When I heard R tell M that her doll’s skin was the color of poop, I flinched. Anger and embarrassment and worry washed over me one after the other. M held her dark-skinned, rainbow-dreaded mermaid doll in her white arms and looked at R. For the first time, I told my three-year-old daughter “That was a mean thing to say.”
I said it because in that moment it felt as if R’s words were intentionally hurtful.
With a feeling akin to looking for a light switch in a dark room, I launched into a lecture (what 3-year-old doesn’t love those?) about why it wasn’t ok to compare skin color to poop.
R quietly listened and I became increasingly flustered. I stuttered as I realized I was heading toward the “us” and “them” dichotomy. I backtracked. I wanted to talk about how skin color both has been and is used to judge, manipulate, control, and subjugate but I could only think of language that made loose reference to cruelty and ended with something like “That’s why it’s especially important to be kind when we talk about other people’s skin color. And our skin color. All skin color!”
Saying simple sounding words that have become charged with meaning, even “black,” “brown,” and “white” had freaked me out. Which were the right words to use?! Had I said everything wrong? Before this moment, I’d thought of myself as a person who had a respectable grasp of racial issues, but this talk had quickly devolved into what felt like a hot mess and as it plummeted, so did my own sense of self.
Talking about race fills me with all kinds of anxiety because it seems like so often, people get angry, critical, and dismissive of others. For a little while I’d hoped that as long as the girls saw our friendships with people of many racial backgrounds and we showed our belief in equality through our words and actions, we’d have a good foundation to build from when the girls were older.
Yet it turns out that children notice and question skin color readily, so when parents don’t talk about race, a much bigger conclusion is drawn. Kids understand that it is not to be spoken of and they keep their own decisions or assumptions about race silent. I’ve been giving the girls messages about their world since they were born, talking about the grass they feel under their feet or the colors of paint they use, counting toys together, talking about different family structures and teaching them social etiquette (so they know when to ignore it) but I have rarely pointed out different skin colors or encouraged discussion about it.
Meeting with the girls’ teachers and awkwardly sharing my concerns was helpful because they reminded me that the girls were at an age developmentally where they were learning to classify, to group things based on appearance. R had meant nothing insulting in her comparison; as with many of their peers, poop is a popular topic with M and R. Chocolate is also the same color as poop, and so is my hair. Because I didn’t understand that R was piecing together similarities in her world, and because I’m already sensitive to the topic, it sounded to me like an epithet burst from my young daughter’s mouth. The girls’ teachers recommended some resources to help us begin building a vocabulary around race and ethnicity. Here are some of the resources we’ve used: Resources for Talking About Race.
It feels especially important to talk about race with M & R because as a white family with hetero parents, M & R are afforded a great amount of privilege in our society. This isn’t something we discuss explicitly but it’s something I want them to become aware of, as I must continually remind myself to be aware of.
All of these issues came to mind when I found White Mom Blog, a blog created by a new mother who noticed a racial dialogue missing among white women/white moms. As the author Buffy explains, the blog is so named as a way to identify her race “because whiteness shouldn’t be the default setting.” In addition to her thoughtful and succinct posts (how does she pack so much into so few words?), she hosts an inclusive conversation among her readers. Here is how she introduced her blog:
I want us (white women/white moms) to think about how we contribute to and perpetuate white privilege in our families, communities, schools, work places and beyond. I want to know how we will talk about race with our white children. I want to hear from Women of Color about their experiences. I want to really listen. I don’t want to shut down when I hear something that makes me feel bad or guilty. I Want to Talk About Race | White Mom Blog.
Finding someone who is willing to approach this controversial topic and is willing to host a conversation even when things get sticky (really. uncomfortably. sticky.) has reignited my desire to engage in that dialogue. Because so much of my anxiety about this topic is tied to a fear of rejection and a fear of being labeled …and then rejected, it’s incredibly reviving to have found a place where perfection is not required, which is great, because it doesn’t exist.
My big revelation is that I can be okay with saying the wrong thing, as long as I’m doing my best to be respectful and as long as I’m willing to hear how others experience what I say. More importantly, I want to risk unintentionally offending because I believe in the ultimate value of the discussion. I’ve spent the last couple of weeks pondering this one, asking friends about it, and reading about it, with the hope that I might extend the invitation for dialogue here as well. In what ways have you talked to your kids about race? How would you like to do it? And how do you feel about talking about it?