A few weeks ago while we were on vacation, I was out to breakfast alone with the kids in Buffalo. I noticed Townes peering intently at the next table over, with somewhat wide eyes. This is not at all unusual for Townes. He is endlessly curious and observant. After a few minutes he looked over at me and blurted loudly “Mama! Why is that lady so black?” I glanced over and, as it turns out, this woman was very, very dark-skinned. She smiled at Townes and then me. I said, “Well, buddy some people have very, very light skin and some people have very, very dark skin. And some people have medium-colored skin. People come in lots of colors.” He looked at me like he generally looks at me when I’m trying to explain a concept to him (completely rapt though a little short of 100% clear on the subject – I’m certain it’s a failing on my part), and then picked up his giant fork with his tiny hand and took a bite of a pancake. That was the end of it. I didn’t give it a second thought.
But after the recent events in Florida, I’ve been slapped with the realization that there are parts of the country to this day where the law actually favors a white man with a gun over an unarmed black kid wearing the universal uniform of the millennial teenager. Without getting too preachy I just have felt sad about the state of the Union. I obviously can’t even imagine what I would teach Townes about safety and common sense if we were black instead of white. It seems to be a completely different set of rules. I would want to tell my son to be confident and proud and not to live in fear. But as a mom, at heart I would just want him to come home in one piece. And if being safe means coming in after dark, avoiding eye contact or conversation at all costs with white strangers in your neighborhood, and assuming that anyone who doesn’t know you might have unclear or bad intentions toward you I’d probably err on the side of caution. And that is so depressing. I’ve been watching a lot of youtube videos and reading essays about change and justice this week because the social media chatter is just too ugly. Kamau Bell and Louis CK made me smile while giving me hope. Also, Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk is heavier, but inspiring.
Finally, I pulled together some ideas around the internet on how to teach your kids about difference and multiculturalism and acceptance. It feels a little like trying to put out a forest fire with a teaspoon of water but for me it felt better than doing nothing.
- Buy toys and dolls that model diversity. Populate your home with a multicultural tapestry of toys from Legos to Barbie. Firemen and policemen come in all colors.
- Immerse your family in other cultures where they are the minority from time to time. It’s much easier to do this in a city like Los Angeles, where we have neighborhoods and festivals to celebrate many nations and cultures of the world, but get creative.
- Take inventory of your own racial biases and always be conscious of the example you are setting for your children.
- Talk to your kids about differences. Forty years of research is showing that children are NOT born colorblind and not discussing race with your kids does not make them so. See Baby Discriminate an excerpt from NurtureShock by Po Bornson and Ashley Merryman is fascinating.