How To Mess Up Your Kids' Understanding of Race

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 

Since becoming a mom six years ago, I’ve noticed an increasingly popular trend among mommy circles, something that makes me really uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable, but angry.

Moms wear it like a badge of honor. They boast. They think they are progressive. They feel they are not just tolerant, but open-minded and accepting.

But they are wrong.

Teaching colorblindness is racism’s friend, not it’s opposite.

Two years ago, I was waiting outside the school for my daughter’s preschool class to be dismissed. As the children came rushing out of the building and into the arms of the adults waiting for them, I overheard one little boy explode with excitement, “MOM! There are brown kids in my class! Three brown kids!”

His mom’s eyes grew large, and she quickly and harshly shushed him. Her eyes darted about trying to see if anyone heard her son’s proclamation.

The boy looked confused. Had he done something wrong? Why wasn’t his mom responding with equal excitement?

That same year, after a Christmas Eve church service, my family and I went to a restaurant for dinner. Almost all the tables were vacant with the exception of a few older couples nestled in the corners and a family of four occupying a booth. We selected a table by the fireplace, ordered our food, and waited for our soup and sandwiches to arrive.

A young girl, probably about five years old, inched unnoticed from her family’s booth towards ours. I watched her eye my two-year-old and the newborn baby, with her deep brown skin, in my arms.

“Hi,” the girl said, reaching our table.

“Hi,” I said. And I knew, I knew, what she was going to ask. I could see the confusion, the curiosity, in her eyes.

“Are those your kids?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied, noticing that her parents suddenly realized that their daughter was at our table.

The little girl studied us carefully, her wheels turning. I sensed she wanted to ask me another question, but she wasn’t sure exactly what to ask, or how. Meanwhile, the girl’s parents sat at their table, mouths open in shock, unmoving.

I looked at them, waiting for them to respond. To call their daughter’s name, or to walk over and encourage her to go back and sit down. Instead, they did nothing.

So I proceeded to give their daughter what she wanted: clarification.

“My kids are adopted. Do you know what adopted means?”

She remained silent, but interested.

“They came from another mommy, but that mommy couldn’t take care of them. So we take care of them now. They are our children.”

She then asked one of the most thoughtful questions I’ve ever heard from a young child: “Do they see their other mommies?”

“Yes,” I told her. “We visit their other mommies.”

“My baby brother uses the same bottles as your baby,” she observed.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her parents breathe a sigh of relief at the change of subject. The girl’s father called out to her, asking her to come back to the table.

Situations like these have happened many times. The little boy at the park who asked me how I could be my kids’ mother, because they are black and I’m white. The college-age cashier at the department store who looked at my kinky-haired, caramel-skinned son in the stroller, then at me, and asked, “Is that your kid?” The little girl in my oldest child’s class who asked me if my daughter and the other black girl in the class were sisters, and I informed her that just because two people share the same skin color, doesn’t make them siblings.

All of these individuals craved the same thing: truth.

Parents should know that the best way to screw up their kid’s understanding and acceptance of race (or really, any important topic) is to ignore, shush, or evade their child’s questions and observations. Because your kids are smart. They know you are full of it when you preach Utopian philosophies over the real deal. Lies, evasion, and dismissal create distrust, suspicion, and uncertainty. These are not the things that make up healthy, open relationships.

If you choose to preach colorblindness instead of sharing truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be, you are dismissing a very important part of who my children are and you are squandering your child’s right to acknowledge, understand, embrace, and celebrate difference.

The next time your child points out to you a family who doesn’t match, or the next time your child gets excited over having a friend who looks different from himself or herself, or the next time your child asks you one of those GULP questions about racism, take a deep breath, pull up a chair, and share some truth.

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