I still remember my first conversation about race at home. I was about three years old and I attended a diverse preschool. I admired a little Black girl in my class, Tiffany, because she was beautiful and she wore her hair in the coolest little braids, each with a bright barrette on the end. Like most little girls, when I saw something I thought was beautiful, I sought to imitate it. I begged my mom to braid my hair and use all my colorful barrettes so that I could look like Tiffany. Through my tears and screaming, my mother stood her ground and told me no. I didn’t understand why until my mom patiently explained that Tiffany had hair different from mine and that she could style her hair in ways I couldn’t. My mother explained race, diversity, and culture in an age-appropriate way for me and although I still admired Tiffany’s hair, I never asked my mother to copy Tiffany’s style again. My mother’s explanation was simple and helped me acknowledge and appreciate another culture without feeling the need to imitate it.
Now, I am the mother of a very verbal 2.5-year-old and who attends a diverse preschool. She started noticing and discussing skin tones about six months ago. She makes observational comments when we watch movies, “Moana is brown.” My reply is usually something like, “Yes, she is Polynesian; she sure is beautiful and brave, isn’t she?” This often leads to further comments from my daughter about who has white skin and who has brown skin at her school. She will list her friends and teachers and talk about their skin tone. Clearly, my child does not want to adopt a “color-blind” attitude towards race. Frankly, neither do I.
Recent events have made me evaluate what I am doing at home to ensure that I raise an anti-racist child. Anti-racist is a fairly new term in my vocabulary, but my understanding is that it means to actively oppose racist beliefs, actions, and policies. It means having uncomfortable, but necessary conversations with others. It means that I can no longer be passive when something doesn’t feel right. Author Ijeoma Oluo explains, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” If anti-racism is the only way forward, then we all need to take an honest look at what we are doing in our own homes to make sure that our children oppose racism in all forms.
Books and Toys
I am going to be more mindful about the books and toys I choose for my daughter. We have a rather large collection of books, which does include diverse titles, but there is still room for improvement. To make mindful choices about the children’s book I purchase, I am going to ask myself the following questions: How many of our diverse books are written by diverse authors? How many of our diverse books are struggle stories or feature a White savior? How many of our diverse books show People of Color in moments of joy? The own voices movement encourages people from historically marginalized groups to tell their own stories. It is important to include own voices books in our collections so that the narrative of marginalized people is not only controlled by White authors. Struggle stories have a place, but I want to make sure that those aren’t the only diverse stories I share with my child. Being more mindful means that I am thinking clearly about the message my daughter receives from the books I choose for her and that our collection includes a variety of perspectives and stories.
Our toys are somewhat diverse, but again, there is room for improvement. This week my daughter asked me why she doesn’t have a Princess Tiana for her Little People castle. The easy answer is: the castle is second-hand and it didn’t come with Tiana. The honest answer is: I didn’t think to look for or include a Tiana. It took a toddler to make me realize this mistake, but now I’m going to change the way I look at the toys I choose for her.
Movies, Television, and Music
We have come a long way in terms of the availability of diverse choices for movies and other media, but am I exposing my daughter to enough of those diverse choices? We don’t spend a lot of time watching movies and television yet. When we do, my daughter would be happy to just watch Moana and Frozen repeatedly. I love that she has chosen Moana as a role model, but what other diverse characters could I be exposing her to while I have control over what she sees? We mostly listen to children’s music stations together, but I recently discovered that my daughter loves Michael Franti! She dances wildly and jumps and shouts when she hears him sing. I didn’t know I had a little SoulRocker because I hadn’t exposed her to his music until this week. This made me think about all the other diverse musicians that we can discover together as I start to make mindful choices about the music we share.
Our children are always watching us. They learn just as much from our unintentional actions as our intentional ones. Part of becoming an anti-racist is to take an honest look at my interactions with People of Color. What message do my facial expressions and body language tell my child? Do I engage People of Color in conversations at the park or in the store? Do I spend time socially with people who are not White? Do I encourage friendships with non-White children? Does my family support Black-owned businesses?
That conversation with my mother over thirty years ago taught me to see beauty in our differences. My mother gave me a gift by talking to me about race and culture. Very young children can discuss and celebrate racial differences. For years, Black children have been having conversations about race because their safety has depended upon it. We must all have these conversations at home in order for positive change to happen. Tell your children about your experiences. Tell them about the time you should have stood up to a family member or a friend when they made an inappropriate remark or joke. Tell them how your perception has changed over time through experience and education. Educate yourself on the roots of racism in our country and share what you have learned with your family. When your child is ready to understand what privilege is, discuss specific examples of their privilege. Explain how skin color affects how others view us.
For far too long I’ve stayed quiet and passive about racism because I was worried about what others would think about me if I spoke up. Now, I am ready to make a change. I am going to mindfully raise an anti-racist daughter so that she does speak up. And hopefully, her words and actions will make others rethink their own.
What else can we be mindful of as we approach anti-racism with our children?