raising racist kids

It’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It may come off as yet another one of those made-up holidays, but I’ll take what I can get with respect to my efforts to raise conscious, bi-racial kids who don’t make judgments about people based on skin color.

“What are you?” I asked my then 4-year-old.

“Chinese?” he says quizzically.

That was when I decided I should do a Lunar New Year presentation for his class, emphasizing that there’s Chinese New Year and then there’s Lunar New Year. The latter term acknowledges the fact that Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese folk all celebrate the new year on the same day, according to the cycle of the moon. (And the fact that Koreans and Vietnamese don’t call it “Chinese New Year.”)

I had posed the question as we’d been talking about how people come in different colors, sizes, shapes. I think our conversations about race have been useful. He displays no signs of feeling superior or inferior to people of other races.  Perhaps that’s helped by the fact that he lives in a bi-racial household. (His dad is white.) (Nearly translucent.) His friends are black, brown, white and yellow; and like himself, his best friend is bi-racial (black/white).

But, the fact that he didn’t know he’s half Korean was a bit of a wake-up call. While I don’t want him to make judgments based on skin color, I do want him to know about where his people come from. My action plan thus far: annual Lunar New Year presentations at school; he’s in his second year of Tae Kwon Do; he and his sister will go to Korean culture camp in Minneapolis this summer.

Then, there’s my current 4-year-old. “She doesn’t like her because her skin is brown,” she says, referring to the drama occurring between two dolls yesterday at breakfast. “It doesn’t matter what color her skin is – we’re all the same,” says I.

Really? Perhaps I should have said, “Yes, their skin color is different, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other;” then followed up with a discussion about race and race relations. And about country of origin and personal identity. And then perhaps nuclear physics and Vermeer’s use of light…

Research shows that not talking explicitly about race, efforts to affect a “color blind” attitude and relying only on vague statements like “we’re all the same,” may do more harm than good. Authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman sort through the evidence in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. They find that most white parents don’t talk to their kids about race. They write:

It is tempting to believe that because their generation is so diverse, today’s children grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact.

Then they go on to detail a litany of fateful facts like that the more diverse a school is, the less likely kids will form cross-cultural friendships; and that only 8% of white high schoolers have a different-race best friend.

The current 4-year-old often colors the princesses in her coloring books brown. What a relief. I suppose at four, she’s still trying to sort things out. I’ll help as best I can.


4 thoughts on “raising racist kids

  1. How interesting, the Boy’s response to who he is: “Chinese”. It takes me back to 1976, my first year in America, my first class in elementary school, in the deep South, “fresh off the boat”, boy-o-boy! Then, Chinese = Asian. There was no distinction or importance in discriminating (in the good sense of the word) because there was low or no awareness of the broader world. I suspect the Boy knows more about world geography today than I or my Southern peers did in 1976, but the same instinctual response to simplify in order to understand in the terms we knew is still in play.

    Kids are intuitive and amazing, and I may even place a bet that if we address the Boy’s differences frankly (as you suggest the Bronson/Merriman study recommends), the Boy will be relieved. The discord you acknowledge with him will resonsant because he already feels it. However, he doesn’t yet have the terms to deal with it. It’s our obligation to give him (and I mean that as a universal pronoun) effective language and attitudes to deal with it. I’ve found having “Aunt-ed” four Korean kids in America, that they breath a silent sigh of relief each time we name the unspoken, we then have that awesome Aunt-to-Neice (or to-Nephew) heart to heart talk that makes them progress one more step toward becoming more actualized adults.

    Nice blog. I enjoy this shorter format… the value is still immense. @jyi, your wandering friend.

  2. Great post – really interesting. What really struck me was the research that shows that the more diverse a school is the less likely kids are to have cross-cultural friendships. I’m sometimes a little smug about sending my child to a bilingual school which is so diverse for our part of DC. My daughter is friends with pretty much all of the girls in class, but her three best friends are all white. Interestingly enough, her best friends from her less diverse preschool(and the only ones she’s still friends with) are African-American and Indian.

    • Yeah, that finding about the more diverse schools is surprising. I suspect the friendships a kid’s parents have are also a large determinant in whether or not the kid’s best friend will be of a different race.

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