I am White. My daughter is White. My granddaughter is White. And we talk about race.
I am White. My daughter is White. My granddaughter is White, and we all live in Maine, one of the Whitest states in the Union. When I think about raising a race conscious grandchild under these conditions, the challenges mount.
As I reflect on this dilemma, I know that right now I need to think about how I share these things with her. What do I say? Do I mention race, ethnicity? At first I thought that all of those descriptors might be an overload, but after a thought-provoking consultation with Raising Race Conscious Children, I realized that description is part of the process. Giving her language she can use to describe and discuss is critical. Just the way I wouldn’t eliminate descriptors of food or weather or toys, I don’t want to avoid using words that describe skin color or ethnicity.
I have shown her pictures of students of color who are part of Operation Breaking Stereotypes (OBS), a program I direct that connects students from Maine, New York City, and Boston across lines of difference. At the ripe old age of one, she hears things like, “This is your friend Nestor. He has brown skin and really curly hair. This is his mom. She is from the Dominican Republic. She also has brown skin.” Nestor was part of the original OBS group and is still close to our family.
Looking at other OBS pictures I say, “This is Cece’s friend Jermaine who lives in New York. He lived at our house for awhile when he was in college. He also has dark skin. Jermaine is Black. Sometimes people refer to him as African American.”
I want her to see people and color and ethnicity at this point in her life. Right now, I just want her to build a foundation of variety. I don’t want her to grow up to be a person who says, “I don’t see color.” I want her to rejoice in variety, understand the value of difference.
So when I read books like Global Babies/Bebes del Mundo, I am as likely to say, “The baby in this book has black curly hair and pinkish skin. Her skin color is similar to yours but you have red curly hair. Here is a picture of our friend Milagros. What color is her hair? What color is her skin?”
I want her to have race and culture be a part of her base – part of her inclusive “fish bowl”– not parts of a separate tank! I want her to hear names like Natiesha, Jermaine, Tatiana, as well as the names of her friends and family with Anglo-sounding names. I don’t want her to be one of those people who hears an “uncommon” name and says, “That is a weird name.” So I call all of the people I show her by name.
I eventually want her to understand that not all one-year-olds have the privilege of neighbors who automatically love them or the possibility to be who they are and not the representative of their whole race. So I start by exposing her to differences. We check out books that are in two languages so that she starts to hear words that aren’t English. We listen to music from a variety of cultures. Raising a race conscious child is not just about talking. It is about listening to music, to sounds in the environment, to accents, and, yes, to words.
It is simple. It is just the beginning, but knowing that being different is good…is a foundation, a start to help her see difference, embrace difference, and approach her world with an open, not a fearful, heart.
Constance Carter is a former service learning coordinator and special educator at Orono High School, Orono, ME, Connie is the director of Operation Breaking Stereotypes, Inc.