Why White Parents Should Teach Their Children About Race

Really, it wasn’t planned, this cornucopia of color and races and backgrounds and experiences. It was just Mari’s birthday party, a tiny affair that involved five beautiful 12-year-old girls with big personalities, lots of shared interests in Lemonade Mouth and Glee and an affinity for gourmet strawberry cupcakes and painting each others toes and fingers. Peeping around the corner into the room where this loud, giggly affair was taking place was like gazing at a Benetton ad on helium: lots of colors, lots of cultures, lots of backgrounds, lots of languages, all united, with a sole mission: to have as much giggly sleepover fun at our place as humanly possible.

They weren’t focused on their differences, by any stretch. But I noticed and reveled in them—the hysterically gregarious Ethiopian baby girl of the interracial couple from New Orleans; the motor-mouthed and deliciously bubbly daughter of an African American woman and a Mexican dad; the quiet, observant Jamaican-American; the lanky, thoughtful Chinese child of two white Southerners; and my baby, 100 percent black Georgia peach by way of NYC. And I couldn’t help but to be proud of my Mari for picking the mix, even if it happened only subconsciously.

Oh, she swears she doesn’t pick friends by color or culture or background—that she’s an equal opportunity friend, so long as you’re a nice person and kinda, sorta dig some of the same things she does. We had an interesting discussion about it yesterday, the continuation in an ongoing conversation we’ve been having about differences. About noticing them. And giving them a nod. And appreciating them for what they are. She understands its import—and for that, I’m grateful. But she told me, too, that picking friends according to some arbitrary thing like skin color doesn’t rule her choices either—and for that I’m grateful, too.

I’ve been considering this a lot this week after I logged onto The Twitter and found this tweet from a white mother named Brenda who blogs about her autistic son on her website, Mama Be Good:

@MyBrownBaby If u get a min, would love 2 know what u think. Why should I teach my child about race?

In the tweet, Brenda included a link to a poignant blog post she penned about her delicious son, Jack, who, it seems, has yet to identify people by skin color, and instead focuses on the shape of people’s foreheads and the color of their hair to distinguish one person from another. Recently, she wrote, Jack said a man with the same wrinkleless forehead and dark-colored hair as his dad looked like his father. This, despite the man is African American and Jack’s dad is Caucasian. And in Brenda’s opinion, this is a perfectly acceptable way for her son to identify folk because, well, it’s no more random than pointing out someone’s skin color. She continued:

Let’s just admit it.  Race-based identification is arbitrary.  So I haven’t ‘taught’ Jack about skin color.  I haven’t labeled people based on their race.  I haven’t pointed out that people have different skin colors.  I’m curious to see if he notices – ever – but I can’t think of a reason, right now, that he needs to know.  I can foresee sometime in the future when we’re reading history … he already knows Lincoln and some things about the Civil War, all to do with the terrifying fact that people died.  And, if for some reason, he began acting differently towards people based on their skin color, or wanted to know why others treated people differently based on their skin color, or if he were treated differently because of his skin color, absolutely. Then we’d need a history lesson and a human being lesson.

And, yes, perhaps not teaching him about prejudice is a luxury we can afford simply because we happen to be Caucasian. I recognize the unfairness. I recognize that this lesson has to occur for some children earlier. And it is unfair. Or perhaps we aren’t teaching Jack about prejudice right now ’cause we’re still working on the basics.  Because Jack is diagnosed with autism.  Or because we’ll be talking about a different kind of prejudice.  Because Jack is diagnosed with autism.

But right now, Jack perceives people without bias.  We aren’t our skin color.  We are people.

And foreheads.  Apparently.

I promise you this: Brenda’s post—and her question—did make me think and stretch and consider the view from her side of the street; her son sounds precious and my God, who would want to sully that innocence?

The truth is, I wish Jack’s way was the way of humans—that we all were blissfully unaware of skin color and all the baggage that comes with it and simply identified people by the number of lines on their forehead or the tint of their hair. But we are humans. And sadly, all-too-many of us grow up and get grown and get our fill of living and experiences and theories and stereotypical messages both overt and subliminal and, whether we really care to admit it or not, we form our ideas and feast on those of others and, quick as a wink, that idealistic innocence flies right on out the window.

Here on the Parenting Post, I’ve cited studies and books, too, about how well-meaning white parents do their children a huge disservice when they cloak real historical and cultural issues in vague platitudes instead of taking on the topic of race head-on. As evidenced in this post, you leave your child open to some pretty scary situations; in another post, I wrote about how exposing white children to books and toys featuring children of color helps give parents a chance to show not just the differences but the commonalities between the races and cultures and why this is an important conversation to have early and often.

Here’s the thing: no matter how much white parents think their silence on the matter will help their kids maintain their innocence when it comes to race, the world will work overtime to feed kids the crazy—kind of like what happens when parents refuse to talk to their kids about sex and then he hits the locker room and some boob tells him he can’t get a girl pregnant if he pulls out or that he’ll grow hair on his hands if his uses them to masturbate or he can’t get HIV from oral sex, and then the kid with all the bad info shows up wiht a baby or an infection. Like sex, skin color will become one of those things that sticks out like a neon target. It will become a very relevant thing. Maybe not for Brenda. Or her sweet Jack. But for plenty more, I assure. And if the discussion doesn’t come up in your house until there’s a problem, well, the discussion is way too late.

The truth is I don’t have the luxury of walking into the room and having my skin color go unnoticed. I don’t have the luxury of applying for a job and having it go unnoticed. I don’t have the luxury of going to a restaurant or shopping in a store or driving in a well-to-do neighborhood—even my own—and have people see my forehead or the color of my hair or the hue of my eyes instead of my skin. The same goes for my man and my hulking, football playing son and my two chocolate girlpies and my 76-year-old daddy, who grew up in the segregated South, and my in-laws, who live in a mostly-white neighborhood where their son is the only black child in the class and their other son, a sweet 12-year-old kid who couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt a fly and loves pretty much anyone he comes in contact with, was called the “N” word for nothing more than that his skin is brown. This is the American way.

And seeing as it can’t be hidden and I’ve worked so hard to love my brown skin despite all of the negative storylines/assumptions attached to it, the last thing I and oh so many more who look like me want is to have someone say she doesn’t “see” it. I won’t speak for all African Americans because we are not a monolith. I will, however, say that a large part of who I am and what I love about myself is rooted to my race and the culture connected to it; my skin is no less a part of me than my limbs, my breath—my heart. I know for sure that I am not alone in my thinking on this. It does not define me, but this brown skin has helped shape me in immeasurable ways. I can say the same is true for my babies, who, even as they are being encouraged not to dwell on color, are being taught that color and culture is important—a part of the myriad of things that makes each of us special and different and beautifully human.

And that, along with foreheads and hair color and a cornucopia of giggly little girls with a rainbow of skin colors, cultures and backgrounds, is worth noticing.

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.

15 Comments

  1. Clicking over to read. Curious to know your response

  2. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Silence is not the answer, in the case of Brenda she may not have been able to make her child understand, but for the rest of us we do need to talk to our children, and we do need them to understand that the differences are what make this world so wonderful to live in. I guess I am going to add here it is important to have this discussion so that our children can be there to step up if and when the time arrises. I don’t remember the discussion with my children as they are grown now, but we always read books, watch movies, discussed the news (even when they were little), our street grew to be a nice microcosim of the world. We also mixed with people of all races and religions, it helps. I think for myself and my husband, the subject of race was easier than the subject of sex – and if you ask my 30 year old, he insists I never discussed sex with him – not true!

  3. Another fantastic and insightful post. I’ll be sharing this one for sure.

  4. My co-workers and I talked about this at work yesterday. One co-worker, who her kids and mine has had playdates in the past, told me that her 4 year old daughter asked about the skin color of my kids(age 4 and 2). Her daughter wanted to know why my kids hands were “browner” than hers. My co-worker told me that she actually never thought about teaching her kids about race but will definitely start. So yes, teaching the young all about race is totally acceptable. One of the reasons I oriented my kids to race/other cultures is because I know that at one point they will start to ask, especially being the only African American in their classes and activities.

  5. Robin Caldwell

    Tweetin’, emailin’ and sharin’…

  6. “The truth of the matter is that avoiding or refusing to have meaningful conversations about race with their children is about as dangerous as refusing to talk to their kids about sex. In both instances, if the discussion doesnt come up in your house until theres a problem, well, the discussion is way too late.”

    So true. Nice way to bring it home.

  7. I read Brenda’s post and now yours. My sons have brown skin and Aspergers (high functioning autism). Race is just one more layer that makes them feel different when they walk into a room. They will be judged by it by some before they are judged by their Aspergers (another difference). We definitely talk about it. There is no choice in the matter. I am glad to see that Brenda is thinking about it and writing about it because people with white skin don’t really have to.

  8. I think it’s a great thing to talk about regardless of what race you are, its a conversation that should take place for all races, because there are offensive things said on both sides. I understand it is more apparent in a black home but being raised by white parents (I am African American and Jamaican descent) I was faced with ignorance on both sides. From early age my parents were ready to answer question and had friends in our life that could answer what they couldn’t. I’m 21 now and grateful for how I was raised to respect all cultures and have a strong sense of identity. I work with kids and like to instill in them a pride in their race and being apart of a multicultural world with age, race, and disabilities. Everyone should be aware of all cultures we live in a diverse world. The conversation should not just stop at race but all people.

  9. “I think its a great thing to talk about regardless of what race you are, its a conversation that should take place for all races, because there are offensive things said on both sides.”

    –I completely agree. This isn’t a white issue, it’s a human issue. Just about every race has it’s stereotypes and misconceptions, and the only way to minimize this is to talk. Talk to each other, talk to strangers, and tell ourselves that everyone, (including me) is ok the way we are.

  10. Denene,

    I love you. And not just because you describe my son as delicious (he is, isn’t he). Your response is so well thought-out, so insightful. I want you on my parenting advisory board. You have thoughtfully considered the pitfalls and benefits of teaching our kids about race and have great ideas on how to do that (books, images, kids).

    Because of Jack’s diagnosis of autism, we won’t have to worry about him getting information the way other kids do. Not the locker room, inside jokes, or idle talk. That’s just the good and bad of autism. But prejudice, yes, at the age an stages of development that are appropriate, we’ll be talking to Jack about prejudice – race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, AND abilities. Yep, my son has already encountered stares, questions, and remarks. MOST people, yes, the majority, are loving, caring, curious. And that’s what I want him to know for sure.

    One of the ideas that you have here, Denene, that stopped me in my tracks with its beauty is that we do not want to erase WHO you are. We do not want to deny your skin color. Your skin color, your heritage, your culture, our shared history, is part of who you are, what has influenced you, what has made you the person you are today. That idea is HUGE – true for all prejudice – and one I want to pass around to everyone.

    ((thank you)) for your understanding and help.

  11. I wanted to start out by saying how beautifully written this post is. I really appreciate the way you describe children, as “delicious” and other ways that fit their personalities. I can see these descriptions in the children that are around me daily. Thank You!
    Personally, race is not just a “White and Black” issue. I believe the article states that but the title is confusing to me.
    We are a mixed race family so when we walk into a room, the issue being that of what “White” people need to teach their kids is obsolete. We get stares and questions from all races and skin colours.
    It’s more about what we as parents regardless of culture, race, and ethnicity, are teaching our children.
    Thank you again for this article! It was shared in a Mamas group I’m in and has had some great response.
    Blessings!

  12. I remember describing a friend by their skin colour when I was little. I think I actually did say black. I just assumed though that black in the context of skin meant dark brown in the same way that redhead didn’t have literally fire-engine red hair but more a sort of orangey colour. I do recall my teacher asking me something like why I did that. I remember My response was to stare at her for a moment and then saying something along the lines of . “Your hair is yellow. Same thing.” and then I happily went back to playing with my friends.

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