Let's Get a Serious

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m writing a post that Jake and I have been working on for awhile now. The subject: activist parenting. Specifically, raising non-racist kids.

Anti-racism activism has been a big part of our lives, and has thus been a big part of the lives of our children. When Eliza (now 6) was a toddler, I worked with various activism and cultural promotion groups while in college. When Jake and I went to community college, I worked in the Intercultural Center, so Eliza went to several large events each month that celebrated different cultures and analyzed inequalities. She hung our with professors from all over the globe. She saw me lead discussions on racial and economic inequalities and the lack of multiculturalism in our school system when I was president of Teachers of Tomorrow.

This kept up, on a smaller scale, when Jake and I transferred to a four year college. My minor at that time was Peace Studies and I interned with Peace Works and The American Friends Service Committee, so most of the events Eliza attended were of that nature. But still, she was immersed in anti-racism.

We sort of assumed she’d pick anti-racist values up through osmosis. Let me tell you, it’s not that easy.

She didn’t mention race much up until age four. The biggest conversation we probably had was naming people’s skin after crayon colors. (As in, “Hey Mommy! That guy has brown skin. I have peach skin.”) I attributed her not noticing very much to her being raised in a multicultural environment. Mom and Dad’s friends come in different colors, and that’s that.

The lightbulb “Hey, anti-racism can’t be taught through osmosis alone” moment for me came through a conversation Eliza and I had in the car Fall 2010. I was pregnant with Jonas, Jake and I had graduated college, we had just moved to our new house, and we had been hibernating a bit. We hadn’t been spending very much time with our friends, so Eliza (who did not go to daycare) had been only around our family members (who are mostly white) for a few months. My sister Taylor had brought over her then boyfriend a few nights before this conversation. He was shy around Eliza and he was black.

Eliza and I were talking about adoption, a common conversation topic for us. We’ve been planning on adopting from foster care since before Eliza was born, so we want to make sure that the conversation comes up often so she’ll fully understand once the foster care and adoption finally happen.

After we’d been talking about adoption for five minutes or so, Eliza, then four, asked, “So, because the brothers and sisters came from a different family, they might not look like us?”

“That’s right,” I answered.

“So they might have brown skin?”

“Yes, maybe.”

“But I don’t like brown people.”

My heart stopped. I didn’t know how to react. My first instinct was to get angry. How could my four year old daughter say something so incredibly racist? I teared up. I took a deep breath.

“Why would you say that?”

“Well, Taylor’s friend didn’t really talk to me or anything. I think he didn’t like me.”

I went on to explain that Taylor’s friend was shy and didn’t talk to her because he was just a quiet guy. I told her that even if one person didn’t like her, that didn’t mean that everyone who looked similar would also not like her. Those who look alike don’t think or act alike. I used an example of a white ex-friend Jake and I had that was disrespectful to Eliza (which is why he’s an ex-friend). I told her that person was mean, but that didn’t mean that everyone with peach skin was mean. We had a long talk about what causes differences skin color, cultural differences, and the wrongness of assuming things about people because of the way that they looked.

This conversation was a wake up call for me. After just a few short months of not being in a multicultural environment, the idea of people being individuals instead of being grouped by their skin color disappeared for Eliza. This shouldn’t be that shocking to me; I remember in 3rd grade having a difficult time understanding that the identical twins in my class weren’t the same on the inside. I thought it was confusing that they didn’t like the exact same things. So it makes some sense that kids who aren’t told different would assume that people who look similar are similar.

Even so, Eliza’s negative generalization was totally our fault for not making sure that she was in a non-homogenious environment.

Anti-racist values returned to Eliza through conversations and immersion in a multicultural environment. She described her summer school teacher as the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen, with “chocolaty skin” and decided she wanted to be a teacher so she could be just like her teacher. Her teachers at school come from different cultures and backgrounds (many of her teachers are international) as do her school friends. She’s never made another negative comment about race.

Now conversations on skin color focus on the civil rights movement. (Which is very hard to explain, by the way. Most children’s books make it sound as if white people and black people were two “teams” with a winner and looser. And they rarely mention other people of color. She had a lot of trouble understanding why people we know of Middle Eastern decent and Hispanic decent would have been considered non-white if their skin looks so much like hers.) We talk about what other cultures are like, the effects that racism, xenophobia and discrimination still have, and why people choose different belief systems. Because now we know that it has to be a conversation. Soon she’s going to be bogged down with ugly influences outside our home, and leading by example is not enough.

The comment made in the car that day was quickly forgotten by Eliza, but it taught Jake and I an important lesson. To raise anti-rascist kids in our society is going to be a constant battle, even without outside negative influences. We’re going to have to make sure that our values are both highly visible to our kids and explained.

How do you make sure that your kids share your values?

Let’s Get Serious is a blog series where we share our opinions and put ourselves out there. We get that not everyone thinks the same way; the same things don’t work for everyone. These are our opinions. They don’t have to be your opinions. We’d like to hear about what you think, but please don’t be mean to us. Let’s respect each other and talk about it!

Find more LGS posts here.