When Does Racial Discrimination Start?

Amy Boshnack

black boy and white girl
Kids don't see color
Kids are brutally honest. In fact, they can be too honest at times, which is why we often end up laughing at the stuff that comes out of their mouth. That is, until something comes out of their mouth that horrifies you ... even if it is just an honest observation. Things like "mommy, look how fat that man is!" As honest and accurate as the comment may be, if said loud enough, your next move may be to pretend you don't know the kid straddling your leg.

This brings me to my mortifying moment, which happened just days ago, in front of my babysitter ...

My daughter and I were looking at a map. I pointed to Guyana and told her that this is where her babysitter is from. She turned and, very innocently, asked me, "Is that where all brown people come from?" WHAT? Did those words seriously just come out of her mouth? Brown? Really? I certainly have never referred to anyone — ever — as brown. And how offensive to think that an entire race comes from the same place. WTF? Okay, so she is just 6 years old.

My babysitter didn't care ... she just laughed. But OMG ... what if she'd asked me that somewhere else? What if it was in front of our black friends? Worse, what if it was in front of our black childless friends, who maybe wouldn't be as understanding as someone with kids? Mind you, this is a comment coming from a little girl who once told me she wanted to be black. And when I asked her why, she simply said, "Because I want to be like Tyler B.," her friend in preschool.

After I discreetly picked my mouth up off the floor, I told her that we don't call anyone brown ... to which she argued the point that our babysitter's "skin is not black, it is brown." I told her that sometimes our observations are correct but the way we express ourselves needs to be different, so we don't hurt anyone's feelings.

Next, I rolled up our sleeves and showed her that even though we are both white, our skin tone is different. That people are all different shades and come from all over the world.

Then I wondered, did I do/say the right things? I called a friend (and kindergarten teacher) who has three boys (the youngest is pictured, with my daughter, above) and asked her.

The first thing she said was, "Yes, tell her people don't want to be called brown." Okay, check!

The second was "Explain that people from all over the world have different complexions. Bring in books from India or Africa or China. Make sure to take note of the differences but pay closer attention to the similarities." Check, on the "explaining complexions" part, but short of Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, I don't think we have all that many books to look at. She has had lots of exposure via the television though — with shows like Little Bill, Dora, and Ni Hoa Kai-Lan.

And another thing came up in our conversation ... it would probably be a good idea to not just buy white baby dolls and other toy figures. Especially for families that live in communities that are predominantly white. I grew up in New York City where diversity was never an issue, but not everyone has that exposure. Buying toys that represent different cultures would probably go a long way in making a child understand that even though we may not look the same -- it is okay, and encouraged, for them to interact with everyone!

At what age did your child begin to recognize the differences between what she looks like, compared to the people around her?  


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