Sometimes I have the most profound talks with my children when I am the least prepared for them. Some days ago, this image on a party item that I had stored in my closet prompted a very important talk about race with my kindergartener.
For Martin Luther King Day, my kindergartener learned for the first time about racial inequality and segregation. She learned that people with dark skin had to sit in different places and where not allowed to go where they wanted to go. She drew and wrote a touching little assignment with a sentence reading: I have a dream that our world would let everybody go everywhere. I know this was mostly prompted by the lesson taught at school but I also know it got her thinking.
Many weeks later, as she was with me when I was putting away some clothes in my closet, she found the party piece in the photo and after asking me what was for she started the following exchange:
Is my skin color darker than yours? -Yes, but just a little bit, look.
Are we different than most people? By this, she meant around our community where more than 90% are Caucasian. -Well, different in skin color and hair, yes. But we all are different and alike in many ways.
If we lived in the time of Martin Luther King, would they have let us go to the same school and ride in the front of the bus? -To be honest, I am not sure. But I’m guessing some people wouldn’t have liked the idea of us being so close.
Are they still people that don’t like others because their skin is a different color? And this was the hardest thing I have ever had to answer to my children so far. -Yes, unfortunately, there are people who feel their skin color or the country that they are from makes them better than others.
With a sad face she said: that’s mean.
I took advantage of this crack in my little girl’s mind to open a window to an issue that we will have to deal with in our life time. Racial inequality, intolerance and xenophobia are not topics that I planned on covering when my kids were in kindergarten. In fact they are the type of topics that I hope wouldn’t cross my young children’s minds. But they are topics that every parent should cover with their children and since the opportunity presented itself, I had a very honest talk with my little girl.
Having two of the most criticized stereotypes in the U.S. right in our household (Middle Eastern and Hispanic), I feel it is important to slowly but effectively arm my children for the racial battles that may await them in the future. So I wasn’t going to sugar-coat the situation for her. Instead I insisted that while there might be people out there who do not like us because of our skin color or nationality, they are many others that are our friends, and we should always value that.
I proceeded to tell her that when I first came to the U.S. to attend college, many classmates didn’t want to be on my study groups or do projects with me because they thought that since I had an accent, I was probably not that good of a student. I had to deal with some discrimination and intolerance, which made it hard for me, but I ended up meeting wonderful friends and that helped me ignore the negative people.
I compared that experience to when she’s at the playground and she gets excluded from a game. I emphasized that there are always other people to play with. I also was very clear to tell her than when people don’t think that you are good enough simply because you are different than them, then they are not worth the effort to befriend.
One should always be polite to people and show respect to all classmates but I told her that there’s a difference between a classmate and an actual friend. Not everyone who comes in touch with you is your friend and that is why true friendship is very valuable. Your true friends don’t care about your skin color or where you are from, they just want to play with you.
I think that answering her question truthfully without any scary details was the best way to start talking about racism. But I also feel that if I had ignored it or played it down, I would probably have close the important channel of communication that I wish to have with her and her siblings. I always want to be one of the main people that they turn for advise and for truthful answers.
I cannot say that my children have experience any racism at school or anywhere else, but I think that is important to think of an action plan should the occasion arises. As their parent, your children are always learning social cues from you. The way in which I respond to racism will shape the way they deal with it in the future. Like for everything else, I just want to be prepared.