Grappling with Race, Culture, and Class

Posted November 20th, 2012 by Ellen in Child, Parenting

rainbow of all different colorsBeezus, my 7-year old, is grappling with figuring some things out these days.

For her entire life, she has never known anything different than living in a world of racial, cultural and socio-economic diversity. School, church, soccer team, the grocery store, activities, library, even our neighborhood – her entire world is racially or culturally or socio-economically diverse or a combination of the three. We have friends with multi-racial families and our pediatrician is an African-American female.  We don’t live in a fancy suburb with a school where all the children have parents with college degrees. (I took a lot of race/culture classes in graduate school and my master’s thesis was on the socio-economic disparities in attainment of higher education degrees.)

We live in a multi-cultural and diverse world.

My sister, Mr. Quimby (my husband) and I have been careful to model how we refer to people based on their skin color. For years, we only referred to people by their color of their skin when absolutely necessary and then we used it as one of many descriptors (the tall man with the blue coat and the brown skin, or the short lady with the red hat and the peach skin, for example). Beezus started using the same manner of speech around 5 or 6 years old. Before that, she never referred to skin color.  Recently, several things have happened that lead me to believe that she is trying to figure all this out in her head.

Earlier this year, she was disappointed when some children in her class didn’t have their mothers bring a special treat for the child’s birthday. When she asked why, I didn’t want to convey that we should feel sympathy or sadness for those children. I simply explained that every family does things differently, and perhaps that wasn’t part of their family celebration. I went on to explain that maybe the parents were working and that they didn’t have jobs where they could leave early or maybe they decided to spend money on different things in their family.

She is also jealous of the kids that get pulled out for ESL and asked why she couldn’t go to special English lessons too. That one was easy for her to understand since I teach ESL to adults ! She has always known that different people speak different languages in their homes, but I wasn’t sure how to explain the complex reasons why those children weren’t speaking English before they came to school. Right now, all she knows is that it is her special job to help Katherine at school because Katherine sometimes has trouble with her English.

A few months ago she told me that the only reason she couldn’t make a farting noise with her armpit was because only boys with brown skin could do that.  When I asked for clarification, it turned out that the three boys in her class who were the best at armpit farting were African-American boys.  Her opinion changed though when her Grandma showed her armpit farting skills too.  Um, thanks Mom ?

Last week, we had a conversation that brought all of this to a head.

When discussing her upcoming birthday party, I was mentioning a few of the girls in her class. She said that she didn’t want to invite anyone with brown skin. I literally felt sick to my stomach and could feel tears building up in my eyes. Where had I gone wrong ?  What had I done to raise a child who didn’t want any African-American children at her birthday party ?  I paused for a moment, knowing that this was a pivotal moment and how I responded would be important.

I carefully said, “Why ? Why don’t you want to invite anyone with brown skin ? Is it because their skin is brown or for a different reason ?”
Holding my breath while I awaited the answer.
She said, “No, it’s because they are fancy and they dress fancy and because Felice told other kids at recess that I did something wrong on my worksheet.”
I responded, “Beezus, it’s not really nice to say that you don’t want to invite someone because of the color of their skin. People aren’t different because of their skin – they are different for other reasons.”
Five year old Ramona piped in “Yeah, Abrea is my best friend and she has brown skin and I love her and I even let her be the Queen sometimes when we play family.”  Thanks Ramona !

Since then, she has referenced people’s skin color a couple other times, such as “Mom, hurry up. That browned skin man is waiting for our parking spot.” I respond, “Oh, the man in the red truck ? Okay.” I wonder if she is trying out these words in her mind to figure out the right way and the right context to use them.

I can’t help feeling like I failed in that moment. We all know that skin color does matter – it matters a lot. I wish that it was truly only a descriptor – only a physical characteristic.  But we adults know that race is often tied to power and privilege and is distributed with bias and prejudice.  I want to develop a sense of social justice in my girls and make them aware of the privilege (and the responsibility that comes along with it), but I don’t want them to feel sorry for people who don’t have that privilege and power.   I want them to develop empathy but not sympathy and I never want to convey that people with less of something are to be pitied.

In practice, I know what I believe and how/where I want to live my life.  In theory, I guess I’m still grappling with how to convey all this to a 7-year old.

Do you talk with your children about these issues?  At their invitation or yours?  What do you say?  Do you take the conversation beyond race and into culture/class/socio-economic/power/privilege issues?

When Ellen isn’t tongue-tied with her children, she blogs semi-anonymously (please don’t tell her neighbors) at Thrift Store Mama and lives with her husband and two daughters in Gorgeous Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Photos from stock.xchng.



10 Responses to “Grappling with Race, Culture, and Class”

  1. Aimee

    Thanks for this wonderfully honest and thought-provoking post. I think I’m with you on the “in theory” I handle this perfectly but in practice things are much more complicated. I am very grateful, though, that my children are growing up around diversity — in all manners — which I did not experience until college.

  2. Christine

    The book “Nurture Shock” has a very interesting chapter on this – basically saying that we should talk about skin color with our children (as you do) because they’re not, as parents sometimes think, “color-blind”, but in fact will pick up on the fact that it’s something you don’t talk about if you shy away from it. So I think the fact that you’re talking about it, and continue to, is a really good thing.

  3. Laurie

    I agree with Christine about the book “Nurture Shock” and the importance of talking to kids about it. There’s also a cool set of Implicit Association self-assessment tests available at . These get at diversity issues if you’re interested in looking at your own associations regarding diversity issues.

  4. Amanda

    Nice post, Ellen! As a mom in a bi-racial family, I expected that these issues would be front-of-mind all the time and that I’d regularly need to have loaded conversations with my kids about race. The funny thing is that I find the opposite to be true! Perhaps because our immediate and extended family come in all different shades, my boys are very matter of fact about the whole thing.

    In fact, nearly all of the awkward conversations I’ve had regarding the kids and race have been with white strangers and casual acquaintances, who clearly want to inquire about my kids’ racial background but are very uncomfortable broaching the issue. People of other racial backgrounds tend to be much more direct about the whole thing.

    All that said, I think it’s way more challenging to address the issues of power and privilege. You make an excellent point about teaching empathy, rather than sympathy, which I find to be much easier said than done!

  5. Susan

    Living in DC, this is definitely a hot button topic, and there aren’t easy answers. Way back in preK, E’s class read a book where people’s skin colors were described as foodstuffs. So for the longest time, she referred to all African American’s as chocolate. It was quite charming, actually. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that truly, we’re mostly in a post-racial world. at this point, it really is mostly about socio-economic status. WHich is almost a harder thing to discuss.

  6. {sue}

    We’ve had some of those same conversations, including the cringe-worthy moments where one of my kids will say something mean or exclusionary about another race – things I thought I was avoiding. But I think it’s a normal part of categorizing people and understanding when and how using categories is appropriate. (If that makes sense.)

    I have to say, for my older kids, when I look at their groups of close friends now, the diversity I had always hoped for is there.

  7. Laurence

    I like your approach. I do not think that children discriminate whey they talk about color, to them it is a fact.

  8. Mike

    Hey Ellen. I think the way you responded was awesome, and no I don’t think you failed R&B (LOL. that made me laugh…R&B). As an African American man, with a 6YO son and newborn daughter, my wife and I don’t really “plan” our talks about race and differences (at least not yet). These tend to happen naturally, and we promised not to lie to our children. So, if its a tough question, we’re going to have an honest and authentic conversation about whatever the topic is. For example, my son basically said “white people love Mitt Romney, and Brown people love Barack Obama.” In that moment, we told him….No, there are many white people that love Obama and many Brown people that love Romney…and that, some Brown people are more comfortable with other Brown people and some White people are more comfortable with other White people. Of course, he asked why…and that’s when we talked about family, history, racism, power, privilege, slavery, etc…in a kid friendly manner, of course. But the point is, when moments present themselves, you have to be honest with your kids and developmentally appropriate, and continue to be honest as questions and situations come up. Thanks for sharing Ellen! Oh wait…this is DCMom’s…I shouldn’t even be reading this. LOL :)

  9. Jessica Haney

    Chiming in late, but I echo others’ sentiments and have had a lot of the same questions and conversations. For a long time (age 2-4ish), my son would refer to people by the color of their shirt and say “the green man” and “the purple guy.” It’s only natural to get more nuanced in your understanding of the clothes vs. the people but to stay at that level of descriptor. I think if we shush kids from those kinds of observations, we’re sending a message that something is wrong with noticing things that should just be innocent details. It’s the teaching of what else skin color means beyond innocent details — and figuring out what is developmentally appropriate — that is tough. Thanks for sharing!