Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Trying to find the words (talking to kids about race)

Recently I've been hearing lots about "colorblindness" and how to talk with children about race.  It seems white parents, at least in the US, tend not to talk to our kids about race at all.  The idea is that children are naturally "colorblind" and to bring up race will cause them to start to divide people according to race, and eventually to racism. If we don't ever talk about it, they'll never "notice" race and will thus never make assumptions based on someone's ethnicity or skin color.

Studies show that this approach is failing miserably.

It turns out kids are really good at picking up differences between groups. They segregate themselves into groups based on gender pretty quickly, and just as they figure out what girls look like versus what boys look like, they also figure out that one person's skin can be much lighter color than another's.  And if parents don't talk about these differences, or as is often the case won't allow talk about them (the belief being that talking about race = racism) then kids are left to make up their own ideas about skin color and people who are different from them in general*, and research is finding out that these ideas are often the very opposite of what we want our kids to learn about race.

Not that it's easy to talk about these things. Part of why white people are petrified of talking about race, is that we don't really know how.  We're not sure what is the proper language to use, what exactly we're supposed to say, so we're afraid of saying the wrong thing and being called racist for it.  As a protective mechanism, we instead choose not to deal with it at all.

But it is important to talk about it. We just need to learn how.  The book NurtureShock talked about this a lot (a highly recommended read, by the way).   So, I'm starting to explore online for resources on dealing with race and how to talk about it.  And, I'm now trying to find childrens books about different races and cultures and about multiculturalism in general, for exposure and as jumping-off points for honest conversations about race as D gets older.  Last week during my D-free time I went to Barnes & Noble and browsed through the kids section and found one book that blew me away: Wangari's Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa.

It's based on the story of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and focuses on how she involved local women in Kenya to plant trees to replace the massive deforestation in the area.  It's an amazing story, and probably will go a bit over D's head for now, but I am still so excited to share it with him.  What I love about this book is that not only does it tell the tale of people from a far-away land (leading to conversations about Kenya, and Africa, and African people and customs, etc), but it is also a story about environmentalism and conservation, AND an empowering story about WOMEN taking charge and doing something incredible for their community (and yes, even though he's a boy, he still needs to hear stories of women taking charge and being leaders, just as much as girls do).  It's like a triple-play.

(As a warning, there is one part of the book where they mention Wangari being hit by the government men and put into jail because of her anti-deforestation protests.  I'm struggling with how to handle those two pages... part of me wants to maybe just skip them for now, part of me thinks they serve as part of another complex but important lesson about the world)

Another book I found that's much simpler and much more geared towards a young audience is Mem Fox's Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes.  We borrowed it from the library a while ago and D really liked it (it's a simple story about different babies born all over the world but they all have 10 fingers and 10 toes, which a nice repeating rhyme) so when I saw it on the shelf today I grabbed it as well.  She's also written another book called Whoever You Are that I want to try to find and read.

So, those are my meager resources that I have found so far.  I would love to hear feedback and other recommendations for books to look for to add to our "multicultural library."

* I'm focusing on race in this post, but all the same things could be said about any group different from our own kids' experiences-- people of different cultures and with different customs (who might dress and act differently than we're used to); people with mental/physical disabilities; homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgender people; etc.


  1. Although you probably don't want to get into the details of what the government men did to Wangari when they beat her and put her in jail, you can still say that sometimes people do bad things, and even the people that are supposed to protect us, like teachers and police officers, do bad things. It's very sad and it doesn't happen all the time, but I think pointing out that figures of authority aren't always RIGHT just because they have a title is an important lesson to learn (especially if the child ever comes across a teacher or other authority who hurts or abuse the child; needs to know that adults are not infallible and sometimes need to be tattled on. So to speak).


    The one "but" I had to anything in this post (this is my overly-sensitive brain knee-jerk reacting) was about the 10 fingers and 10 toes. I understand what the author is doing and I agree, but the little voice in my head piped up, "What about a child who does not have all 10 fingers, for whatever reason?" but the lesson of the book still works -- just like all those other children were the same even though that had X that was different, having four fingers on one hand, or having an arm that is not fully developed, etc. just one more difference that doesn't really make us different...

    I'm not sure if that made sense. But I'm leaving it there anyway.

  2. Criss-- I did think of that as I chose the book and then wrote about it here. Not *all* babies have 10 fingers or 10 toes... but it's going to be near impossible to find one single quality that ALL babies will have, without exceptions. I figure it's a good book to introduce this concept to really young kids, and then as they get older the parent can talk to the child about how some people are missing toes or fingers (or might have extra) and that even though they have that difference doesn't make them that different from the rest of us, either, etc.

    One lesson I've gained from reading through reviews of some of the multicultural childrens books I've found online, is that no book will make everyone happy-- someone will always be upset about some aspect left out, or something not portrayed quite right. But I think the job of these books is to be a STARTING POINT for these conversations. The books don't have to be perfect (they'd be way too complicated if they tried to get everything perfect). But they're a way to get both parents and kids thinking about these topics, so the floor can be opened.

  3. Read the book as is. He will understand it at his level, which will grow as he grows. (Official advise from a Children's Librarian.)

    Nicholas's favorite bedtime book at the moment is "Whoever You Are," but he also likes "10 Little Fingers, 10 Little Toes." I've worked very hard to have a diverse collection of children's books for Nicholas & Linnea. Especially as we are currently living in Very White Switzerland and will eventually move back to an American city which will likely be far more diverse. Here are a couple of others you may wish to try:

    "Brown Like Me" by Noelle Lamperti
    "Color of Us" by Karen Katz
    "Everybody Cooks Rice" by Norah Dooley
    "More, More, More, Said the Baby" by Vera B. Williams
    "Sitti's Secrets" by Naomi Shihab Nye

    You may also wish to check out this booklist provided by the American Library Association:

    The books are intended for school aged children, but Donovan will get there sooner than you know!

  4. I am happy that you brought up this topic. It is something I have recently had to discuss with my children over the past couple of months because my fiance is African American. Thank you for the book recommendations as well. :)

  5. Less Than Half, More Than Whole (Hardcover)
    by Kathleen Lacapa (Author), Michael Lacapa (Illustrator)



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