Talking to children: About Color, Culture and Connection


I remember sitting at lunch with my sons and a friend of my eldest
son. As the two friends took a break from talking to eat pizza, my son
Chris (noticing the difference between his brown skin and his friend’s
white skin) says with a smile on his face and very lightheartedly, “boy,
it’s a good thing we aren’t back in Martin Luther King, Jr. days, or
else, we may not have been able to be friends.” His friend agrees, and
they smile and continue eating their pizza, and laughing about the silly
things (the then), 9 year old boys find amusing.

I was delighted by the short and open conversation that didn’t seem
to cause any angst between the boys. Mostly, I believe it was their
cultural connection (taking the definition as the characteristic features
of everyday existence shared by people in a place or time) that made
it easier to talk about. As a side note, I love Boston and have met so
many amazing people there. I also have to admit that I’ve never felt
like my color was more relevant than here in Boston. Funny how the
lack of discussion brings more discomfort. It has always been a part
of my journey to have a variety of friends who could reference race,
among other topics, in a variety of settings.

While reading an article called “The Danger of Not Talking to Your
Children About Race” in the New York Times, I realized why it made
me so uncomfortable. The article speaks of research that suggests,
“that when we don’t talk about race, our children continue to think
about it – and what they think is that it matters too much to talk
about.” The article also quoted a Newsweek article that said, “It’s the
children whose parents do directly address race – and directly means
far more than declaring everyone to be equal – who are less likely to
make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”

It was validating to read this article, as I often believe people who
throw out the “I don’t see color” and “we’re all the same” comments
have more prejudices around color than those who can actually talk
directly about race. That means being able to ask questions and to be
open to learning and adjusting paradigms. It’s our human connection,
not color, that should move us to wanting to find out about some
one’s character.

Assisting our children in understanding the connections we have to
one another and appreciating the differences in our cultures is a great
way to begin communicating about this topic. And, in our ever melting
pot of a world, it will be those who understand and appreciate these
dynamics that will prosper.

Dr. Tatum, President of Spelman College and Author of “Why
Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And
Other Conversations about Race,” had these five tips for talking
to your children:

Don’t be afraid to bring it up. For many parents, the race talk is
as difficult as the birds and the bees talk. Dr. Tatum attributes this
awkwardness to a lack of communication about race in many of our
own childhoods. “There are concerns about saying the wrong thing
and sounding racist, even if that is not the intent.” says Dr. Tatum.
“Sometimes parents naively believe that if they talk about issues of
race with their children, they will cause them to notice race in a way
that they did not before.”
Look for teaching moments. Not sure how to get the conversation
started? If your child comments on different skin colors, that’s an
easy in. Children’s books that discuss race are also a gentle
introduction. Or, you can look for subtle openings in everyday life.
“I was cooking with my 3-year-old,” says Dr. Tatum. “We used the
last white egg in the carton, and then took out another carton of eggs,
this time brown eggs.  My son noted that the eggs were different in
color. ‘Yes,’ I said, as we cracked both eggs open, ‘But look — they
are the same inside.  Just like people, they come in different shades,
but they are the same on the inside.'”

Make the message age-appropriate. For preschoolers, use concrete
examples, like the egg example above. Since even young children
can understand when something is unfair (how many times have they
lobbed the “not fair!” charge at you?), you can break down slavery
(or segregation) for them: Slavery happened a long time ago, but
holding people captive and making them work without paying them
is unfair. So slavery ended, because many people thought it was unfair
and worked to change it. “I think it is important to emphasize that no
racial group is all bad or all victims,” says Dr. Tatum. “For example,
in the US, white people were slaveowners, but white people also
worked against slavery. Black people were enslaved, but many
resisted their mistreatment by running away and helping others
escape. Offering examples of people working together is
also important.”

Accept that prejudiced comments may happen — and that doesn’t
mean your child is racist. If your kid makes a questionable remark,
don’t freak. “Children often repeat what they hear others say, and it
doesn’t necessarily mean that the child believes it,” says Dr. Tatum.
“Ask questions. ‘What made you say….?’ Gently dispute the stereo-
type or prejudiced attitudes. ‘I’ve heard people say X about Y, but
my experience with Y people is…’ and give an example to dispute
the stereotype.”

Most importantly, be a role model. “The best way to reduce children’s
prejudices is to model an inclusive home, demonstrating that you have
friends of all backgrounds,” says Dr. Tatum. “Parents who have
learned to lead multicultural lives, connecting with people different
from themselves, are more likely to have children who develop those
important life skills at an early age.”

Let’s shake of the fear of the color and culture conversation so that
we can promote a culture of connectedness.

Let’s live wise and explore motherhood. . .together.

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