Nothing illustrates our insecure feelings about race like a child.
When children learn about diversity, there’s an incredible potential to “get them early” and send them down a pathway that promotes judging people based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin. There are a couple of ways you can achieve this -- and ignoring race isn’t one of them.
My family is white. And aside from our son’s African-American godfather and a handful of friends of color, my son doesn’t encounter too many people that look different from him.
We don’t want to treat people as if they’re colorless, that method doesn’t celebrate people’s wonderful differences. But we don’t want to lay it on so thick that our son gets the impression that we should point racial differences out all willy-nilly.
Children’s television does a fair job at introducing diversity; with shows like “Dora the Explorer” and “Ni Hao Kai Lan,” kids are introduced to the concept of different languages and skin colors. But then again, television also teaches kids that dogs talk and purple dinosaurs get all huggy when you share.
Nevertheless, shows like “Dora” and “Kai Lan” open up candid conversations about race, and that’s important. But sometimes, those conversations come back up at the worst times.
Case in point: my wife and I took our son to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. “Do I like the Chinese, Daddy?” my son asked.
“Chinese food…yes.” I nervously replied.
He continued: “Do the Chinese have water, daddy?”
Now things were getting weird.
“Is that Chinese painting?” he asked, pointing to the art on the wall.
“Is that Chinese music?” His voice is getting louder. My shushing and uncomfortable nodding is not tipping him off. I mean, he’s three.
“Is that man Chinese?” He stands up and points to a man walking to the bathroom. No, I answer through my teeth. I didn’t mention that he was most likely Latino, because that would just complicate everything.
Days later, my wife had our son in a store. An African-American employee helped my wife find an item, and in the process, sneezed. After he had walked away, my son mentioned that he got “black sneeze” on him. My wife was mortified even though no one (probably) heard.
Even the President isn’t out of range; during the elections, my son saw President Obama on the news and said “That’s the President.”
“It IS,” my wife and I proudly exclaimed.
“He has a black face,” my son added. My proudly-pumped fist turned into a hiding spot for my face as my wife groaned “We don’t say that about people.”
But, he must have thought, it’s true, right?
It is. But how do you explain to a child the right times and ways to identify race? As a father, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about all the right ways of saying “people are all different.” I once even took a knee next to him with a map and attempted to explain that people come from different places and those places all make different-looking people. I haven’t yet figured out how to stop my son from needlessly identifying race, however. Because to me it’s not important, but to him, race is an identifier, and he’s not aware of the multitude of ways throughout history that race, color and culture have been used as a weapon or a means to hurt others.
Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Maybe I’m just supposed to keep teaching my son about racial differences, but take public embarrassment in stride, reminding him that you just don’t point out race when you don’t need to. But still, when do you need to? Never? Only when it’s about something good? Only during the United States Government-approved so-and-so-history-months? That doesn’t seem right.
I guess my son and I will learn it together.
Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project. Want more?