I never expected to be raising white children.
I pictured countless other cultural and racial backgrounds. I’d always planned on adoption, and expected to diversify our already multiracial family more. My goal was, in part, to confuse people so much they wouldn’t even bother with the awkward questions and comments that tend to follow families that don’t outwardly “match.”
I thought I was prepared, as much I could be as a white woman, to handle the conversations on race that would accompany raising a child who isn’t white. I was not preparing to have those conversations with a white child, or to be facing instead comments about our resemblance.
Talking About Race as a White Family
It would be easy to take our matching family for granted and put off more difficult discussions of race until my children are older. It would be easier to remain silent regarding potentially uncomfortable discussions of racial differences (or any differences, for that matter). It would be so easy to look at my children and proclaim that they are color blind.
But kids are smart. They pick up on what adults say but also on what we don’t say. Avoiding the topic of race and racism with my kids won’t keep them from learning about it. Instead, what they may learn is that we can’t or don’t talk about certain subjects. That’s certainly not the lesson I want to impart to my children.
Instead, we do talk about differences and similarities, and yes, that includes skin color. I point out their own skin tones and the differences in skin tone among our family and friends, as well among their toys and the characters in their books.
We talk about how all people are different in some ways and the same in others. Hair, eyes, and skin come in all different colors, and they are all beautiful.
And again… it would be so easy and safe to stop there. They are only four years old, after all.
But at four years old, barely out of babyhood, but they have peers who have already experienced racism and injustice. Black children their age are disproportionately expelled from preschool at over three times the rate of white children. They, too, are only four years old.
The least we can do is talk about it, even if and when it may not be easy.
Talking About Racism as a White Family
As we approach Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want my kids to understand who Dr. King was and what he stood for. I want them to share his dream, and that means they’ll need to know why it matters.
The unfortunate reality is that the justice and equality of which Dr. King spoke is not yet here. I can’t effectively speak to my white children about Dr. King’s dream of freedom and justice without also speaking about why it was, and is, needed.
Right now, that means we talk about differences and similarities. We recognize and celebrate differences, but I don’t stop there. I tell them that sometimes people are not nice or kind, and that specifically they may not be kind to people who have darker skin. I tell them plainly and firmly that this is wrong. I tell them that they have a responsibility to stand against what is wrong and do what they can to stop it.
A Few Thoughts On Talking About Race With Preschoolers
I don’t have all the answers to discussing race and racism with my white preschoolers, but I know a few things:
I know it’s already time.
I know that I have to be the one to start the conversation, and it needs to start in our home. What they may learn elsewhere might not be what I want to teach them.
I know that what they may learn outside our home is that racism and discrimination are not to be talked about. I know that if they can’t talk about a problem, they’ll never be able to try and find a solution.
I know that my attempts will be awkward. I expect that I will fumble through them, and I will mess up. But in order to live with myself, and to do my small part in working towards the justice and equality for which Dr. King fought, I have to try.
If I wait for the perfect time or the perfect words, I will be waiting forever.
This year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, among the days off school and maybe off work, I recommend taking a moment to revisit Dr. King’s entire “I Have a Dream…” speech or “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Both are just as important and timely today as they were when written. The library also is a great place to look for books to help discuss Dr. King’s dream with your children in an age-appropriate way.