I really enjoyed (and appreciated) Erika K. Davis’ piece: Do You Talk to Your Kids About Race.
I was all set to answer her question with delightful and pithy anecdotes about how we do things in our interracial, interfaith and intercultural household (dad: African-American, mom: Soviet-born Jew, three kids: all of the above), when my eyes fell on some of the comments both on the original article, and the Kveller Facebook page:
I am not sure that it’s necessary to have a specific talk about race unless your child brings it up or encounters or observes some type of racist behavior….
Yes, but not unless it brings itself up naturally. There’s no reason to address it otherwise…
It should be a non-conversation….
Kids don’t notice it until you tell them about it…
First of all, the latter comment is blatantly untrue.
Research has shown that children as young as six months can see that races are different – they’re infants, not idiots. Furthermore, as Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain in their book, Nurture Shock when race is brushed under the rug and kids are fed banal generalities like “everyone is the same,” and “there is absolutely no difference between people,” it only leads to confusion and less tolerance of variation down the line.
On the one hand, we tell our children that everyone should be proud of who they are and how they look. On the other, when one innocently points in public and asks a perfectly reasonable question (“Why does her hair look like that?” or “Why are his eyes shaped funny?”) we shush them, force their hands down, act embarrassed and tell them that they’re being rude – not to mention “wrong” for even noticing. What kind of a mixed message is that?
In our home, we go out of our way to stress that all people are not the same. Everyone is different, everyone is an individual, everyone has their own needs and wants and desires and ambitions. Everyone is a product of where and how and with whom they grew up, not to mention, whom they’re living amongst now. To suggest that 5,000 years of Jewish history is identical to 5,000 years of Chinese history, insults everyone concerned. And it’s also wrong. (My husband is a teacher. We’re kind of Fact Fanatics.)
We also do not teach The Golden Rule: Do onto others as you would have done onto you. Maybe the other has different values from you? Why are you assuming that what you’d want is what they want? Isn’t it more golden to learn about others, than to anoint yourself the center of the universe? (A trivial example: Some people, when upset, want hugs and sympathy and lots of talk. Some just want to be left alone. If you’re truly looking to help them, shouldn’t you find out what they desire, rather than making a guess based on you?)
And now to finally answer Erika’s question. With three kids, ages 13, 9, and 5 (“Five and half, Mommy. Don’t forget, I’m five and a half.”), I’m not certain how it’s possible to avoid talking about race.
To start, any conversation about their grandparents’ lives growing up in the United States in the 1950s, a part of their own family history, is inevitably going to butt up against racial relations sooner or later. Not to mention that said grandparents live in Harlem, which is a primarily African-American neighborhood. What child isn’t going to notice that the people on these streets look different from the ones where they live? My kids also know that their father and uncle were among the very first black students at the school they attended and all the work their grandmother did to make that happen. I want them to know these things. These things are important to know.
Plus, both my husband and I are news junkies. When my husband and his father hash out what the first black president has done – and not done – for black people, we don’t wait until the kids are out of earshot. When The New York Times headline blared that Sonia Sotomayer was the first Latina on the Supreme Court – nothing about her qualifications, nothing about her past judgments or even anything about her as a person, just the one fact, as if race defines everything she is or could ever possibly be – I went on a rant about how humiliating and demeaning it was, the kids heard. I wanted them to hear. It was an important thing to hear. (Then again, maybe Ms. Sotomayer does believe that aspect to be the most important part of her identity. Who am I to inflict my personal value judgment on her?)
We bring the issue closer to home, too. Something that drives my husband and I nuts about our temple is that, during the Shabbat service, the kids are allowed to make as much of a mess as they like, dropping their challah on the floor, stomping it into the rug, spilling their juice… and they’re not required, or even urged, to clean it up. Instead, a crew stands outside the door and, when the kids leave, they swoop in to take care of the mess. Three guesses on what skin shade the cleaning crew is. And the first two don’t count. It sends a horrible message, in my opinion, one we’ve discussed out loud. As we told our three that we expect them to pick and wipe up every crumb they’re responsible for.
One of the other points that Bronson and Merryman make in Nurture Shock is that, when it comes to talking to kids about race, it’s only the dominant culture that has the privilege of choosing whether or not to address it. The minority ones do not. It’s simply there, a fact of life, not an elective.
So we talk about race and we talk about class (especially when I attended a panel discussion on Jews of Color at the Jewish Community Center a few years ago, and a member of the audience prefaced their question with, “Since all Jews in the United States are rich…”). We talk about gender and sexual preference and equality (Leading to the following exchange between my two sons. 9-year-old: “I can marry my friend, X, now!” 13-year-old: “You want to marry X?” 9-year-old: “I didn’t say I wanted to marry X. I said I could.”). It’s all just a part of life. And we treat it that way. By not turning it into a Topic-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named and by stripping it of its power along the way.
Finally, to end this on a cheerful note and demonstrate that things are, in fact, getting better in the U.S. as far as racial relations are concerned….
When my mother-in-law came thirty years ago to pick up her two sons from the school where they were the only African-Americans enrolled, one of the other boys called to them, “Your maid is here!” Despite them all being the same color.
These days, when I pick up my darker-skinned children from the same school, I also get queries of, “Are you the babysitter?”
My mother explained, “It’s not about color. It’s because you dress so sloppily.”
I prefer to chalk it up to progress.