June 28, 2011

Talking to your kids about race

For months and months we've been on "racial cruise control" in our house.  We've traveled in the same circles, visited the same people and overall, those we encountered didn't think or look twice when our multi-colored family entered the room.  I had actually forgotten that having a multi-colored family instantly makes us a billboard for race relations.

Then came last week.  Last week I believe I had a sign on my head that said, "Enter into major discussions about race with me, please."

It started on Wednesday when I took Sadie to karate practice.  There was a kid who was doing a makeup class in her class that day.  We'd never seen his family and they had never seen ours.  The youngest daughter in their family was about 3 or 4.  She could not stop staring at us.  She would look at me.  Then she'd look at my African son.  Then she'd look back at me.  I could see that she was trying to make sense of it in her head and couldn't do it.  So she did what all kids do- they ask questions!  Now, talking with little ones about how families can look different is one of my favorite things.  Talking with their parents?  Not so much.  This encounter was no exception.

When this little girl finally got up the nerve to speak to us and she said, "He looks different than you.  Is he brown because he's littler than you?"  I smiled at her and told her that that was a good guess, but that even when he got to be a grown up, our son would still be brown. I told her that he was adopted and explained a little bit about what adoption was and that even though we were all different colors that we are still a family.  By this time- the little girl's mom was listening to the conversation.  She decided that she needed to chime in and oh boy- I wish that she hadn't!  She said to her daughter, "Remember when we had your friend M over?  And the nice woman who brought her over was not her mommy but her foster mommy?  It's like that.  She's not his real mommy."  I took a deep breath and considered pummeling this well intentioned woman who did not realize the extent of her own ignorance.  I think as an adoption community, we can all agree that being called "Not the real mommy" is one of the worst insults to throw around.  I was proud of the self control that it took to not go all ninja on this woman. Instead- I chose the slightly less low road and just decided to make her feel stupid.

I looked at the little girl and I said, "Can you see me?" She said, "Yes!"  I said, "Shew! Good!  For a minute I didn't think I was real!"  The mom looked sheepish. I continued to tell the little girl that yes, I was his real mommy and that he would always be my son and that I would always love him and take care of him and that even though we didn't look like her family that we were a-okay!  I gushed over how beautiful I think Miles brown skin is and she agreed that it was really pretty.  The little girl gave Miles a big grin and the two of them pushed one of Miles' cars back and forth for a few minutes.  The mom pretended like she was chatting on her phone for the entire rest of the karate lesson.

What disappointed me the most about this whole situation is that this mom missed out on a golden opportunity to talk with her daughter about race and tolerance.  I think so many times as "white Americans" we feel like we aren't allowed to talk about "black people".  Or we pretend that we are all the same.  And while yes- it is SO important to teach our children that our hearts and capabilities and human nature ARE the same- that there are some differences in culture and lifestyle and looks that we need to respect, appreciate, accept and celebrate.  Kids need to know how to handle themselves and make sense of the situation when they encounter other people that don't look like them.  I can not tell you how many times children (and adults) come up to Miles and rub his hair and say something like, "Wow!  His hair feels weird! Why does his hair feel weird?"  I think that we are failing our children by not pointing out that differences are what make us unique!  We are not talking to them about how skin, hair, noses and eyes can look different across different cultures.  We are not teaching them that the white standard of beauty is not always the right standard of beauty.  We have worried so much about being politically correct that we have neglected to teach our children that unique looks and cultures are something to celebrate!  We fear talking about race because we are afraid of looking racist.

We miss opportunities to teach our children about racial tolerance and acceptance by trying to hush them up really quickly to keep them from "embarrassing" us when they have genuine questions.  Along these same lines, several years ago, I was walking with my daughter into a department store.  A little person was walking out of the department store and was crossing the street to get to the parking lot.  My darling daughter starts pointing and screaming, "Look Mom!  That kid doesn't have none grown up and she's crossing the street!"  I slammed my hand right over her mouth and kept on walking.  What I should have done was stop and take the opportunity to tell her that this was in fact a grown woman.  That she was probably very smart and as old as mommy, but that sometimes people aren't all the same heights and that it is OK!  We forget in the moment to use these instances as teaching tools.  We are all different and that is great!  But pretending like differences don't exist diminishes the amazingness of diversity.   

Later in the week, the children and I were all in an elevator together.  The kids were sitting on the floor of the elevator because they think the ride is more fun that way.  There were two boys in the elevator with us.  One was around 11 or 12 years old and he was accompanied by his younger brother who was around 7 or 8.  The younger of the two was bouncing off the walls.  He was rocking his body and pacing around the elevator like he was a nervous wreck.  He was shouting something about wizards (the boys had been playing a magic quest game in our hotel) and then all of a sudden the unthinkable happened.  This kid got down in Miles' face and yelled, "What are you looking at weirdo?  I hate brown people!"  I froze.  My daughter froze.  I wasn't sure what to do.  We've gotten lots of questions before but never once have we encountered pure racial hatred.  The elevator doors opened and the two boys got off and I still stood there stunned.  Sadie said, "Mom!  We should have popped him!" but I truly didn't know what to say.  I just stood there looking at my beautiful black child and feared for the day when he'll begin to understand what those words mean.  

I don't think that 8 year old learned to hate African Americans all on his own.  That is most likely something that is part of his family culture.  Either that or his parents have never had those tough conversations about race and that child is simply fearing what he doesn't understand.  Either way- adults have failed that child.

Parents, teachers, babysitters... are we taking the time to talk about racial issues with our children?  Are we teaching our children tolerance?  Are we teaching our children that it's okay to talk about race and to ask the hard questions about race? Are we teaching them that our differences are beautiful and not something to use against each other to make each other feel bad?  Are we creating environments in our homes that allow children to have an open dialouge about racial issues?  I hope so.  I know that I can't shelter my son from all the jokes, slurs and hatred that will come his way just because of the color of his skin.  But I can hope and pray that this generation of moms and dads will be the generation who takes the time to teach our children about race and diversity.  Talking with your children about tolerance and the differences in race and culture does not make you a racist- it make you a good parent. Do it.

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