The other day we were playing at the park and a little Haitian girl ran up to Ayla and wanted to play with her. She had really cool braided hair with beads at the end that made click-y noises as she ran around the playground, full of energy. Ayla rarely cries on the playground and plays with pretty much anybody who even looks her way. But when this little girl ran up to her she burst into tears. The little girl then sprinted over to me to apologize (she was about eight years old and also spoke fluent Spanish) and declared that she hadn’t done anything wrong. I reassured her that I knew she just wanted to play with Ayla, hadn’t done anything mean to her and that Ayla was just a little bit scared of her hair.
In my past way of thinking, I 100% would not have said anything. In fact, I don’t think it would’ve even occurred to me that maybe Ayla was scared of her because her hair looked different or made noises.
And I’ll also admit, saying something about it made me extremely uncomfortable. I’m not used to talking about race. I don’t know if I’m saying the right thing or not. But I told Ayla, “See how nice this little girl is? She doesn’t have white skin like you, she has beautiful black skin and beautiful braided hair and you don’t have to be afraid, you can play with her and she can be your friend too.”
Ayla stopped crying and the little Haitian girl took her by the hand and marched her back to the middle of the playground where they chased a balloon around together for the rest of our playtime. It turned into a very nice Hallmark moment.
I am currently reading a really fantastic book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. It’s kind of like a Malcolm Gladwell style Blink book, but about raising kids. And the chapter in NurtureShock about race gave me the tools to see that situation in a different light and confront it in hopefully a better way than I would’ve before.
You see, it turns out kids are discriminatory little assholes. It’s built into human genetics to prefer people who are similar to us and think more negatively about those are different. Reading this book I read about some mind-blowing studies on racism in children:
“One study that made this evident was when they took a class and divided them into two groups. One group wore red shirts and the other wore blue shirts. No mention was ever made to the colour of the shirts they wore. There were no competitions, nor segregation and during play time, the red and blue shirts were free to intermingle as they desired.
After a while, the examiner questioned both red and blue shirts. When the red shirts were asked who was more likely to be nice, they answered the red shirts. When the red shirts were asked who was more likely to be mean, they answered the blue shirts. Likewise, when the blue shirts were asked who was more likely to win a competition, they answered the blue shirts. Despite there being no references made to the difference in shirt colour, the children instinctively picked up on it and made their own assumptions based on that external difference.” Figur8
The exact same thing happens with different skin colors. If you do not specifically point out differences and explain them, children, by age three, already have inherent assumptions that people who have a different skin color than them are bad or mean or less smart or any number of negative associations. By age three!!! Had I not read this book, I would’ve thought that Ayla was too young for me to start having any kind of a “conversation” about race with her.
The chapter tells us that new evidence suggests having conversations with babies about race is vital, and not in general sweeping terms about how we’re all the same. That doesn’t work. That’s our parents’ way of doing things.
In the olden days, common wisdom was that you don’t speak of the color of people’s skin in your household or bring up differences that other people may have with your children, because then you’re teaching them to acknowledge that dark skin is different than their light skin. Our parents’ generation thought that this way they were bring up their babies to be “colorblind,” and the word “colorblind,” was always taken to be kind of the antithesis to racism.
My own mom, woke ahead of her time in many ways, never had to confront this issue. We were raised in an extremely white, religious, conservative part of Michigan. I don’t recall ever asking her about children with other skin colors, I also don’t recall seeing many movies or reading any books starring children who weren’t white. It would seem that race was a non-issue when I was child, living in my bubble of white-safety, white privilege and socio-economic comfort. She taught me to have compassion and empathy for people from different backgrounds, exposing us as much as she could to other cultures, however, I lived in a bubble growing up, in which I only ever had one black friend.
Because we didn’t talk about race in my house, I didn’t dare talk about it with my friend. I look back — did I wonder then if he ever felt uncomfortable existing in such a pre-dominantly white environment? He didn’t seem to mind walking that line. This friend maintained friendships with the very few other POC in my high school and also with all his white social circles. He played football and was in marching band and became my grade’s homecoming king. I don’t think any of us ever thought to ask him what life was like for him, if he felt race differences in our school’s environment, or if life truly was as rosy as he made it look to be.
When I got to college my world expanded, I was suddenly meeting women who wore hijabs, POC, I made friends from the LGTB community. And all of a sudden I started hearing their stories — how they lived through racism and discrimination in a world that I had largely believed to be a friendly place. I was blindsided. I had so many questions I wanted to ask them. Yet race was such a taboo topic in my household that I didn’t dare to bring it up even with my new friends. I’d always believed myself to be colorblind, until suddenly one day I woke up and realized I was operating on the same ingrained biases that we all are.
I am doing my best for Ayla to grow up in a more diverse environment than I did. I am doing my best to teach her about race and racism. Her experience as a white-passing Latina will be different than what I’ve lived but I hope that at the very least I can teach her not to be afraid to to educate herself about topics that might make her uncomfortable.
When it comes to raising a baby who is tolerant and open to the world, especially when it comes to subjects relating to race, every day I realize how much I don’t know. There is no specific road map to follow.
It terrifies me, as I read and learn, all the ways that racism seeps into the very pores of our society and all I want is to try and understand how I can better teach Ayla what her white privilege means. I personally know a lot of people who shut down when they hear those words “white privilege,” and while I don’t agree with with their views, I think and would hope that all of us would want to raise our children not to be racist. Hopefully books like NurtureShock will help us down that path.