Feed on

The Race Talk

A few months ago I grabbed a Newsweek to read on a plane trip. I don’t normally read Newsweek, but the cover story, “Is Your Baby Racist?” got my attention. The gist of the story was that while no, your baby is probably not racist, that yes, your baby does indeed notice race. And if you want a non-racist child, you had better discuss it.

According to researchers, many well meaning white folks worry about race, put their kids in multi-racial schools or day-cares, and then never discuss race at all, hoping their kids will end up color blind. Except it doesn’t work that way, and you are likely to have a child who thinks race is a taboo subject. And when that happens, the child may think race is taboo because, somehow, some races are better or worse than others.

Non-Hispanic whites seem to have the most trouble here. Folks in other racial groups in America discuss race by necessity. And, the researchers argued, if parents would just discuss race the way they do gender—which most of us appear to do pretty matter-of-factly—we’d be much better off. As I read this article, I paused several times and filed the whole thing away under “stuff I’ll need to think about when Simon is four or five.”

Or three! Much to my surprise, it came up tonight. Matt and I were tucking Simon into bed when Matt made note of Dirty Dog and Dirty Dog’s Twin and asked Simon:

“Are there any twins in your class?”

He was thinking of Meredith and Griffen, fraternal twins in Simon’s class this year.

“Huuuuuum….” Simon thought for a while. “Anieya and Jillian.”

Whoa. Anieya and Jillian are two girls who look nothing alike. Except both of them are African-American, and they are the only two African-American girls in either of the Twos classes. Keneseth Israel, while not as homogenous as I had feared, is still majority white, with a good and growing number of Indians and a smattering of African-Americans, Asians, Central Americans, Persians, and Russian Jews (Russian speaking Jews, not just of Russian ancestry like me) added to the mix.  

So anyway, Simon announces that Anieya and Jillian are twins, and I was at once floored and panicked. It was time to have a talk, and it was not a talk for which I was prepared. So I gulped hard and dove in the best I could.

“Why do you think Anieya and Jillian are twins, Simon?” I asked.

“Because they are both dark” he answered.

“Oh, you mean they both have dark brown skin?”

“Yeah, they both have dark skin. They’re both black.”

Didn’t know he knew the word “black” in that context either!

“Well, Simon, they are both black. You are right. But they aren’t twins; they aren’t even related. They just happen to be two girls in your class who are both black. You know, Caroline has light hair and light eyes, and so does Sophia. But they aren’t related, either.

We come in all different shapes and colors. Some of us have light skin, like you and me and Daddy. And some people, like Alise’s mommy, have light skin and very dark hair and eyes that are shaped differently than ours. And other people, like Anieya and Jillian and Mr. Gabriel, have dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes.

But underneath we’re all the same. We might look different, but underneath, in our hearts, we are all the same.”

Whew! And Oh-my-goodness I hope I got that right. Part of that little speech was instinct. Part was what I vaguely remembered being recommended in the Newsweek article. And part, I have to admit, was cribbed from my friend Gabriel, a Dinka from South Sudan, who said something vaguely similar when a little girl in a restaurant looked at him with shock and loudly declared, “Oh my God, Mommy, he’s SO BLACK.”

Still, it was nerve-wracking to feel so blind-sided. More, I feel stupid for being blind-sided. How could I expect a child cabable of differentiating among shades of a given color to not notice that two of the children in his class are much, much darker than he is?  This conversation was inevitable; I was just being too much the well-meaning, nervous, non-Hispanic white person to bring it up first.

2 Responses to “The Race Talk”

  1. tlalbaugh says:

    This well-meaning, nervous, non-Hispanic white person did exactly the same thing with that article, Jessica, so it was hilarious to read this post.

  2. blg says:

    When I was four, we had a mailman called Tom, who was black.
    My mother tells a story that once we were in another neighborhood and saw another mailman.
    My younger sister said, “Oh, look, there’s Tom.”
    But I contradicted her and said, “No, silly, Tom has a much better tan.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.