Talking to My Biracial Son About Race

I must have been about 6, just a little girl. My mother was reading me a kids' book about slavery. When we finished, she asked my opinion and after thinking carefully, I replied, "If I had to be a slave, I would be a house slave because they had pretty dresses." My dear Mom was so shocked that over 30 years later, she is still reeling. Even now, she cannot understand how that became my takeaway. But I wonder, what did she expect me to say? Surely, my mother, who worked in the human-rights and equal-opportunity field all her adult life, didn't expect me to say something like this (or did she?):

Little Raina: Mommy, that puts me in mind of Dr. King and his "Letter From Birmingham Jail." Remember that part where he writes: "Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood."

Of course, that is exactly what she wanted me to say. Despite the fact that I was barely cognizant that skin color had significance and certainly hadn't made the connection between brown skin (or white skin) and slavery, my mother wanted me to have an opinion that not only made sense but dovetailed with her own. If you've read our brilliant cover story on babies and race, you probably already know why. As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman point out, we make two basic mistakes when it comes to teaching kids about race. The first is the assumption that kids don't see racial difference until we show it to them. The second is that adults infect the innocent souls of children with an "Us vs. Them" mentality. Or as they write: "we might imagine we're creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they're plainly visible. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors." So despite her best intentions to teach me about my ancestry, I just couldn't understand what race, or more importantly what I personally, had to do with slavery. But I did know that I liked the girl who looked like me and wore a pretty dress. And when pressed to say something about the book, I said just that. Perhaps my mom thought that I would inherently understand the historical and biological context connecting Harriet Tubman and me and conclude that the captivity of humans by humans was evil. As if. At that point in my life, I still believed in the magical trifecta—Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy.

I imagine it's pretty easy to raise your kid if you're bigoted. I envy them that, at least. Racist folk don't have to stress over how to teach kids about equality in an unequal world, and they're probably totally cool with their toddler pointing at Asian people in the corner store. But, for well-meaning folk who believe in fairness for all, things get tricky. Because not only are we not comfortable talking about racial issues, but we also usually have one or two racist attitudes ourselves. (You don't have to admit it to me. Don't worry.) But parents have to do all kinds of things that make them feel yucky inside—from learning how to use an anal thermometer on a squirming infant to grounding your kid for smoking pot despite the fact that you used to toke so much bud it'd put a Rastafarian to shame. That's just the way parenting goes.

You don't have to be a genius to talk to your kids about race. Just explain to them in simple terms how people are all different looking but still all people (like ice cream) come in different flavors, some have high-calories but still all can be delicious and refreshing treats. As a relatively new mom to a biracial boy, I'm trying to get a head start on speaking openly and simply about race. And I think "simply" is the key. Really, dumb it down. Of course, I have it a little easier. Not only can I talk about race until people run screaming from me, but I have no choice. Gabe is going to figure out soon that his parents are different colors and that both of us are different colors than he is. Either way, I do have a plan for those first talks about race. Here it is in three easy steps.

1. Knowledge: It's important to give kids factual information. Black people are not made of chocolate.

2. Honesty: Kids understand when things aren't fair. According to them, they are victims of unfairness nearly everyday. So tell them what discrimination really is, don't sugarcoat it.

3. Practice: Talk to your friends' kids about race. That way if you screw it up, it's not your problem and you won't make the same mistake with your own offspring. (If the parents get annoyed with you, send them to our cover story. Use science to prove your point.)

And if you really get stumped, you can use my ice-cream example.