Colorblindness

This morning, while brushing his teeth, the boy says, “Mommy, don’t I look white?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant–like, was he white from his toothpaste.  I asked him to clarify.

“My skin, it looks white, doesn’t it? Not brown.”

“Well, no, honey. It looks brown, and it will always look brown.” I said.

“You mean I’m never going to turn white?!” He cried, upset.

“No, you’re going to stay brown your whole life.” I was beginning to wonder where this was going.

“But, I want to be white! I don’t want to be brown anymore!!”

Oh boy.

“Why not, sweetheart? What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Because B—* told me he doesn’t like brown skin and that made me sad.”

Oy.

Eric walks over and says, “You are beautiful, inside and out.  You have a beautiful heart, and you are a wonderful person, no matter what color you are on the outside.”

I tell him that is true, and that sadly, he may always hear people say bad things about his skin.  “I think your skin is perfect, and I love it, and I would never want it to be any other color.”

This brings a big smile to his face, and we hug, and things seem to be fine again.

Po Bronson wrote a book recently called “Nurtureshock,” and while I haven’t read the entire book (and don’t know that I agree with everything in it based on what I’ve heard), the chapter about race is excerpted in Newsweek here.  In a nutshell, it says that the trend towards NOT talking about race at all or using phrases such as “everyone is equal” have the opposite effect, and do little to instill the colorblindness that they are intended to teach.  According to the studies cited, children as young as 6 months see racial differences, and certainly the 4 year olds in my son’s class do.

Still, what does it mean exactly to talk about race?  I’ve read the examples in the article, and understand those, but I have to think that there’s more than that.  It’s easy to talk about religious differences and say how people believe different things, but it’s not quite so easy to do that for race, is it?  I think the take home point is to make sure that you teach your kids that people DO look different, DO have different skin colors, but are all the same on the inside.

I’m not sure exactly what happened in the classroom.  The boy tells us that he told one of his teachers what happened, and we’re going to ask her about it tomorrow.  Depending on what she says we may or may not talk to B’s parents, but the truth is that the boy has an excellent memory and doesn’t make stuff like this up.  B’s parents are very nice people, and my guess is that they may fall into the category of people who simply don’t talk about race at all, and that it may not be something that they have to deal with much. I mean, I was recently called “the prettiest little colored girl she’d ever seen” by a VERY elderly patient, am asked on a regular basis “where I’m really from,” and have had people comment on how I “don’t have an accent at all”!  I’m quite certain that neither of B’s parents, both Caucasian, have ever had anything like that happen! Bronson mentions a statistic that most white parents don’t talk to their kids about race, and most non-white parents to.  He fails to mention that this is because if you are the majority race, you simply don’t have to deal with the same racial issues as someone of a minority race, and the questions are less likely to arise.

I think we handled it okay so far, but we’ll see how it goes with B’s parents.

And, on a side note, if there is a patron saint of parenting, could you PLEASE slow down on the difficult questions? What’s next? Where do babies really come from?

*name changed to protect the toddler.

6 thoughts on “Colorblindness

  1. Gizabeth Shyder says:

    Even though we are white, both my kids (especially my bronze daughter) are incredibly proud of their brown skin.

    In the winter, I took Cecelia to a production that my partner sponsored from St. Louis. The Black Nativity, by Langston Hughes. It was at a Southern Baptist African-American church, and we were the ONLY white people in the large black audience. I worried C would say something that might offend people around her, so we talked about skin color as we were primping in the bathroom beforehand. I shouldn’t have worried.

    When we were sitting in the audience waiting for the play/musical to begin, I leaned over to her. “Did you notice that we have the only white skin in the whole room? Isn’t all this dark skin so beautiful?”

    “Oh mom. You are the only person with white skin. I am brown, like them. Just as beautiful. You’re the one who is different. But it’s OK. You are still pretty.”

    My heart melted, and I stopped worrying. Chatted with some women behind me that I knew from my training hospital. Everyone was oohing and aahing over my daughter.

    I don’t want my kids to be blind to skin color, I want them to appreciate and love the differences. And realize that we are all the same on the inside. I like to think I’m doing a good job, so far. Glad I’ve got friends like you to oust me when I say things that don’t jive with what I know is true in my heart.

    Yikes. Where do babies come from. I’ve tackled that issue a little, with my daughter. That’s a tough one.

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    • sajbat says:

      I think that’s fantastic! Ha! Don’t you think it’s interesting, though, that it took a situation in which you would be the minority race to stimulate such a discussion? Not that that is the only time you have had such talks, but it supports my theory that being a minority is what often prompts these issues and discussions–something that didn’t happen for your kids until they were in a black church!

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      • Gizabeth Shyder says:

        I agree – you don’t really feel your skin color until you are in a minority. Growing up in the Bible Belt – I have rarely felt it. I often wonder how my Hispanic and African-American partners feel – they are such the minority in our Southern Baptist white bread hospital. I am proud of my large, racially eclectic group.

        I am so glad that at 7, C did not feel like she was in a minority, and didn’t differentiate between her light brown skin and the darker skin of those surrounding her. Made me a proud mommy, and I hope to continue to be vigilant in being a sounding board and trying to correct any prejudices she gets from her peers.

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  2. Shree says:

    Everything else in nature comes in many colors, shapes, sizes…why shouldn’t people?

    Yes, people are surprised I speak correct English etc, and my daughter will always be asked where she’s “really” from, although her Canadian and Russian parentage friends never are.

    I’ve chosen to not recount experiences during my years in England: being spat on as people walked by, bus drivers routinely drove by if no white person waiting at the stop etc. Will do so in the correct context of “not everyone is that way” etc when the topic arises.

    Giving Tree Montessori School in Colorado Springs taught a lovely song entitled “Colors of Earth”. The refrain is “….and I love the colors that made you!” I’ll try to get hold of the lyrics and forward to you.

    Babies? That’s easy! The stork brings them, everyone knows that!

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    • sajbat says:

      I’d love the lyrics to the song–maybe I could share it with the kids’ classes at school. And storks. yes. Different colored storks for different colored babies, perhaps?

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  3. lisa says:

    Perhaps it’s obvious that I talk a lot to my kids about racial differences. We use the books The Colors of Us and Hair a lot. But, the thing is, that my mother always talked to me about race, growing up in the 70s. She actively tried to arrange friendship opportunities for us with kids of different races (tough, in our Chicago suburb). And in fact, her mother had done the same in raising her. I still am curious about how much flack my grandmother must have received in the early 40s for giving her daughter a black baby doll (which was later passed to me). Colorblindness is a recent phenomena. People like my grandparents, who lived through civil rights, and my paternal grandmother saw burning crosses from her bedroom window as a child (just outside of Chicago), made their own decisions about how to respond. And all of my grandparents chose to raise their kids with an awareness and respect for racial differences.
    I am stunned that it has not yet happened and am braced for my kids coming home saying they were told that they can’t be real siblings because they are different races. But, they are both in environments where anglos are not the majority, and their teachers are largely minorities. I am hoping this experience of not being conspicuous is laying a foundation for them.
    While you are probably right about B’s parents, you never know. In various ways, I have been pitied and complimented as the “pretty little cripple” much of my life. And I was furious when I initially read about your patient’s comment, perhaps more so because it touched my own experience. (I’ve typed the next sentence about my discussion with J about it several times and can’t get it right-we need a glass of wine soon.)
    I recently had an interaction with a very supportive high school friend whom I haven’t seen in many years, who told me how much she loves AfAm hair and how her friends indulge her by letting her touch it. I like and respect this person, but this confuses and disappoints me.
    So, I really struggle with trying not to judge, but I wonder sometimes what people are thinking and why they are not teaching their children better.
    But then, my children won’t be attending a premier neighborhood school because I was so disappointed in the asst principal’s response to my question about diversity education, in which she indicated that they rely on children who are different to be ambassadors to their peers. And I worry that my response to things like that may limit my children’s opportunities.
    Sorry for rambling. But I get tired of excuses for white parents when I think of my grandparents, born in c. 1910, talking to their kids about race and respect. They were far from perfect, but they really tried because they knew what was right. They also addressed homosexuality, but that’s a different story.

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