How do you react when something unexpected pops out of your child’s mouth?
The first time my daughter really surprised me, we were grocery shopping. She shouted, “LOOK, MOMMY, HER HAIR IS BLUE!” Not once, but multiple times, pointing and yelling at the top of her lungs. Benign, you say? Yes, in retrospect of course, totally benign. It was the first time she had ever seen colored hair.
But what did I do? I shushed the hell out of my daughter, quickly paid and got out of there.
I can’t remember what happened next. I am, sadly, sure it went something like this: “Honey, don’t say that. It isn’t polite.” This is one of many well-meant parenting practices that can lead to the all-too-common phenomenon known as “colorblindness.” It’s a disservice to our children’s developing minds and has somehow been equated with a non-biased upbringing.
Human beings are not color-blind. That is not the way it works. Our brains are naturally wired to notice differences from a young age. Although it took a couple more years as a parent, I slowly woke up to the backward thinking of colorblindness.
The real catalyst for my epiphany came during a typical morning preschool goodbye. My son took his preschool teacher’s hand in his, flipped it palm up then back again, then put his palm next to hers and said, “Hey, Javanni, the top of your hand is dark brown skin, but the bottom of your hand is pink, just like mine.”
Once again, in all honesty, I thought the appropriate PC-mom reaction should be shock. I started to panic and gasp: was what he said offensive? I don’t want her to think I am that kind of a parent! Shit, shit, shit! Teach your kid to wonder and be outspoken, and this is what you get! But then I stopped in my tracks, sat with my moment of unease and witnessed one of my favorite learning moments ever. How did the teacher respond?
“Yeah, it is pretty cool how we’re both different and the same. What else is different and the same about us?”
And that was that. In his sweet, 3-year-old way, Jared lovingly caressed his teacher’s hand and we went about our day.
The dissonance sat with me longer than that. I never really talked about it until now, because I was too scared to be the white idiot. But that one moment — how the teacher smoothly showed how willing she was to talk more with my kid — changed me. I started to realize that understanding comes through noticing. I became a teacher and mother who celebrated differences, and I threw out much of the outdated anti-bias curriculum. I began to allow my students to explore differences, only guiding the conversation if it became unkind or had adult undertones. Honestly, that rarely happened. Children are curious, they learn best by getting messy, and there are many kinds of messy — including people-messy.
But adults tend to be afraid of people-messy.
Learning to sort or categorize is a milestone in brain development. Children notice all types of differences: the difference between how long it takes one parent to give in vs. another parent who always holds their ground. The way some of us pee standing up or sitting down. Yes, too, they notice skin color. Critical thinking is important for a reason: to really understand social justice, our kids need to know the basics of compare, contrast and discuss.
Question: What’s the biggest parenting blunder around race or diversity?
Answer: Stomping out the natural ability to explore contrasting ideas and experiences.
It is in accepting and exploring differences that we discover the value and the struggle of others. If, as parents, we whitewash the world for our children, they miss the opportunity to discover all kinds of people.
Why is there a rift between the younger and older activists? Because progressive whites need to recognize that being an ally is a job that never ends. Cultural competence is a misleading goal. We can never fully understand places we have never been. Cultural sensitivity is the key. Someone who is raised to be sensitive, to notice injustice is the ally who can grow and change with experience.
Here are a few strategies you can use cultural sensitivity into action.
1. There are all kinds of beautiful. Let’s start easy. Take an inventory of your books, your media, your art, and your friends. Visit all types of museums and stores. Try all kinds of foods. Yes, it matters! Expand your bubble. As you explore, talk about what you see. Talk about how the pictures and ideas make you feel. Point out things you notice that send both “wrong” and “right” messages.
2. There are all kinds of families. Take an inventory of your friends and their families; what does it tell you? The best way to show your child how to embrace differences is to embrace a diverse group of friends yourself.
3. Love is love. If you are true to mantras 1 and 2, this should be a no-brainer, but just in case: when you talk about love, make sure your child knows they can love anyone. Don’t worry if it feels contrived. Kids don’t learn through osmosis. When you discuss gender and sexuality, discuss the spectrum.
4. History Matters. It is important for children to learn accurate history. Yes, sometimes it’s scary and discussions should be age-appropriate. We can’t always count on our community to teach history accurately. If your school is watering down history and your child is ready for a more accurate version, teach it. If we rewrite the narrative to make it nice, there is no chance our children can fully integrate how differences have created the current societal landscape and why basic human rights and social justice are so important. Don’t let slavery, displacement of indigenous people and genocide be replaced with happy stories of heroes and holidays.
5. Discuss and Check Privilege Often. People spend so much time denying racism, dumbing down history or talking about equal rights. What our children need is to understand privilege and the head start they may have. Whether it’s skin color, education, mental health, wealth or food security — or all of the above — make sure your child understands privilege. There are many kinds of privilege, and only if you talk about it will your children understand their own. Yes, history has a place here. Feelings have a place as well. These ideas are abstract for children, and your child’s feelings might be telling them a different story. We all pity our own plight sometimes, and that is okay too. Let the idea of getting a head start in the race of life guide you.
6. Kindness Matters. Think before you speak. Conversations with one of my friends keeps circling back to the fact that kindness just isn’t emphasized anymore. We forget to really think before we speak or act. It may be old-fashioned, but one of my mother’s wisest rules was, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Lest you think this sounds like, “Shut up and put up,” it’s not. Inherent in most acts of kindness is reflection. Is this the right thing to say? Do I mean what this is going to sound like? We can teach a child to think about words that can hurt. When words are only intended to hurt, we need to help our children check themselves. You can also point out what happens when public figures don’t think before they speak.
7. Examine Other Viewpoints. There is so much to be learned from understanding bigotry and bullying. Yes, it might be yucky to explore, but if we don’t know the root causes of bigotry and bullying, if we don’t study power and its misuse, we can’t be proper allies. If a child doesn’t know how not to behave, it is hard to know how to behave — and harder still to stand up against it. Dig in, feel disgusted, then make a difference.
8. Hate Is Never Funny. Not Ever. Bite your tongue and bite it damn hard if you are using epithets or making racial jokes of any kind. This includes self-deprecating stereotypes about your own culture. Our children do, in fact, know what words mean. Without knowing the dictionary definition, they hear our tone, observe timing and hear anger and laughter at others’ expense. Inadvertently or not, we send the wrong message. If you make a mistake, own up to it.
9. Media Is Not An Excuse. As our children grow, we need to teach them which words are hurtful. Yes, some of those words will be heard in movies or song lyrics, or read in historical context. That doesn’t mean they should be used in day-to-day conversation. If “so-and-so” says it is okay because they are black or Jewish or Polish or LGBTQ, make sure your child knows that there is no one black person, or one Jewish person, or one Polish person or any one LGBTQ person who decides what is hateful. Self-hatred is as insidious as racism.
10. Don’t Make Assumptions. Lots of people play the people-watching game: the one where you see something happening around you and make up a story about it. Not that I want to be the party pooper here, but let’s face it, the game can only succeed in perpetuating stereotypes. There are similarities within races and religions, sure, but there are also as many differences. There are cultures within cultures, regional differences, generational differences and differing family cultures. Even stereotypes that are not inherently negative are still stereotypes. Help your child notice stereotypes and stop the cycle.
11. Use Mistakes as Learning Moments. The best thing you can hope for is that your child will test the inappropriate in your presence. When a teachable moment arises, dive right in. The teachable moment might very well be a learning moment for you, too. Punishing is never as important as learning — and may very well backfire if your child doesn’t really understand the consequence.
12. Set Expectations With Specifics. Make sure your child knows you are raising them to be an ally. Tell them you want them to have all different types of friends. Let them know you want them to be a stronger, better ally than you have ever been; ultimately, you want them to teach you.