Talking To Our Kids About Race…

It was a pretty normal day.

We went to the mall in Tysons Corner, Virginia-  We decided to end the trip at the Haagen Daaz Ice Creamery.

As one might expect, there were too few tables.  Our party of 6 needed two tables.  That left 2 extra chairs.

Some members of our friendly gaggle were more than surprised when a foreign couple plopped their bags on one of our tables and sat down with us.

My husband and I didn’t think much of it, actually-  Our time in Germany socialized us into respecting the practicality of sharing limited restaurant resources with strangers.

We Americans tend to like our individual property all to ourselves-  even if it’s only for the duration it takes to suck down a chocolate malt.  It’s OURS.  That’s not always the case elsewhere in the world.  The sharing of public spaces is a pretty practical way to make sure every paying customer gets a chance to sit while sucking down their chocolate malts, too.

So, it wasn’t a big deal that we didn’t know our new table mates.

We could tell the couple spoke a language we didn’t recognize.  Didn’t matter.  It would have been hard to follow anyone’s conversation over the slurping sounds emanating from our traps.

So, we were all minding our own business while our  fat cells expanded upon Deep Chocolate Peanut Butter Sundae gastrointestinal impact- when we heard a very dreaded and mortifying question from a child that I would, under other circumstances, normally lay claim to.

Can you imagine what we might have heard?

Our 5-year old daughter had apparently been studying our table neighbors for some time and we had been ignorant of it in our consuming and blinding gluttony.

She asked, quite loudly:

“WHY IS YOUR SKIN BLACK???????” 

Let me tell you something.

The sounds of the snorting porcine feeding frenzy…..STOPPED.

Please imagine 4 adults, with mouths agape, full of dripping ice cream, spoons in mid-air- looking in horror at our exotic table mate strangers.

How were they going to respond?

The man and woman looked at us.

Breathe.

Breathe.

Think.

Fix this.

First, I apologized to the couple.

I explained that our daughter had lived her entire life in a city with a comparatively small African-American population… We didn’t live in a Metropolitan Area….Some of the most diverse schools in our area still settle on about a 99% Hispanic-American to 1% Everyone Else ratio…I apologized again….We really read about diversity….Really, we do….Really, we respect all cultures….and aren’t these beautiful people, daughter?……I apologized, again.

I looked over at my sister, brother-in-law and husband for support but they were still shaking their heads in disbelief and embarrassment.

Although, my husband was shaking his head while shoveling Belgian Double-Dark chocolate with fudge and caramel and whipped cream into his face.  Hey, being hungry doesn’t make one any less dismayed, people…

I told our daughter that some people might wonder why your skin is so white and pale and why we can see your veins….And she held her arm up.  I babbled on even more, trying to recover like a nervous idiot.

But, the coolest thing happened ever.

The woman smiled.

The man laughed.

The woman across the table held her own arm up to our daughter’s.  She pressed it next to our daughters arm so they were side by side.  They sat there for about a minute or so and our daughter had a chance to look and study the differences, but also the similarities.

We asked where the couple was from.

The gentleman responded that they were from West Africa- Senegal!

Our daughter repeated it-  Senegal?

He said, “Yes.  It’s a very new country.”   And we all laughed at the joke.

Our daughter, said, “NOT ANOTHER ONE!”

To her, all countries she’s never heard of are new.

When it was time to leave, we thanked the couple for their understanding.

And we all breathed a little easier because a truly uncomfortable situation turned into something really great-  a real-life, meaningful lesson about race and humanity and kindness.

By the time we got to the hotel, my husband and I realized this was a time to capitalize on what our daughter had learned today.

We pulled out the Montessori-inspired Landmark Tray we created for our Montessori Corner of the play room.

It is one of  several trays we packed for our hotel vacation stay.

It consists of:

  • a tray
  • a small simple map of the world
  • some small landmark figurines you can find here.
  • a little globe full of cultural wooden figures (We got ours from Oriental Trading Company but it’s not available anymore, but these cultural world cut-outs would be a good substitute!)

We pulled out the map and she pointed to Africa.

We looked up “Senegal” on the computer to see where it was on the Western coast of Africa.  Our daughter pointed to it on the screen.

Then, she found the cultural figurine in African traditional dress and put it on the map on Senegal.

Then, we cleaned up!

The whole bedtime follow-up lesson took about 5 minutes-  but I think we all learned some things today that will last our lifetimes.

In the end, we also learned that we were actually glad that the Senegalese couple sat at our table without asking.

But, we also laughed because they probably learned that they might want to reconsider ever doing THAT, again.

Haha!

:)

HAVE YOU HAD ANY INTERESTING CONVERSATIONS WITH  YOUR CHILDREN ABOUT RACE, CULTURE, GLOBALISM OR TOLERANCE?

HOW’D IT GO?  

PLEASE DO SHARE!

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46 Responses to Talking To Our Kids About Race…

  1. Several of my friends kids have said the unusually common, “Are you made of chocolate?” I think asking why skin colors differ is an understandable question because if you’re used to seeing one thing – people of a certain race, certain ice cream flavors, what have you, you’d be curious as to the new thing you’re seeing. My daughter has already asked why an ex-nanny’s skin was darker than hers (only because the nanny pointed it out to her … kinda strange), so we already went through the people have different skin colors thing. I’m way darker than my kids, so they think I’m “dirty” and try to clean me up. Thanks, guys :-)

    • Oh, goodness, Chrissy! Chocolate? That might have almost made sense in a Haagen Daaz! Funny your kids want to clean you up! I know the question from young kids is so innocent- but I was worried that it could have come off horribly wrong! I like the ice cream analogy- because there really are so many flavors…

  2. I haven’t had any occurrences with my son about race yet but he has stopped and asked me in public about a little person. There are so many bases to cover! How can I possibly make him understand about etiquette when it comes to these situations??

    • Bonnie- They will come! I think etiquette is out the window- kids are far too blunt and innocent to be gentle about what they are wondering! We can only tell them about good manners and okay phrases and hope they pick up on what’s acceptable! I like Chrissy’s comment above where we are like different flavors of ice cream…everyone is different, we can mix them up and add things to it….but in the end, it’s all ice cream! :) Thanks for the comment!

  3. What a great learning opportunity for your kids (despite the embarrassment for you)!! I grew up always being the “outsider” (and then I moved to Laredo and well… you know… outsider no more :P ) so racial identity development and respecting differences was so important to me. It wasn’t to many people, especially those that wanted for us to just be “the human race” as long as that meant mainstream culture when the reality is more complex than a superficial “color-blindness.” You handled this situation very well and I bet your daughter will be richer for it. YAY, Tricia!!

    • QF- haha! Oh, it was mortifying. But, I think growing up in the military and then joining the military helped a lot- Really, there was a lot of diversity….and a lot of travel- I’m glad for those experiences! i wish our son was more aware of what was happening- he’s 3- so I guess I’ll be penning another follow-up post to this one in a year or so.. haha!

  4. Being the mom of both “vanilla” looking (but not necessarily totally white) biological kids and a very “chocolate” adopted son we talk about racial difference and sameness often. Both my chocolate and vanilla sons get offended when random kids/people point out how different they look. However, If they know the person asking them questions well enough they don’t mind at all. When they know the reason for the question isn’t based on rejection/critical mindset or plain rudeness- they welcome the chance to talk about it, too. No one likes to feel like an outsider. ** Relationship first-big questions later. Asking questions about race is fine if they are your friends and they know you are cool with them.

    My theory is that when we are mostly around our own kind we become insensitive/judgmental of others. Kids are excellent at noticing differences, they are curious and they ask questions. Asking questions is a GOOD thing! A joke or ugly comment is hurtful. Staring or pointing at someone is rude, too. But an honest question means they are learning- and actually, it’s a great question, “Why is your skin so black?”.

    The question still remains, WHY was the couple’s skin so black? The real answer is they have deeper colored/more densely pigmented skin. :) Personally, I’d get out the tempra paints and have them mix and match the colors they see all across their body. It’s an amazing thing to see how much pigment we have just on our arms! I know I have freckles and moles galore these days!!!
    Another way to consider it is look for freckles or moles on your skin. You could point to the child’s spots and ask- “What color would you be if all your skin was THIS color?”. I’m assuming your kids have a darker spot or two on their skin. :)
    Think about it, that is the color you would be if your pigment were as densely populated as a someone from African descent, or from a country closer to the equator. But trust me… get ready for more “why” questions to follow after that one!

    • Lainie- What wonderful suggestions you have! You also posed some interesting questions about why we all look different and how we all have different levels of pigmentation….it is a great suggestions for us to look for areas of dark pigmentation on our own bodies! We do have birthmarks that are much darker….And to use tempura paint would be a great artistic follow-up to a question like that! Thank you so much! And thank you for this helpful and thoughtful comment!

  5. I haven’t really had that conversation, but then again maybe I have. My daughter is Japanese/Korean/Eastern European, so technically she is not white. Because of that, I’ve tried to discuss race with her, or at least share race with her by taking her to places with diversity, sharing images and movies, and showing her how I view the world. But, since we haven’t really discussed it in a conversation like you had, I wonder have I done enough?

    • Lisa- Knowing your attempt to do all things justice, I am certain you’ve done more than enough! And it’s something that we’ll all need to re-visit as new situations arise. But, seeing how you treat others is probably the best lesson and you are a huge advocate for others- of all colors and flavors- So I think your example is more than enough! :)

      • I do giggle though, at the legacy I have left my daughter. Think about it, she is a Japanese/Korean/Jew . . . I suppose the only “hated” group she is missing would be Black.

  6. What a wonderful post! I absolutely love the landmark tray. When I taught elementary school, I always tried to stop and pull out a map when the kiddos learned about a new country that was unfamiliar to them. We also tried to look up info on Google Earth or some resource that was similar.
    On a personal note, I often worry about the day that people or kids will come up to my little guy and the topic of his race will come up. Because, let’s face it…people are curious and that’s how kids learn. :) (I mostly worry that comments about being different from Mama and Daddy) Thanks so much for reminding me that humor is a great diffuser and that talking about how we are similar is something that we all can relate to. What a wonderful discussion and lesson for the littles. I love how kids have that total sense of freedom to speak their mind. :)

    • Thank you, Gina- and thank you for sharing it on your page! When I saw the tube of landmarks (that came with an info sheet), I knew it needed to be its own tray! We also have one full of fossils from a fossil tube…they are great and inexpensive learning and play tools- How lucky your child is that you have a teacher’s training! I am always in awe of my younger sister who is a trained teacher- she brings things out of my kids that I wouldn’t have thought possible doing something as simple as a kids’ menu activity while we wait for our dinner. Teachers are invaluable…Thanks so much for your comment!

  7. Hey Trish! Great Blog… I take care of two children in my home. One is my precious AJ of African American decent and then there is my Angel Audrie who is caucasion… When the two finally realized there skin color was different… AJ piped up and announced loudly… ” I’m Black and Audrie is white!” I got a piece copy paper and a black cloth sat the two of them plus myself together and then asked AJ are you black?… He said nooooo I asked is Audrie really white….nooooo was the response. We simply decided we were all beige with darker and lighter tints! It was so funny I was right in the middle of both there shades of beige!!!! Love you tons!

    • I really like your approach :-) Everyone’s post has been very helpful to read, interesting, positive, and I have enjoyed reading how each person has directly or indirectly handled the topic but I had not thought of yours; it really goes in depth, or right to a key point; into the fact that we, as people, tend to label each other, even ourselves, in a practical way, per se, but we, as people, are so much more and nothing like a simple label, as in this case, one color. Things are one color or another; people, we are who we are inside! And we need a closer, unbiased, eye to really see each other…and we need some time to learn what or who another person is. Thanks to everyone for sharing. I know I will need to have this conversation soon with my son as we have had some situations already and knowing when to approach it and how is important before someone intentionally or unintentionally approaches it in a less desired manner…it happens.

      • Elizabeth- I didn’t really have an approach. Floundering was a little more accurate a description. haha! When you talk to your son, I would love to hear his response- he’s a smart and funny little guy!!!!

    • Terry- That is a great way to teach kids about differences in pigmentation- We’re all just beige- just lighter or darker shades. Perfect!

  8. Yes! Our family is very multicultural: my husband is from Mexico, we have 2 bio daughters, and one son adopted from China, and another adopted from Ethiopia. We talk about skin color all…the…time. My son used to ask every single African-American we would meet if they were from Ethiopia! Here is a recent article I wrote about our experiences: http://kidworldcitizen.org/2012/01/27/start-a-conversation-about-race-with-kids/
    I love talking to kids about race because then it is not taboo, they are not scared of it, and it isn’t something negative or hidden.

    • Becky- Your family sounds fascinating and beautiful! I think it is hilarious that your son asked everyone if they were from Ethiopia- I bet, in less understanding circumstances, people could take offense if they didn’t understand the genuine innocence and perspective of your son. I can’t wait to read your article!!!

    • Malia- Thanks for the comment- And thank you for sharing it! With kids, we are forced to talk about things before we know how we’ll do it- I certainly didn’t know that was in the cards for us yesterday. haha!

  9. I’m so glad you shared your experience instead of just being embarrassed by it like many parents would. Kids just have such great powers of observation. I love your teachable moment.

    • Jackie- Thank you- Kids really do- We parents forget how new things are for them. We really, do- :)

  10. We’ve not had any conversations or realizations regarding race yet but i’ve been thinking of it and how to best handle it. Enjoyed reading this and what a blessing that couple was. Most arent that sweet.

    • Talina- We were stressing for a moment! Yes- we lucked out, for sure! Good luck with your own conversation! :)

  11. I love how you capitalized and maximized this experience Trish! She’ll thank you someday for all the things you taught her, the values most especially.

    xoxo

    • Journey of Life- You’re welcome! it turned out quite well for all of us thanks to the couple’s humor….Loved your post on the living funeral! Very thought-provoking!

  12. This very thing happened when my younger sister asked the very same question aloud at a restaurant in our small midwestern, very much not culturally diverse town. Unfortunately, the couple my toddler sister addressed did not take it so light-heartedly or understandingly. You handled it very well. And, extra points for the couple who also taught your daughter that they were different from her, but also very friendly, funny, and kind. -heather

  13. I think most people understand that kids are kids, and they don’t have very developed filters sometimes. That’s one of the things that makes them so fascinating. I wish I had the nerve to be more like them sometimes.

    And, what a great way to teach your daughter about the world. I send postcards to kids from the various places I visit, and I always hope the parents are showing them where these places are. She will never forget Senegal now.

    • Andra- I hope you’re right that most people would understand a question like that from a kid- I think it’s something that most kids would ask. I think getting postcards from around the world are a wonderful way to share your travels! We keep a board in our playroom for post cards we pick up and receive from others so that we can use them as a reference when we look at our world map. I’m sure the kids in your life appreciate those cards very much!

  14. I love the activity Lainie described! There’s a lot of variation in skin/hair color within my immediate family, which has proved a fantastic way to approach the idea of different skin tones. That couple sounds wonderfully friendly!

    • Maryanne- yes, Lainie is full of lots of great ideas and advice! I agree- we lucked out with that couple! :) Loved your kool-aid yarn activity!

  15. What an awesome time for your family. Kids just don’t know. So glad the couple was friendly and not taken aback. Our daughter hung out with a black family in a bus depot and then joined them in their family picture. That was 27 years ago. I sometimes wonder if they still have the picture of an all-black family with one little white girl. :)

    • Mike- That would be such a cool picture to pull up!!!! I imagine it was a time where relations might have been less than tolerant- what a good heart your daughter must have had! Good for her and you!

  16. Oh my do I LOVE this post! I also LOVE African people – doesn’t matter which country they are from there is just something that draws me in the soul. I think it must be from living two years in Tanzania.

    We went through reverse culture training with our two oldest. Bristel was just 2 months old when we moved to TZ and was 2 years old when we returned to the States. All of her memories were filled with Africans. In fact, our first visit to the library ended in hysterics. She was scared to death of all the little white kids!

    I love this post for many many reasons. I love that children are innocent in their curiosity. I love moments like yours when you have unexpected connections with strangers. And I love that you swirled up some lost memories for me… It’s cathartic to walk down memory lane. :)

    …danielle

    • Danielle- that sounds like a fascinating experience! I think it is so funny that your kids had a reverse experience! I am really glad that this post could bring back some happy memories for you! Your comment made a happy memory for me!

  17. When I hear questions like that from children I know it’s just their curiosity for something they don’t know about, just like when they ask why the sky is blue, or why some birds don’t fly. I think it’s our own experiences and knowledge behind the history of race in this country that make us feel as though a child’s curiosity about the subject needs an apology. I’ve told my own son that people have different colors of skin, just like we have different colors of hair and eyes. It makes sense to him as a four year old. For some reason, a few times, he has said aloud, “where is that black man going?” Which has prompted us to discuss etiquette and that he can just say “man” without categorizing who he sees!

    • Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Heather! Yes- Kids just have a limited set of ideas and words- I’m glad that so many people recognize the innocence of their questions!

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