Sunday, September 13, 2009

Being EXPLICIT About Race & Racism

I'm sure most of you have read See Baby Discriminate in Newsweek by now. If not, go read it and come back!

It's a fantastic article about how children perceive race, how they form opinions about race, and how to change children's opinions about race. Probably the most ballyhooed fact in the article is that children as young as 6 months old judge others by skin color.

But the thing that struck me in the article, proven over and over in many of the studies discussed, is how important it is to speak to kids EXPLICITLY about race and racism. Nothing short of that makes an impression. Neither a multicultural curriculum, nor "background" diversity, nor aphorisms of color-blindness, nor silence about race, will lead a child to positive attitudes about race. Only explicit discussion of race and racism will do it.

And then the other side of the coin revealed in the article -- how reluctant parents are to talk to their children explicitly about race. Why? According to one article, some parents won't talk about race because they ascribe to the color-blind myth that silence about race equals acceptance of all races. For white parents with white children, the subject just doesn't come up because of the invisibility of white privilege. Some lack a sound understanding of what race means. Some believe that the work of the Civil Rights Movement has eradicated racism, so there's nothing to talk about. And the number one reason parents don't talk about race or racism with their children -- FEAR! That would be fear of saying the wrong thing, of course.

The MultiracialSky website has some tips, a starting point, for talking about race:

The key to talking with your child—or anyone—about race is the same key to discussing any complex subject: openness. Start an open dialog with your child about race early in their life. Make it a comfortable subject of conversation—for you, and for your child.


Find descriptive words you are comfortable using. Check out the MultiracialSky Glossary for expanded definitions of 60 race-related terms, including 30 heritage-affirming words used today to describe people with a variety of racial and ethnic


Start with words describing color such as brown or tan, or the colors of foods. The Colors of Us [below] has wonderful descriptive color words.


Teach your children words they can use to identify themselves, and terms people with other heritages use to identify themselves. (Examples: multiracial, Amerasian, Latina.)


Talk with your child about names for different racial and ethnic heritages. The descriptions and words you use may evolve and change over time, or as the socially predominant terms evolve. (Examples: African American, Black American, Native American, European American, Asian American, Mexican, White, Black, Cuban, Irish)


When talking about race in scientific terms, the fact remains that there is only one human race. This is a fact and statement we should equip our children with. However, especially as parents, we must also recognize that the societal construct of different and distinct races affects everyone.
I think it's important to give children this vocabulary. And I second the recommendation of The Colors of Us. But beyond vocabulary, how do we talk about racism, bias, stereotyping, bigotry?

Here are some general guidelines from

1 Our own feelings about the questions children ask can have as much impact as the words we choose to answer them. We may have to conquer some hurdles of our own before we can discuss racism comfortably with our children.

2 In the long run, our most helpful responses are those that show respect for our children's curiosity and encourage them to keep actively grappling with our complicated world. One useful way of thinking about our children's difficult questions is to view them as "teachable moments."

3 Understanding as much as we can about what prompts our children's questions is a good beginning. The more we know about why our children ask particular questions, the more likely it will be that we will help them find meaningful answers.

4 "I don't know" or "Let me think about that for a while" are valid answers. Racism is a complicated and persistent problem. Sometimes we need time to clarify our own thoughts and feelings before we can be of help to our children. Sometimes children's concerns are pressing. Hurt feelings, anger, and worries all need immediate attention.

5 When our children ask hard questions, we are given an opportunity to glimpse how they experience the world. In turn, we can use these opportunities to sort through complicated or confusing issues together.

(Sounds like good advice for talking about adoption, too!) But beyond answering questions, what can we do?

Here are som things we do, and I hope you'll share what you do, too. We do talk explicitly about racism, both historical racism and racism today. When you talk about MLK and the Civil Rights Movement, explicitly define the problem of the day as racism. But history isn't enough, in my opinion. You have to talk about what happens in current events, too. Remember the news story this summer about the black kids who kicked out of a private pool? Great opportunity to talk about prejudice, and how the kids must have felt. Unfortunately, there are many such reported events that provide a springboard for discussion.

As usual, I love using books to start conversations -- yes, books with multicultural characters are important, but it's also important to look for books that talk explicitly about racism (like The Skin I'm In) or show characters dealing with racism (like Chinese Eyes. (even imperfect books can do this -- I don't much like the way the mom dealt with it, but the book gives a good description of a child's feelings when confronting the eye-pulling gesture that accompanies the "Chinese Eyes" chant)).

We also talk specifically about the kinds of stereotyping Asian-Americans face, some that my children have already faced -- "Chinese eyes," ching-chong speech, fake karate moves in front of them, racial slurs. We role-play responses, including telling a grownup about it.

I think sums it up nicely:

We can choose to actively influence our children's attitudes. With our encouragement children will test and think through their beliefs about race, ethnicity, and religion. They are unlikely to ask the necessary hard questions without our help. It is up to us to take the initiative!

Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates -- the daily trials of childhood -- reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.

One important gift we can give ourc hildren is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children's concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.
I was reading a blog not too long ago where a person of color said that as white parents, we can't teach our minority children about racism. I agree, that not having the lived experience of the racism our children will face, we can't teach by example, by reference to our lives. But that's why I believe we have to substitute VERY EXPLICIT messages instead. It may not be an every-day topic of discussion, but it is, unfortunately, going to be a lifelong one.


mama d said...

Thank you for this post. It was more thought provoking, and provided more tools, than the 8-hour workshop on race I attended this weekend.

When folks ask about race, race education, and white privilege, I say that white parents of white children can choose to teach their kids about racism. For every other combination, the education is required.

Martha Nichols said...

This is a terrifically informative post about what white parents can and should be doing if they're parenting children of another race. I know that at my son's Quaker School, there have been off-and-on battles about whether it's "fair" to the white kids to be excluded from the school's racial affinity groups. The school's policy is that, yes, the whole point of racial affinity groups is to acknowledge differences in race explicitly *and* to emphasize that white kids are in the majority.

I'm the adoptive parent of a young son born in Vietnam, and in my writing about our efforts to honor his birth-heritage, I've discussed the ways in which many white parents substitute a celebration of "culture" for an honest acknowledgment of racial difference. See my article, "What's My Heritage?", in the Summer 2009 of Brain,Child magazine.

Also check out Adopt-a-tude, one of the blogs I contribute to:

So glad I've found this blog. We will add it to Adopt-a-tude's blogroll.

malinda said...

Martha, I not only read your article in Brain,Child magazine, I linked to it! And not only is Adopt-a-Tude on my blog roll, I was so impressed with the first post that I did a post announcing the existence of a must-read new blog!

Glad you made it this way.

malinda said...

mama d: I think I sweated 8 hours just formulating the post! I'm big time into TOOLS TOOLS TOOLS. Most of the stuff I found online want to talk theory, so I had to dig for TOOLS! Hmm, no one wanted to talk explicitly about how to talk explicitly about race!

Lisa said...

Great Post! I agree 100%! Unfortunately, I think that your statement about parents assuming if they don't bring it up their children won't be color blind is SO TRUE!
And, we lead by example.
Education, Education, EDUCATION!

AChineseDad said...

Malinda, I have been lurking around for a while and have read a lot of your thought-provoking posts. Many thanks! I have also read many other blogs by your fellow adoptive American parents. I am a Chinese dad with American-born Chinese kids. We have one thing in common - our Chinese looking kids. Racial teasing and even racism is real to both your and my kids at school. I have given this a lot of thoughts. I think I have done a good job raising resilient children of my own, thanks partly to good advice that I receive from posts like yours. Some of your ideas give me confirmation that I have been doing the right thing building racial confidence in our kids. However, if you don't mind, let me share two points that I feel many adoptive parents might be doing it the wrong way. First, your overemphasis on your child's racial heritage might make some of them feel being aliented or even rejected by the American culture. Don't overdo their heritage. This is a very fine line. I know my kids would feel totally alienated if their teachers constantly single them out for being of Chinese descent. Second, it's only parental to protect your children when they are discriminated. But have you ever thought about what the best way is to protect them from racial discrimination? I feel most American APs only talk about the emotional reaction but hardly any practical solutions. Many Chinese parents are doing it right, though. As Chinese men living in America, we all experience racism one way or another. Do you think Jerry Yang, Steve Chen, Charles Wang, and Kaifu Li would give a hoot about being racially discriminated? I don't think so. Why not? They are all successful enterprenurs who founded some of the world most powerful technology companies. I think many Chinese parents have been doing it right with raising successful children to overcome racial prejudice that they otherwise face as adults.

Lisa said...

AChineseDad - Your comment is very interesting, and has my thoughts churning.

In particular, my worry has been similar to yours and I have posted it here previously. I am concerned about immersing a child (read: mine or someone else's) in all things Chinese and then realizing that I have indeed made her feel alienated...or "different" or as if she "doesn't fit in." This is obviously not the goal for a child you love.

Having said that, my thoughts are to listen to your child's interests, and don't "force" All-Things-Asian (All-Things-Adoption). I think there are ways to subtly give your Chinese child heritage information without singling her out as "different." These would include other Asian friends, knowing Chinese families, surrounding yourself with people of different cultures....Ms. Seymore has multiple ideas that we enjoy reading.

I hear what you are saying about coming from an emotional perspective. Concerning practical solutions - do the solutions that Ms.Seymore posted here not seem practical? How do you feel that "many Chinese parents are doing it right"? I agree that there are many successful Chinese Americans. I think most people reading here would agree we want our children to overall be content, happy, successful adults.

Perhaps we are coming from a different persepective. I'd love to hear other solutions you may offer. The beauty of this blog is that there are many different opinions and perspectives to enlighten us all, and I hope that you continue to follow and add your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Another tidbit from that article is that if children heard "preparation-for-bias" warnings often (rather than just occasionally) they were less likely to connect their successes to effort and blame failures on the teacher. But coaching children to be proud of their ethnic heritage from a young age was "exceedingly good" for their self-confidence. Children who had heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute success to effort and ability.

Very interesting article. We talked about it in one of my classes yesterday.

Sue (aka anonymous)

AChineseDad said...

@Lisa, thanks for your feedbacks. I don't disagree with you or Maldina. I probably need to clarify my two points. The first point, my experience with both myself (I came to the U.S. at a relatively young age) and my kids is that we feel very uncomfortable when we are being singled out in a social setting just because we look Chinese. For me, it was usually at church events and it happened quite a few times. I finally say no to this type of events after several years. I didn't feel bad when we were being talked about or singled out - usually it's something about missions to China and stuff. Nothing of that nature would embarrass a Christian like me. However, after the service, some questions from parishioners just totally tee me off. Their questions just show their ignorance and arrogance, and they also make me realize that they will never accept me as equal or maybe not even friends. You know what? They probably think they are very kind and generous with their money and time. Actually I am pretty sure they do. I want my kids to experience and retain Chinese heritage. But the reality is very different. My 10-year old daughter said this to me once during a camping trip, "Daddy, I am so glad you don't talk like that dude. I would have been very embarrassed." Well, she meant a Chinese dad from another troop. It was not his Chinese accent that was embarrassing to a 10-year old. It was his demeanor, his behavior and the fact that he never took no for an answer and always tried to find a shortcut to bypass the social norm. With both consecendending arrogance from some Americans (e.g. the Chinese eyes incident in your case) and embarrassing cultural misfit from fellow Chinese or Asians, I do feel for our kids. They have a lot of reasons to reject their cultural heritage as a youngster. If you really want to understand their feelings on this area, you should read Gene Yang's book "American Born Chinese." Your children may enjoy it. The character Monkey King is a popular traditional Chinese character.

AChineseDad said...

Now about the second point. I actually believe most Chinese parents are overdoing it but most Americans don't do enough of it. I don't care if you spit on me after reading my second point. So it here goes. Having a successful career/business is probably the most effective way to deal with racism anywhere in the world. Chinese parents know this very well and have been pushing their kids way too hard to excel in school with the ultimate goal of getting a better college major and career for their kids. They even tell their children what majors to pick in college and what career path to take afterwards. I know this is an overgeneralization, but by and large, most American families give their children too much freedom (read: little guidance and not as involved as Chinese parents) in choosing their kids' college majors. Most girls dream about being fashion designers, actresses and artists, and that's what most of the American kids we know of end up to be. The problem is you can't make a living with theater and arts. Most Chinese families guide their children and even bribe and force them to study finance, medicine, and law, or law with medicine, or finance with law and other lucrative double majors. The thing is taht all kids are capable of getting a degree with the potential for a lucrative career. Why not put some emphasis on this area instead of on so many disputable cultural heritage. Nobody disputes with a succcessful career. A lot of people would dispute with "your emotions." Some would do that on purpose. You think your child should be known as Chinese American and not Chinaman or Chinchenchong? Some people would prefer to call your child Chinaman, Chinadoll and Chingchenchong. But when your child grows up to be a successful business owner, doctor, lawyer, or hedge fund manager, nobody will dare make him/her feel inferior. Even if they do, it won't affect your child a bit. I think that's called Chinese pragmatism. BTW, I didn't come up with this. We Chinese were discriminated and probably still are for many decades in the U.S., from the Gold Rush of 1840's to building the intercontinental railroad to the Chinese Exclusion Acts. It didn't take long for Chinese in America to figure out the solution to discrimination. That is, we should become as American (read being capitalist and successful business) as we can.

As someone who respects and cheers for you APs, I sincerely would like to see more efforts and emphasis on raising your kids to become top-notch, kick-a$$ surgeons, lawyers, professors, hedge fund managers, etc.

BTW, Asian Americans make only a very small percentage of the total U.S. population, but it makes up 16% of the physicians in the U.S. Trust me. It's worth it. Parenting act is a balance.

Lisa said...

AchineseDad - What an amazingly intriguing perspective you have. Thank you so much for your thoughtful posts.
I mean that in every sense of the word.

"Having a successful career/business is probably the most effective way to deal with racism anywhere in the world." This is very true. If you live your life as a successful individual, you are more likely to be heard by others. Plain and simple. I couldn't agree with you more.

I also believe that children attending college need guidance in the right direction. We are way too permissive of a society. And, if we are the ones paying for college, why can't we have a say?

I know other parents who subscribe to the "let your child evolve" philosophy would disagree. However, the adolescent brain is not fully developed at age 18, so why should we expect our children to make a life decision at this time without guidance?

I hope you'll stay with the blog, your points are well taken.

Sapphire said...

Came over from ARP. Great post!!!

Anonymous said...

Great post and a wonderful reminder to adoptive parents who have adopted transracially.

Kristen Howerton said...

Love this. Thanks!!