Somerville, Mass – We are blessed to live in an ethnically and racially diverse town. The twins’ class of 18 includes students that are African American, Arabic, Iranian, Latino and Sikh. Last year their teachers were from Columbia and Peru, and their babysitters have been all shades of brown, from Guatemalan tan to Guiana black. Out of eight houses on our street, two of them contain biracial families. Diversity is important to us, and I think we’ve done pretty well to make sure the twins get a good dose of it.
So you can imagine my horror when this scene unfolded at the playground.
I was chatting with another mother, who happens to be African American. (She also happens to be a mother of twins!) The kids were playing together. When Twin S came over for a drink of water, I introduced him to the other mother. “This is Princess. Can you say hello?”
I watched my son’s face register surprise, then delight, that his classmates’ mother was a real live “Princess”. And then it turned to disbelief. “You’re not a princess!” he protested.
“Sure, I am,” Princess retorted. “I live in that castle up on the hill.”
Twin S looked skeptical. “Princesses don’t have dark skin.”
Mortification set in.
“Of course they do,” I quickly interjected.
“Well, I never saw a princess with dark skin before,” he countered.
I exchanged hopeless glances with Princess. “I guess we need to expose you to more princesses,” I sighed.
This little incident caused big alarm bells to go off in my brain. It made me realize that it’s not enough for my kids to live in a diverse neighborhood and travel to Spanish-speaking countries. That leaves too many gaps in their knowledge, and the gaps will be filled in–by teachers, by other children and by the popular culture. And the popular culture, especially, sends a dangerous message.
Feminist mom and writer Bree Ervin argues that we have to talk to our children about race–acknowledge it, label it, understand it. She offers many compelling reasons to break the silence, not the least of which is “If we don’t, someone else will.” More importantly, she argues, teaching our children about race gives them the power to see beyond differences so they can appreciate commonalities, act compassionately and fight injustice.
Whoa. Fighting injustice seems like a big task for four-year-olds (even if they do think they are super heroes).
But I guess it’s not. For their purposes, it just means doing the right thing–whether it’s treating people fairly or standing up for others on the playground.
Oddly enough, talking about race is not as easy as it sounds. Like most parents, I want my children to make judgments based on other factors, so it’s counter intuitive to draw their attention to skin color. How do I teach them about race without unintentionally contributing to racism?
I was grateful when I came across Ervin’s follow-up article about 6 Things White Parents Can Do to Raise Racially Conscious Children. Among other things, she suggests paying careful attention to what our children see in the news and in the popular culture. This was particularly apropos to me, since I was still reeling from the princess debacle.
My understanding is that limiting media intake is certainly important, but it’s not really possible to totally control it. That’s why it’s critical to analyze what we do see–and teach kids to do the same. While watching Peter Pan recently, I sat there silently scorning the Disney cartoon’s stereotypical portrayal of Indians. But I didn’t say anything. I missed the chance to debunk a myth and engage my children in a real discussion about race.
Along those lines, Ervin argues that it’s also essential to seek out alternatives to the mainstream–stories that feature diverse characters and points of view. After a quick review of our bookshelves, I found eight books that feature people and cultures of color. It’s better than nothing, but it’s a pretty small percentage.
Only one of these is a mainstream book–from the Cat in the Hat “Step Into Reading” series. In this series (based on the TV show), the kid Nick is African American. So that counts, but it’s definitely the exception in mainstream children’s pop culture.
There are exactly two black characters in Star Wars. There are no black superheroes that I’m aware of. I have since learned about Princess Tiana from The Princess & the Frog, but I think it’s fair to say there is a dearth of black princesses.
So… that’s why it’s not enough to live in a diverse neighborhood and travel to Spanish-speaking countries. The popular culture is powerful and pervasive, and parents need to provide the proper context for our children to understand it. That’s why we have to talk about race. I vow to try harder.