December 6, 2010

Any Colour You Like

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon 1973

I have always said that kids do, indeed, notice the color of one's skin.  They just do not assign a value to it.  Ah yes, it is up to us adults to instill that in our children.  Start 'em early, that's what I say.

To be sure, Gentle Reader, when your mother is obviously 10 shades paler than your father, you tend to notice.  When your mother has a sense of humor that is obviously 10 degrees more wicked than your father's, you notice.  And then, you take notes.

When all else fails, we find comfort in humor, right?  And yes, Manoj has learned to be somewhat wicked in his humor.  I suppose living with me for all of these years would break even the most purest at heart.  This would be the spot where I openly admit we enjoy teasing our children that we are going to give them to new families (in addition to the idle threats involving transactions with roving bands of gypsies.)  And, to be fair, we mix up the colors of the mama and daddy pair.  Sometimes, both parents are brown, sometimes both white.  Sometimes mixed, with a switcheroo on the particular ethnic pairings. Always, our kids giggle, because they know we are teasing.  And as Anjali emphatically declares "NO, I want a white mama and a brown daddy."

Manoj and I will not know for a long, long time if we are doing the right thing when it comes to discussing race, color and ethnicity with our children.  But I do know that I want the dialogue to be open, because that is the most important piece in all of this. 

This morning, Arun and I were at breakfast together.  I love these meals, just the two us while Anjali is at school.  As Arun dug thoughtfully into his pancake, he struck up the following conversation:

Arun: Mama, is India where all the brown people come from?
Me: Um.  Not really.  There are brown people everywhere.  And there are even white people in India.
Arun: Really? Cool!

At this point, I realize this might be a good place to start a small, watered-down discussion of racism.

Me: Also, did you know that there are some people who don't like other people just because they are brown.  Can you imagine?  Not liking someone just because they are brown?

Keeping in mind that "not liking someone" is serious, not-be-trifled-with business to a 5 year old.

Arun's eyes grow big.

Arun: Really?!  Do some people not like white people because they are white?
Me: Yes, that happens, too.  And someday, Arun, you might hear someone say something not nice about Daddy or brown people.  What do you think you would say if heard someone say that?
Arun: That it is stupid.
Me:  Yes, it IS stupid.
Arun:  Well, what about Daddy's friend, Tom?  He is brown. Do some people not like him because he is brown?
Me: Sure, I bet someone out there is really jealous of his awesome tan.

At this point, I start laughing.  At all of it.  My 5 year old boy's sweet, pure innocence and the fact that a man with a kick-ass tan is still considered "white".  And let me be clear - stupid is not a bad word in our house. It is not allowed to be directed towards people, but it allowed to be directed towards actions and ideas.  The thought that someone would denigrate someone based on skin color IS stupid.  I am not going to lie to my kid just to appease the Word Police who would have all of us ban a perfectly good word from our vocabulary.

I ended the conversation by telling Arun that he is both white and brown.  Sure, my boy could have probably passed for a White Man With A Damned Fine Tan, but no - instead, we saddled him with his phonetically-challenged name thus permanently stamping his differences. This morning, I did not make a big deal about his Mixed Palette Status, I just casually mentioned it and he did not question it.  We finished our breakfast and moved on to bigger and better topics.  Namely, which flavor of bubblegum he would get to purchase as we checked out.  He is 5 years old, after all.  There will be plenty of other opportunities for me to explain the far more serious ramifications of racism.

And in the meantime, I will continue to secretly hope those things will not exist down the line.


kristen said...

Have you read "Nurture Shock"? It has a really interesting chapter about racism. Okay never mind I just saw it in your side bar. That chapter made a lot of sense to me as a white momma.

I grew up in an incredibly racist family and have struggled against it my whole life. The last thing in the world I want is to saddle my child with the burden of being racist. I think it is much more freeing to look at someone and believe they can be anything, not just what some racist stereotype has told you they are. However pretending not to notice that someone's skin is a different shade or features are starkly different than your own makes no sense. We all are different. That's what makes life interesting.

Olivia said...

I wonder how the subject of race will come up in my household. I'm fully white, but my stepfather was hispanic. I remember when I was 12 realizing for the first time that my mother was in an inter-racial marriage. Until that moment I only thought that applice to black/white couples, lol.

~ifer said...

I grew up in a military community, around people of all colors, all nationalities. I never for one minute thought it was unusual for people of other races to intermarry. After all, lots of soldiers had Asian wives, lots of interracial couples and kids filled my everyday life.
I can still vividly remember the shock when I was about 13 and we moved to the States, and I heard someone make a comment about an interracial couple at the next table. I remember going back to my mother and asking her what that comment meant.
Take heart... you can raise kids who believe that there is nothing wrong with such a world. They will always see differences, but they will be viewed as unique aspects of the world around us, not as faults that are meant to be criticized.

Melanie said...

Its hard to know what the right thing is regarding when and how to talk to kids about race. I know in Drew's preschool there was one little boy who was of a different skin tone (it was a small preschool and only 12 kids total in the class), it just so happens that he was one of the boys who picked on my son a bit. Nothing big, just little stuff. When Drew went to the kindergarten "round-up" this summer he described another boy with "the same hair as X" and I sort of sensed that Drew was worried that he would get picked on by this child as well. It really upset me that he would make an association, but then I realized that I had not given him very much experience with children from multiple backgrounds.... it certainly wasn't my intent, it just didn't happen. I was thrilled when I learned that he was getting an African-American teacher in kindergarten and further thrilled when I saw how diverse his class is, in fact my little boy might actually be the minority!!! He adores his teacher (I mean she came to one of his soccer games, so she will always be #1 in his eyes) and he loves his classmates and I am very grateful that he is having these experiences.

Cagey (Kelli Oliver George) said...

Yes, I thought Nurture Shock was dead on. It's not enough to send your kid into a diverse environment. It is not even enough for my own kids to LIVE in one, in their own home.

I don't think there is anything wrong with you just bringing it up and talking about it. Seriously.

I grew up mostly in white environments, with mostly white family members. Before I was born, my grandpa did marry a lady from India, but truthfully, my Indian step-grandma was considered exotic, unique. And that was "okay". Same with my Pakistani boyfriend and Indian husband.

Really, I think just talking about it goes a long way.

Jason, as himself said...

Faiqa sent me over to read this post, and I certain enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

Leah said...

I love this. I live in a diverse neighborhood but NurtureShock opened my eyes and i've been having conversations. And Holy God In Heaven do those conversations SUCK for me. I HATE having to talk to a 4 year old about it. And yes, I know, I'm privileged to be able to talk to her on my terms instead of because I'm adressing problems, etc. But omg. It is so hard. Luckily I am doing it anyway and she doesn't seem to notice how hard it is for me. But yeah, nothing like talking about Jackie Robinson and how black people weren't allowed to play on the Cubs before and so on to put you in a good mood before bed. Plus, "why?" Uh, good question, kid. People are giant flaming assholes? Sigh.

Sorry for the rant. It was a timely post.

Christine said...

Leah, after I bombed my first race conversation with my five year old (something I was planning on posting about, too), I picked up this:
It sort of eases us into the conversation. We don't really play the game, just look at the pictures and talk about things.

luckyfatima said...

It's great that you started the discussion. As white mothers of brown children, we will never fully understand our children's experiences even though some of us dedicate time and heart to learning about POC and multi-racial issues, and our kids might not want to talk to us about it either. But this is a good start in building positive racial self-image, and idea of "what to do" if one faces racial teasing, and so on. The conversation never ends, I think. I like your simple words and I may use the same with my girls.

I'm glad I saw this thread , I'll check out the books mentioned here.

My girls are too small, but they are already aware of color. If my oldest (almost 4) likes a brown TV character, I say "She is brown and beautiful, like you." She already has color consciousness and has noticed that mommy is a lot lighter than she is. My second daughter actually has my coloring, and I wonder how being fair skinned will contribute to her experience of being mixed in a different way from my older girl who is more fair-wheatish.

I have had desi aunties/ILs fawn over their fairness…have you had that happen and how did you deal with that. I don't want them to feel being light skinned in the realm of brownness is better, but that message is very strong in desi cultures.

Elizabeth Kaylene said...

Hi! I've been sent by Faiqa.

I can't remember how my parents explained different colors and ethnicity. I know we were raised to treat people with kindness and respect (and also not to let people walk on us), but I really can't remember having a "Why is that person brown and I'm not?" conversation. I definitely noticed these things, but I guess they never really mattered to me.

My friend's daughter -- who is white -- specifically asked her mom for a "brown doll" this Christmas. She's five, so I'm guessing she's starting to realize the differences in people. I thought it was really cool that she realized all of her Barbies are white and wanted some variation.

I hope that, by the time I have kids, there is much more acceptance among all of us.

MLE said...

I loved this whole post, but I especially loved your first paragraph. I'd never thought of it in quite those terms, but you're absolutely right: kids notice differences of all types (and do not hesitate to point them out). It's up to the adults in their lives to teach them how to assign meaning to those differences, whether they be positive, negative, or value-neutral.

Rebekka @ Becky's Kaleidoscope said...

Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story. My love is Pakistani and I'm pretty much as white as you can get, so I've always been wondering how to handle those issues when we hopefully have kids one day.