My toddler called me a racist…

…Out of the blue, while washing his hands one day. It sounded more like “ray-tish” and for a solid 2 minutes we were stuck in the excruciating toddler communication limbo where he repeats himself over and over again while I guess the word incorrectly.

Me: Ray fish? You mean, a sting ray, honey?

A: No, no, no! Ray-tish.

Me: Star fish?

A: NO FISH! RAY-tish.

I’m not sure how it clicked, but suddenly I got it. “Racist?!” I ask, somewhat shocked and I see the relief pour over his little face. Finally, this lady gets me! “Yes, RAY-TISH!”

My husband and I have been discussing the Charleston shooting and other recent events in the presence of our son and unbeknownst to us, he’s been listening. So I take a deep breath…this is my moment, time to put my desire to raise a socially conscious little being to work. And I totally botch it.

Me: Do you know what racist means? (good start! Yes!)

A: No, I don’t. (toddlers are so earnest)

Me: Mind goes blank. Panic. Sweats. (and the wheels fall off)

I realize I have no idea how to explain what a racist is in a way my 3-year-old son might absorb. I end up choking out the concept of disliking and being mean to another person who has different color skin from you. I see A’s eyes glaze over. The moment is gone. Disappointment washes over me. Maybe A’s eyes were going to go blank no matter what I said that day, but ever since, I’ve been reflecting on how I could have handled the situation better and more importantly, I’ve been preparing for my next opportunity.

My disappointment stemmed from the fact that I am an advocate for social justice and want to raise conscious children…and yet at the time of this incident I had not done any intentional research on the subject of talking to kids about race. Sure, similar concepts appeared in my school counseling course work and the occasional article had floated by my Facebook feed, but I hadn’t really absorbed that content with any focus on how this relates to my life, right here, right now. My complacency frustrates me and is one of the biggest indicators of my white privilege. Being white affords me and my children the luxury of not having to think about or discuss race, but by being silent I’m doing harm.

So what have I done? For starters, I googled (and I kid you not) “how to talk to your kids about race” and BOOM…countless articles geared towards white parents. I selected just a few to share here, here and here, but there are many more. To paraphrase what resonated with me, key strategies are to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to correct before attempting to understand where our kids developed their views from; be direct rather than glossing over a teachable moment, which may be embarrassing to us as parents, with a benign comment like “that’s not nice”; help children question media and the messages they receive (this includes books). Research suggests that children are aware of race as early as 2.5 years old. 2.5?! So we are missing crucial opportunities to educate our kids if we stay silent and assume if we don’t teach our kids to be racist, they won’t develop any racist tendencies or biases.

One of my biggest fears around talking to my kids about race is that I want everything I say to be perfect. If I worry about saying the wrong thing to an adult, that feeling is amplified times 100 when it comes to my children. But just like with any part of parenting, I need to take a deep breath and accept that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Meaning, I don’t only have one shot to get it right. But this interaction with my son showed me that I can’t just wing it . Reading the aforementioned articles definitely helped and I believe the more I talk about these experiences with other parents and brainstorm ways to improve the more adept I’ll become. I don’t expect myself to get it right every time, but I want to arm myself with as many tools in my tool belt as possible. This is crucial and again, for those of us who ask what can we do? Well, raising our children in a household that openly and thoughtfully discusses race feels like a really good place to start.

What are some strategies that you have used when broaching the subject of race with your children? Do the articles offer approaches that you could see incorporating into your daily life? What articles am I missing? What other tools would be helpful to make talking about race easier with our kids?

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7 thoughts on “My toddler called me a racist…

  1. Daniel G. says:

    Hi Shannon – thank you for starting this blog and forum for discussion. With our 5-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, our approach to discussing race and social justice has been more reactive than proactive. We try to take advantage of teachable moments, but I don’t think we’re doing enough to broach the subject without prompting.

    A few weeks ago my son and his (also white) friend started playing with a black boy at a nearby playground. This boy was a little older and had a bike (no training wheels!), and the game they ended up playing involved the two younger kids chasing the older boy around, yelling “get him” as he sped away on his bike. Although the play was good-natured and perfectly normal for kids their age, the image of a couple of white boys in a predominantly white neighborhood chasing the one black boy around the playground like that made me uncomfortable.

    I don’t think 5 years old is mature enough to really understand or discuss the news of the day – Sandra Bland, Charlston, BlackLivesMatter – but I know that as he starts going to a big kid school he’ll be exposed to more of the news, have more questions, and encounter people with perspectives and opinions that differ from our own.

    We have found that books are a great way to start conversations. A lot of the ones I’ve seen so far are geared towards younger kids so I’m going to do some research to try and find options that might be good for our family. I’ll let you know what we come up with!

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    1. strivingshannon says:

      Thanks for sharing your story, Daniel! And for researching and sharing books for older children. Check out this list my friend sent my way: http://atlantablackstar.com/2015/06/17/10-affirming-black-books-that-will-elevate-your-childrens-minds/2/ I plan to go to the library myself and start perusing books as I totally agree it’s an easy way to have proactive discussions with our kids about race. But I also appreciate the fact that you named your discomfort with the scene you witnessed with your son. We have a lifetime of societal code that forms our worldview and we have to be ready and willing to unpack our discomfort or biases or whatever so that we can be better parents to our kids. I am hoping this blog really is a forum because I would love a place to unpack my shit, excuse my french. I just don’t want us, meaning white people, to be so afraid of admitting to our short comings that we stay silent and thus forgo any opportunity to learn and improve.

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  2. Randy Ross says:

    Hi Shannon,
    First, thank you for this blog and this post especially. You are raising so many critical and difficult questions. I am pretty old (70) and have been working on anti-racism issues most of my life, so have given a fair amount of thought to the points you raise. I don’t have any magic solutions, of course, but a few thoughts that I hope will be helpful.

    While the research and reading you are doing and suggesting is great, I believe that children learn a great deal from what they see us, as parents, do. This is more subtle than the “role model” idea. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves: “Do I flinch or show discomfort when around people of color?” “Do I assume without thinking that I have a right to step ahead of a person of color when it isn’t clear who is next in line?” “Do I show equal respect to the person clearing tables as to the waitperson, especially when there is a difference of skin color or class (if apparent in any way)?” These and of course the many other questions call for self-reflection on our unconscious biases (called “implicit bias” in the research — google it and you’ll find a ton of research, mainly at Harvard).

    But the role model aspect does come into play, especially as children grow a bit older. “What choices do I make with my “free time?” What kind of community activities do I choose to participate in? Are they related in any way to race issues? How do I talk with my kids about movies, TV shows, advertisements (eg. the Cheerios ads?), music (revive folk music!), etc.” Of course, the books we choose to read and choose for them are super important, without question. I remember well growing up in family where race was discussed (in the fifties!) in progressive ways. I listened to Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald and saw books by Black writer on my parents bookshelves. My father taught me to be conscious about language: Why do we say “Devil’s Food Cake” for chocolate cake” was one of his questions to get me to think. All of this had an enormous impact on me and when the civil rights movement came along, I was ready to join!

    “When it is time for schooling, do we choose a school that is racially diverse?” This is probably one of the toughest questions for white middle class folks because of course our kids come first and we want only the best education (in the cognitive sense) for them. We can supplement their cognitive education but cannot replace the experience of learning and forming friendships with children of color. So that’s a tough one.

    Here is a caveat: I think there can be a danger in “pushing race” (or any other “issue”) too hard for white kids at an early age. I do recognize that there is “privilege” in my saying this — Black families need to have “that conversation” with their children at a very early age, because it is thrust upon them by ugly experiences and for pure safety reasons. We most likely will not be called upon to talk about race in the same way, but can be alert to opportunities for the conversation, without making our kids in some way feel “guilty.” I feel that I’ve made that mistake with my own children and I know other parents who, in my opinion, have made the same error.

    Trust that you are communicating your values and deep commitments/concerns both through what you say AND what you do. Offer resources (such as books, community activities, friendships, and hopefully schools) that will stimulate your children to think for themselves. Trust their empathy, their kindness, their respect for others, and they will turn out fine, able to examine their “white privilege” when the time comes for them to do so so. I am not at all a fan of pushing that concept on younger children, though by high school many young people can begin to understand it, if approached with common sense.

    Perhaps in another response I will offer some resources to you and your readers. One I suggest for now is empathyeducates.org. This is for adults, not kids, however.

    I am hopeful about the future, because of people like you and my own daughters,
    Randy

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    1. strivingshannon says:

      Randy, thank you so much for your thoughtful commentary! It is clear you have a depth of experience that I and anyone who reads this blog can learn from. I really appreciate the tips you share, specifically around not pushing the concept of white privilege too soon. And your thoughts on schools. I’m actually working on a post that discusses choices like these as after much personal deliberation we’re sending our 3 year old to a private school that includes social justice concepts through out it’s programming and actively seeks diversity. In full disclosure, it’s the same school my sisters and I attended and definitely had a lasting impact on who I am as a person. At least 1/3 of the students are students of color, which is pretty good for a private school, and in high school they host all day assemblies about race, gender and more. But I still have some guilt around making this choice for my family.

      Perhaps we can link up offline and you could help me flush out my resource page? I’d love to leverage your knowledge to help better inform myself and my readers. Thanks, Randy!

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  3. Jen HW says:

    Shannon, I just discovered your blog and am so appreciative of the community you’re creating – thank you! Two books I’d recommend for parents: “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria,” by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, which provides insight from a social science perspective around talking with kids about race at any age, and “Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race” by Debby Irving, which is one woman’s narrative about her journey to understand white privilege – helpful because Irving talks about how some of her own biases developed throughout her childhood and how her initial engagement as a parent at her children’s school unintentionally reinforced white-supremacist culture and norms.

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