Posted by : Wendy B Monday, 25 July 2011

"Our skin is brown," announced my 3-yo, Panda, to the nurse checking her ears. The nurse paused momentarily, casting an awkward glance at myself and my 5yo, Bunny, who are actually darker shades than Panda. The nurse recovered with a smile and compared tans, which satisfied Panda.

Later, Panda was explaining to her grandparents the notion of "Brownies" which, I confirmed, she learned from her sister, who had come up with it herself. Panda listed off the people in the household that were Brownies, while her dad and my dad were "Bowls." This is where I sought confirmation from Bunny. Bowls are white, of course.

Panda also mentioned something about blue bowl people, but I probably shouldn't look too much into that one...

Their thought processes immediately made me think of NurtureShock. Specifically, the chapter that Newsweek printed as "See Baby Discriminate," including this ridiculously sensational cover.

Ignore the cover of the magazine if you can. The article itself is very good. It's not really about racism, or about discrimination in the negative sense.

It simply explains that babies see and recognize colour and sort people the same way they would toys. Some of us are uncomfortable talking about race, or make the proclamation that "everyone is equal," without actually explaining what that means. Consequently, babies become children who view discussions on race as taboo.

One of the many benefits of the school was its great racial diversity. For years our son never once mentioned the color of anyone's skin. We never once mentioned skin color, either. We thought it was working perfectly.

Then came Martin Luther King Jr. Day at school, two months before his fifth birthday. Luke walked out of preschool that Friday before the weekend and started pointing at everyone, proudly announcing, "That guy comes from Africa. And she comes from Africa, too!" It was embarrassing how loudly he did this. "People with brown skin are from Africa," he'd repeat. He had not been taught the names for races—he had not heard the term "black" and he called us "people with pinkish-whitish skin." He named every kid in his schoolroom with brown skin, which was about half his class.

My son's eagerness was revealing. It was obvious this was something he'd been wondering about for a while. He was relieved to have been finally given the key. Skin color was a sign of ancestral roots.
The chapter initially discusses an experiment involving White parents whom, the researcher quickly learned, were simply not comfortable actually discussing race with their children, preferring to live by the "colourblind" philosophy, creating a racial vaccuum. I realized that, as a Black parent (my husband is White), I was doing the same thing, relying on the diversity within our family and the Barbie collection to speak for itself.
For decades, it was assumed that children see race only when society points it out to them. However, child-development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue—but we tell kids that "pink" means for girls and "blue" is for boys. "White" and "black" are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.
My error was pointed out to me most obviously by Bunny, who, upon seeing a big "Black History Month" poster at school, asked me what it meant. I was at a loss to explain the notion of Black people and White people and what their history meant. We looked up some Black History Month pages online but eventually, she got bored. I sent her off to the school library the next day to ask for books on Black History. She asked the poor, confused librarian for books on White History instead.
When she's older, I'll direct her to Morgan Freeman to explain why Black History Month shouldn't exist at all.

I was born in Jamaica into a family full of diversity. I didn't understand racism until I came to Canada, where many family members faced covert and overt racism. In highschool, Black classmates taught me that I was an "Oreo."

I can't protect my daughters from racism, but I can warn them about it and thus I have talked to the older one about racism and even explained what words like "nigger" mean, but I hadn't really discussed race, specifically, outside of the concept of racism.
To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. A friend of mine repeatedly told her 5-year-old son, "Remember, everybody's equal." She thought she was getting the message across. Finally, after seven months of this, her boy asked, "Mommy, what's 'equal' mean?"
As with many other aspects of parenting, NurtureShock has made me alter my thinking. My daughters, with their Brownies and Bowls, confirm that this is the right thing to do. Learning from my kids is one of the best parts of parenting.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Very intelligent and thought provoking!

  2. every chapter of that book is riveting. great blog post btw.

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This is my mindspill. Mostly about comics, books, video games, movies of the science fiction and fantasy leanings. Sometimes recipes and parenting stuff will sneak in, along with a real world rant or two.

I also write about geek culture at Women Write About Comics, and I review genre fiction at The BiblioSanctum.

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