Talking to children about racism and diversity seems to be as difficult as talking to them about sex. Difficult though it might be, the racial conflicts which they are bound to encounter in this increasingly diverse societyare unavoidable, and trying to protect them from the real world will only make it difficult for them to deal with the inevitable.
The April 28, 2011 edition of Psychology Today ran an article entitled, Are We Born Racist? The article referenced a study on how parents talk to their children about race, which became oddly famous not because of the results, but because of the lack of it. The study was never complete and therefore no results were published. The reason for that was, parents had signed up for a study on how they communicate with their children, but when they realized that one of the topics was about racism, they all withdrew.
My awareness of the need to talk to my children about racism and diversity was heightened when I attended a predominantly African American forum where the following question was posed: At what age should we discuss racial discrimination with our children? Based on the assumption that we should discuss it, the issue at hand was when. I began deep introspection about how I had been handling, or better yet, not handling the subject within my family. Being an immigrant from a country where 90% of the population is of African descent, racism was never an issue for me, and I was not about to make an issue out of it now. Besides, I believed that my children would be affected only if they were aware that they should be affected.
I also held a strong conviction that statisticians were partly responsible for the destiny of many African Americans, especially young men, who are bombarded by so many negative statistics in about every area of society: highest unemployment rate, highest rate of poverty, highest dropout rate in school, highest crime rate, most likely to end up in prison convincing them that they are destined to fail. That, I believed, accounted for the victim mentality amongst African Americans
—an attitude by which I was and still am irked, and one which I refuse to let my children fall prey to. I wanted to cocoon my children in an ideal world where they are simply children or people without the adjective black qualifying them.
I was forced to push aside all my preconceptions when I received a rude awakening—one for which I was totally unprepared. My seven-year old son, who was in second grade, came home complaining that his classmate had asked, “How come a black kid is smarter than me?” after my son answered a math question correctly. Obviously disturbed by that experience for which he too was unprepared, he wondered why the color of his skin was being measured against his intellectual ability. This is just one example of the risks of taking the color-blind approach to diversity. Pretending that diversity does not affect us in one way or another—-or worse yet, pretending that we are unaware of our differences is a failed approach. Had I seen things differently, I would have equipped myself to train my kids to stand up for themselves, sparing my child the pain of discrimination.
Children are not afraid to acknowledge difference. In fact, many studies show that a child can identify racial differences as early as three years old, which indicates that the subject can be introduced at a child’s level of readiness. It is also true that many times the things that they say which are interpreted as racial slurs are not intentional. So, why are we afraid to deal with what is natural? A child will sincerely question the color of another person, looking for understanding. At four years old, my daughter asked my friend’s employer why the color of her hair was yellow. Rather than shushing them and telling them that it is impolite, such opportunities should be used as teaching moments to educate them on our differences.
Now all three of my children, ages eighteen, thirteen and eleven years old, are not just aware, but they enjoy a close bond with friends of varying ethnicities: Hispanic, Indian, White, and mixed, who come over frequently to play, and enjoy my homemade lemonade with a tropical twist, which, by the way they say, is the best.
Just as we would not allow our children to be vulnerable to predators by not educating them on the dangers of talking to strangers, we should not wait to prepare them for racial bullying. As parents and educators we must be proactive. The time to talk about it is now.