I don’t go around thinking of ways to make sure my kids appreciate cultural differences while avoiding judgments and prejudice. I don’t have to – my daily conversations with them, or more importantly, what I overhear them saying to each other, reminds me that teaching my children to respect our differences is a daily process, something achieved in small steps during every aspect of our lives.
Parker asks: “Mommy, why am I pink and you’re brown?”
Owen observes: “That lady talks weird. Is she speaking Spanish?”
After Martin Luther King Day celebrations at school, they both want to know: “What does it mean to be black?”
The first one is the easiest. “Our family has people of all shades in it, and we love each other even though we don’t look the same. Families are about love, not skin color.” I list all the pink and brown aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents who love them. I tell them they’re lucky to have all different kinds of people in their family.
The second one would be easier if Owen wasn’t using his “outside” voice and the woman wasn’t standing next to us. I swallow down the embarrassment. “She’s just speaking differently than we do, but we shouldn’t call people ‘weird’ just because they’re different.” Now, I have to admit my ignorance, which I figure is better than getting it wrong. “I’m not sure what language she’s speaking, but people from different countries speak different languages. That’s why it’s important to learn more than one language,” I tell him, “so you can talk to all kinds of people.”
I have to think quickly on the third, and toughest, question. The problem is, I’m not even sure what it means to be black. I don’t think the kids, at 6 and 4, are ready for my discussion on race as a social construction that has little real-world value – even my college students peer at me in confusion when I bring this up. In fact, when I’m talking to the kids I try to avoid terms like “black” and “white” to describe people because kids take things so literally, I know they won’t understand that pink people are called white and brown people are called black. And what about medium brown people like Owen, or people like Parker who are pink in the winter, light brown in the summer, and always blonde?
I decide on the simplest version of the truth. “Being a black person just means that some of your family members have brown skin. But what’s most important is the kind of person you are, whether you’re nice to other people, whether you try to learn new things, whether you play and have fun and are happy.”
“Are you black, Mommy?” Yes.
“Is Daddy?” No.
“Are we?” Yes. (Kind of, I think but don’t say it – we’ll get into the complexities later. Also, I’ve learned that I should never answer a question that wasn’t asked, and they didn’t ask whether they were half-black. I knew all those episodes of Law & Order would come in handy).
They look at me in silence, and I’m worried that more questions are coming, that, like when we discussed God and death, one answer would only lead to three or four more unanswerable questions to which I don’t have answers.
After a long moment, Owen says, “Okay, mommy.” Parker echoes his big brother, and they move on to more pressing matters.
“Can we have mac-and-cheese for dinner?”
I believe that raising citizens of the world begins at home. I am a black American woman and my husband is a white American man, and we both bring a myriad of cultural traditions to our children. Both my husband Jeff and I are wary of racial labels, since race is a social construction rather than a biological reality, but we also realize that our society places great importance on race and ethnicity. So, we do not shy away from discussions of race and color; instead, we deal with our sons’ questions in a straightforward way. All families are different, we tell them. All people are different. Sometimes we can see the differences and sometimes we can’t, but being different is a good thing – it’s what makes life interesting.
We also encourage our children to appreciate and value differences – in skin color (we have light pink, pink, light brown, medium brown and dark brown people in our family), in family makeup (one of my older son’s best friends has two moms) in interests (some people like sports while others prefer art or music), in abilities (we are all good at some things and not so good at others) and in traditions, to name a few. If our sons grow up to believe that differences are normal and, in fact, desirable, we believe they will be more compassionate and successful people, no matter what path they choose in life.
In our family, we celebrate different faiths (including Judaism, various denominations of Christianity, Islam, agnosticism), and we make a point to discuss traditions of different parts of America as well as those of other countries. Maps and globes have inspired our sons’ curiosity about that which is “foreign,” and they are lucky enough to have grandparents from the Midwest and Northeast who have traveled to many distant locations. Receiving a t-shirt from Guatemala, a toy train from Italy, a coloring book from Thailand or a postcard from South Africa helps our sons understand that the world is a vast and diverse place. When my husband and I traveled to Belize on a recent vacation, the boys peppered us with questions about the country for weeks afterward.
This interest in unfamiliar cultures will serve them well as they grow – they have already been to Barbados, where they watched monkeys play in our front yard, and they already recognize the Eiffel tower on sight – and some day, they’ll stop calling it the “France Tower,” maybe when they see it in person someday.