Reposted from http://www.atxenglish.com…
Last week when we were driving home from preschool, my not-quite-four-year-old son started talking about skin color. We’d been here before – he sometimes described people and mentioned the color of their skin along with the color of their hair or their shoes – but this time it was different. He referred to himself as light-skinned, and to other children as dark-skinned; when I asked him what color his skin was, instead of answering “pink”, he said he was white. What’s more, he seemed set on the idea that being white or “light-skinned” (his words) was preferable to being “dark-skinned”. He even seemed to think that the color of your skin revealed your inner goodness.
I’d known this day would come at some point, but it still surprised me. My pulse quickened as I listened to him talk, and it wasn’t just the triple digit temperature outside that made me sweat. Deep in my bones, I felt the significance of this moment; I felt the need to “get it right” as a mom and help my son, a white male who will carry with him almost every privilege in life, understand both that people are just people and also that race is a source of discrimination in our city/state/country/world. In the back of my mind, I wondered if he was even ready to grasp these concepts – but since he’d started the conversation, I figured it was time to address the topic. If I accomplished nothing else, I at least needed to create a comfortable space for him to talk about and explore racial identity.
So I kept my voice even and my eyes on the road. I told him that there are many different skin colors, but underneath, people all had the same bones, muscles, and blood. (He’s very interested in bones right now, so that helped!) I reminded him that we have lots of friends who are good people, regardless of whether they’re white or black or brown. I told him that it was important not to judge people based on the color of their skin. I prayed that what I was saying would sink in, and that I would figure out a way to explain to him the nature of racism and some of the awful consequences of discrimination.
That evening, as the news filled with horrific examples of violence fueled by racism, I thought back to a book I’d read in college for a children’s literature class. The next morning, I stopped by our local library to pick up a copy. When my son came home from preschool later that day, I pulled him onto my lap and we read the story together.
We read all about Grace, a black girl who loves stories and acting. She wants to be Peter Pan in the school play, but one friend tells her she can’t play that part because she’s a girl. Another says she can’t play that part because she’s black. When Grace gets home, she is sad and hurt by her classmates’ comments. Her grandmother has a solution, though: they go to see a ballet, and the lead ballerina is black – just like Grace. Grace returns to school full of pride: she masters the audition and brings down the house with her performance. Her classmates realize they were wrong. We read it twice that night, and he requests it at bedtime regularly.
I know not all stories about race and discrimination end so well; in fact, I know perfectly well that they quite often end in the worst possible way. One day when he’s older, he’ll learn about Emmett Till and the Children’s Crusade in 1963 and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (unless that’s all been erased from the textbooks by then). One day he’ll learn about the stories playing out in the news right now. But for the time being, we’re making space: space for discussing race, space for the language of race and discrimination, space for our thoughts and feelings, space for stories.
I’m proud that the books lining his shelves reflect many facets of our society, and I took the time to check his baby brother’s board books to make sure people of color are represented in his little library, too. I figure it’s never too early to be inclusive; the sooner “otherness” becomes normal, the easier it will be for my sons to value all people and recognize their own privileges as they grow. Reading stories together will help them develop a vocabulary for a highly sensitive and tense topic; the characters will offer us a way to look at lives that differ from our own and ask big questions. I’m not going to have all the answers, but maybe – just maybe – by working to raise thoughtful, engaged citizens, I’ll contribute in some small way to the long-term solution to our country’s deep racial divide.
Book recommendations: Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson (illustrated by Julie Morstad)