open discussions regarding race and ethnicity can happen so that it’s not so discomforting when the subject is brought up. It helped me think about how I formed my own views growing up and hopefully cultural/racial/ethnic competence and gaining a comfortable sense of myself and others helps pick up where it may have been left off in childhood – I mentor youth and this would be a great asset for anyone to have (and society in general). This was awesome 🙂

  26. ChinaMamainMD says:

    Thank you for this thought provoking piece. As a white woman raising a Chinese child, I have thought about these issues and need to think about them more. Your point about the harm we do by minimizing differences that are obvious to our children, thereby implying that there is something “wrong” or “shameful” about them, applies to disability as well. It’s much more helpful to honestly acknowledge the difference, answer the questions, and then share ways in which we are similar than to avert your eyes and pretend the difference isn’t there. So if your child sees my child and wants to know “what are those things on her ears” or “why doesn’t she talk” or “why is she doing that with her hands,” please don’t say “inside we’re all the same.” Let her ask me! IAnd I think I speak for most parents of children iwth disabilities and for many adults with disabilities as well)

  27. A Critic says:

    People identify me as white because of my skin color…I identify only as myself.

    Why should I care about race?

    Why should I tell my kids to care about race?

    • sarahjaneb says:

      Your questions are already answered in the post. If it’s too long or complicated for you to read, here’s a summation: You should care about race because as long as racism still exists, people who do not want to be racists need to pay attention to race as well. Cliche but true – If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem. And ignoring the problem surely doesn’t make you part of the solution.

  28. “The Jig is Up: We Are One! – Race is a Hoax that FAILS American Education (race based bell curve testing” is the only source that provides the ‘truth’ about race and racism and the ignorance and arrogance that has turned America into a third-world society of the 1% and 99% who still believe that skin color grants superiority or inferiority – there is a remedy for this – restart education in America based on teaching and learning!!! http://www.restarteducation.com – when everyone knows the truth about race and racism – that phrase, ‘we are all equal’ will have merit, based on facts – not ignorance!!! – if you really want to do something about this ‘problem’ that has destroyed this country, please check out my blog at: thejigisupblog.wordpress.com – thanks, Johnnie P. Mitchell

    • eecoggins says:

      Thank you for your voice of sanity. What I hear people saying in this forum is that we should indeed acknowledge and differentiate according to physical features. My response is that we should educate, and differentiate only according to the things people can change like the colour of their socks.
      We know that the way to prevent graffiti in washrooms is to paint over the first attempts immediately. Designating a specific graffiti area in the washroom is the same as giving carte blanche. Similarly, while insisting that we are all equal may seem like whitewashing, it encourages us to at least consider the possibility that we are equal in the ways that count.
      My great grandmother was Cockney. she had a wonderfully colourful expression: He’s just like anyone else. He has legs right up to his bum. I suggest that equality under the skin is both an old concept and a cross-cultural/multi issue one. Further the concept of common law supports this, as do the origins of the major religions.
      Education is the basis of understanding and managing the world around us. Beat the drum!

  29. anonymous says:

    I think you’d appreciate this book: http://beyondinclusionbeyondempowerment.com/
    It gives a great description about moving from “everyone is equal” to using skills of awareness and allyship.

    Thanks for your post

  30. black/first nation teacher says:

    I enjoyed this article. This past semester one of the assignments that I gave to my middle school students was to observe and write about the racial, gener and beauty stereotypes in television fairytales. The learning was supposed to be fun, engaging and eye-opening. I was surprised at the reaction of the white parents stating that this was a subject that their kids, “Were not ready for” while the black parents were very intrigued by the subject . It wasn’t the gender that made the white parents and students uncomfortable but the mention of race. I was surprised because these parents were liberal in their views of homosexuality and gay marriage so I assumed that the “we all deserve the same rights” mantra veered into race as well. I was wrong.

  31. I have found that most folks never have this deep conversation that you are exploring here. Part of the issue here is that it is not a question of race. There is only one race. The question is about cultural differences and our understanding of them. It is also about understanding economic differences and (more importantly) the difference in perspectives based on being a population minority versus being the majority. I think this a great discussion for everyone.

  32. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for the article! It was really interesting and something I have been thinking about for a while. I married a Brazilian who has a darker skin color. I was raised in southern VA where it is unheard of to date interracially. It was really hard for my family and if I am being honest, for me too! Only in the sense I felt like I was disappointing my family. We are thinking of starting a family this year…I was talking to my Mom about it and I couldn’t believe she said that she hoped that the baby’s were more my skin color. But even getting deeper…what if my babies have a darker skin color? We live in Brazil right now, but I’m afraid for when we move back to the US…I don’t want my children to be discriminated against. I’m scared they won’t “have a place” since they won’t be “white” but they won’t be “black” either. I guess these fears too come from what I saw when I was in school. I hope that we are better able to educate our children reading these types of articles, it is certainly needed. I know that I feel “panic” if I need to discuss race in an open forum…and this again comes from the mentality that I grew up with…it exists, but we don’t talk about it because “everyone is equal”…

    • Adelphasium says:

      Stephanie, if you’re in a position to consider different locations within the US, if you do some research you can find certain neighborhoods where there are a lot of biracial and binational couples raising kids and your family will fit in naturally — although you will still face the racism of the US as a whole. My family is all white but we are lucky enough to live in one of these neighborhoods (Hyde Park in Chicago), so my daughter has friends of many races and nationalities at school and knows a lot of interracial families.

      I think eliminating residential segregation is the only way to move past the problem described in the blog entry (which I loved). I can’t entirely erase the messages I received as a child, but I can put my daughter in a place where she will get a new message because she is not surrounded exclusively by white people as she grows up. Naturally because of the composition of the school, they started talking about civil rights and racial justice and injustice in kindergarten. She is very passionate about the subject and doesn’t seem to feel self-conscious about it as white adults usually do.You have to make a real effort to live somewhere integrated, though, because segregation is still the norm in this country.

  33. Joan in Oakland says:

    Love this piece and I do need to say that there are white families who address race earlier (yes, I know that 17 is no 100%). I just want to share this story. My 3 year old daughter and I lived in downtown Oakland the weekend of the Rodney King riots. Not wanting to spend a whole weekend locked in the house with my daughter, I called a friend in Tahoe and headed up there. Midway was a Chevy’s sign in Auburn – perfect stop for lunch. As we were eating, I watched my daughter’s wheels in her head keep turning, you know the look they get when they’re trying to figure something out. Finally, she looked and me and asked “Mommy, why is everybody here white?” I had not noticed but she was right. Thus began our discussion about why people of different colors live in different places. On another note, as I haven’t read all the comments so pardon me if I repeat myself, the Southern Poverty Law Center has a great program called Teaching Tolerance with free materials for teachers and others at http://www.tolerance.org/. They are also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TeachingTolerance.org. Thank you for this!

  34. Dear Jennifer – I wanted to tell you that I shared your letter on my intersectional feminist page on Facebook (Femina Invicta) and in the feminist group (in Hebrew) that I manage… And got a HUGE response. My colleagues in activism and many others here in Israel/Occupied Palestine identified hugely with your text, and found it very appropriate (with some obvious cultural difference) to our own situation regarding ethnic and racial dialog. One brave soul even translated it to Hebrew (with necessary adaptations to “here”). This is the link. Even though it’s in Hebrew, I thought you might like to know that you made international waves. Thank you for this series of posts!

    http://glitteringandrebelling.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/%d7%90%d7%a9%d7%9b%d7%a0%d7%96%d7%99%d7%9d-%d7%99%d7%a7%d7%a8%d7%99%d7%9d-%d7%91%d7%a0%d7%95%d7%92%d7%a2-%d7%9c%d7%99%d7%9c%d7%93%d7%99%d7%9b%d7%9d/

  35. Fatefox says:

    I don’t know if this helps, but I’m white/hispanic, my bff is irish/ukranian, and I live in a minority neighborhood. My friend was helping out at a local theater, where an adorable african-american girl kept staring at my friend (who is very pale). When the girl (who couldn’t have been more than 4)mustered up the courage to talk to her, she asked my friend what color she was. My quick-thinking friend hunkered down and gently turned the girls arm over palm-up, put her own arm next to her, and said “people colored”. The girl got the biggest smile and skipped away. We’re all people colored.

  36. Michelle says:

    Very important topic to discuss! Just teaching the sugarcoated mantra of “everyone is equal” doesn’t prepare kids for racism that is very real and prominent in our world.
    I grew up in a very liberal area with very liberal parents. My mom was not an American citizen (although she is white), my aunt is adopted and black, my mom’s best is a lesbian and also my elementary art teacher, my elementary dance teacher was gay, and I went to a bilingual elementary school that taught English and Spanish and most of my teachers were Spanish. It seemed like a conversation about race wasn’t needed. I actually didn’t see any racism growing up (there was plenty of mean things I heard but nothing to do with race) and so unfortunately, I didn’t really understand that it existed. I remember in high school I was walking in the hall with my openly gay friend (ok, this isn’t racism but it’s applicable) and someone yelled “FAG!” at him. I was absolutely stunned. I honestly didn’t think that happened. That was the first time I had a real conversation with my friend about what it was like for him to struggle with being openly gay in high school. Unfortunately, I was so sheltered by this “everyone is equal” environment that I grew up in (which was beautiful, but unfortunately, does not represent the world we live in), that I had never before empathized or talked with people I was friends with who maybe had encountered racism or prejudice. I didn’t understand it. I hadn’t realized that there IS a problem with prejudice against race, creed and sexual orientation and it almost feels overwhelming now as an adult to see. It is important to educate young kids that racism is very real and show them how to have open conversations about race in order to nurture a better understanding of individual struggles and what is needed to move forward.
    Thank you for this article.

  37. Linda Owen says:

    I think one easy way to start a conversation, or just make a somewhat different impact, is to read to your white children picture books that feature black children. Books like The Snowy Day and and the others about Peter (by Ezra Jack Keats) show universal experiences in which the character happen to be black. Also the easy readers about Messy Bessey by McKissack. And I love Mr. Henry Baker. When you want to initiate conversations about the history, try Henry’s Box or Someplace Special or White Socks Only. Ask your librarian for suggestions. Libraries are full of books that show children of many different backgrounds.

  38. lbryldy says:

    One easy suggestion: read to your children from birth books with children who look different than they do. If you are reading to white children, you might begin with Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, and his other stories about Peter. These picture books detail ordinary childhood experiences with a main character who happens to be black. For those easy readers, Messy Bessey books by Patricia McKissack. When you are ready to discuss the history, look for titles like White Shoes Only, Henry’s Box, and Goin’ Somewhere Special. Ask your librarian for suggestions; library shelves are filled with titles with diverse characters. I wouldn’t make a special deal about it, but reading books together is always a way to start discussions about many things. As your children grow, there will continue to be excellent titles for all ages and reading levels that will naturally bring the experiences of others to them, and they are never too old for you to read along, or to, and simultaneously with them.

  39. Olrac says:

    If every white person on the planet checked their privilege and recognized the challenges that all black people face, eradicated the “N” word from existence, and comprehensively punished all offenders of discrimination- Please, someone, offer what steps will follow to actually solve the catastrophic problems that so many poor black people face in this country. You’re right that “equal on the inside” is vapid and meaningless. You’re right that white people have more privilege than black people in this country. But do you sincerely think that white people recognizing race is going to anything to curb the 73% rate of fatherlessness in black families? The terrifyingly massive rate of black on black murder? Gang violence? Dependence upon welfare and SSI? You’re offering a solution for white people to feel better about themselves, as most white people always have since the Civil Rights Movement and the catastrophe of the Great Society. The recognition of race isn’t a gateway, it’s an empty gesture, as it always has been and always will be until we start making physical and strategic steps towards alleviating the social and economic plights of poor black communities. It’s not about how you “feel” about your whiteness, it is about the CLASS that you represent. The class distinctions between most white people and black people has been muddied by guilty feelings over race, and it keeps the problem perpetuated. STOP TALKING ABOUT RACE AND START TALKING ABOUT CLASS. Offer a solution to real problems, not awkward feelings. You’re providing literally nothing of substance to this regurgitated conversation. Maybe you’ll get to sell a book or get tenure or something with your ability to make white people aware of how lucky they are. Good on you.

  40. inkycellist says:

    YES. Kids (AND adults) need to be re educated regarding race and viewing it rather than the, as you call it, ‘sugar’ being fed to them.
    I am not a parent, but I have seen when I’ve shared a stressful issue regarding racial tension Id experienced to a close friend (who was NOT my color, but white.), she would just go on and on how nice to her that group of people are. Now, as Im glad that my friend is treated well by they, I feel as though she dismissed me if not denied my conflict. I never expected her to agree with me that _______ people hate _____people; just to have some sort of friend-compassion for how I felt.

    This conflict transcends white people. Ive heard other Japanese people do this as well. where the response to an unpleasant example of inequality is met with “it didn’t happen to me”, or ignored.
    Japanese families do not ‘sugarcoat,’ they just never address. which is something I wish would change. Myself being half Japanese, Ive found myself treated unfairly even by other Japanese people, including times where I’d be ignored while pay for a gig (playing in a Japanese ensemble) was handed out, and even if I was in the front waiting, i’d be paid last every time. Or my chair was always coughed up and I was expected to fend for myself. and Im sure others saw it, but because it didn’t happen to them, it was ok to let it slide.
    It often makes me ashamed of my heritage, and causes me to avoid identity to people like this.

  41. oldteacher says:

    Years ago my son and friends went on a “Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn” canoe trip in “white land” (my sons are white). They woke up having drifted with the tide and realized they were lost. They came upon a dock and asked “Chris” in the bow of the canoe to climb out and approach the house to ask for directions so they could call me. “Chris” stated “Oh, hell no…..I’m not getting my black ass shot sneaking up on the dock to ask a rich white guy for directions”……per my son….this comment was met with silence…..and then sadness……and then embarrassment as one of the white kids climbed over him onto the dock. BEST LESSON IN THE WORLD! We talked about it later…..my son had NO idea that was the world his friend “Chris” lived in……

  42. Susan R. says:

    I’ve just about had it with all this “race talk”. I’m sick to death of being made to feel ashamed for being white. I’m white and I’m proud to be so. Just as if I were Black, Asian, Indian, or whatever… I would be proud to be so. Stop attacking people just because they are not what you think they should be. The more attention to give to the subject of “race” the more you feed/fuel the fire.

  43. Amy says:

    Maybe it’s where we live or because i happen to have two blond haired, blue-eyed children, but i NEVER hear how their type/color of features are beautiful or preferred.
    It seems that everywhere I look, the new “standard of beauty” is tan, honey or chocolate colored skin, brown hair, dark eyes. (nevermind, that the “darker” is what I prefer IN GENERAL)
    I am sad for any child/person that gets treated poorly bc of what their exterior looks like.
    I worry that, while I know she is beautiful, people will not fuss over my pale, blond daughter whose eyes are dark blue, not CLEAR blue, because from what i see, it’s not socially acceptable anymore to praise someone that fair as beautiful for fear that you will be considered racist for saying so.
    The few times my child has commented on someone’s hair, skin, eyes, voice, gender, etc being different from his own, I respond “everyone is different; cool, huh?”, as opposed to “everyone is equal” because i think the fact that we are all so different is more notable and preferred to us all being the “same”.
    I think everyone (probably mostly whites) is so scared of being labeled as racist against people of “color”, that they are shunning previous “standards of beauty” –racist standards; ONLY valuing fair, blond,and blue eyes– going to the other extreme.
    Until that ends, there will always be prejudice/racism. We need to note that all people are different, not all the same….

    • sarahjaneb says:

      Amy, I’m having a little trouble following what you’re saying. What exactly do you mean when you say you worry that people won’t fuss over your daughter? Are you saying you think it would be awful if people didn’t constantly tell her she’s beautiful? Because that’s how I’m reading it, but I know that can’t possibly be right.

  44. Cindy Alderman says:

    May I say that I find this write-up to be racist in and of itself. To say that whites are the cause of racism is simply a lie. Racism comes in many colors and is just as revolting.

  45. avignon says:

    Curiously, my feelings on the article were similar to Cindy Alderman’s. And again I suggest identifying by hair colour and forget about skin. Much of the racism I have seen/experienced originated from new immigrants who brought their prejudices about their own culture with them; or from working in developing countries where within a given family a light skinned child is given a bigger portion of meat. Literate, educated, well-read people are the same the world over. The opposite is also true. The issue is NOT racism, it’s literacy.

  46. Jocelyn says:

    I didn’t see where the author said that Cindy. What was said was that a lot of white children are taught a system of race denial. Pretending you don’t see it seems to be a way of avoiding difficult, yet necessary conversations. While its not the only source for poor race relations in this country, it’s a large one. Denial of race (and racism) throughout the 80’s and 90’s led the country into a false sense of a “post racial society”…one that I might add is currently blowing up in our faces. It may have led a well meaning person to misread an article and come to the conclusion that whites are being blamed for all racism when clearly the article didn’t say that at all..

  47. Tricia says:

    It’s easy to get offended considering how frequent whites are blamed in the media these days, but I don’t think she said that exactly. She is just noting that the made up action plan is flawed and i agree! The fact is we were given this circumstance when we were born into this time, just like any other issue we face today it is what it is. I wasn’t personally responsible for the pattern but I don’t mind. If I was born in another time I might have faced hunger, bloodier wars, disease, and we may still, but race(among other things)is the deal now. So I don’t think you have to take up politically correct arms and fight this irritating war, but being hyper sensitive wont aid in what others are after. I want to strip not only this phrase but a good deal of the politically correct sensitivity. How can a diverse group of people ever unite if we are always too afraid to offend and always on the defense. With all the dialog against us I cannot help but wonder if we are being manipulated by the media to keep us divided. Whites of today are not to blame, every race has a part, this article is about the part whites play.

  48. inkycellist says:

    Even folks 2nd or 3rd generation to their immigrant relatives sometimes carry the same beef that their grandparents had, even if they never directly experienced it.
    A lot of that is often displayed between Asian-Americans.
    I’m not saying that everyone does this, or that they’re the only group who do this, I point this out from personal experience and identity.

  49. avignon says:

    Come on folks, think bigger. When the group we belong to is “the human race” (not the black race, the brown race, the white race, the yellow race, the red race, the retarded race…) everyone is a member of the club. It’s true, in Area 51 we may wish to expand this to “members of the universal race”. But differentiating colour is reinventing an already excellent round wheel with square proportions.
    Here’s Edwin Markham at the turn of the century:
    He drew a circle that shut me out.
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But love and I had the wit to win,
    we drew a circle that took him in.
    So, let’s leave off with exclusive colour clubs. Instead let’s talk about melanin, geography and Vitamin D absorption, and educate our children at a more sophisticated level. Great thinkers, politicians and writers have been encouraging us to do so for generations.

  50. Shanna Johnson says:

    This approach would work really well if the only problem was our children accidentally learning to fear people of different colors or even hate people with different colored skin, but the truth is that there is a lot of system wide and cultural discrimination against people with darker skin. Sure you can be “enlightened” about how you talk to your children and then they will be completely blind-sided when they encounter real racism or worse they will think it doesn’t actually exist.

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