My toddler called me a racist…

Shannonby guest blogger Shannon Cofrin Gaggero

…Out of the blue, while washing his hands one day. It sounded more like “ray-tish” and for a solid 2 minutes we were stuck in the excruciating toddler communication limbo where he repeats himself over and over again while I guess the word incorrectly.

Me: Ray fish? You mean, a sting ray, honey?

A: No, no, no! Ray-tish.

Me: Star fish?

A: NO FISH! RAY-tish.

I’m not sure how it clicked, but suddenly I got it. “Racist?!” I ask, somewhat shocked and I see the relief pour over his little face. Finally, this lady gets me! “Yes, RAY-TISH!”

My husband and I have been discussing the Charleston shooting and other recent events in the presence of our son and unbeknownst to us, he’s been listening. So I take a deep breath…this is my moment, time to put my desire to raise a socially conscious little being to work. And I totally botch it.

Me: Do you know what racist means? (Good start! Yes!)

A: No, I don’t. (Toddlers are so earnest.)

Me: Mind goes blank. Panic. Sweats. (And the wheels fall off.)

I realize I have no idea how to explain what a racist is in a way my 3-year-old son might absorb. Here’s what I end up saying:

Me: A racist is someone who is mean to another person based on the color of their skin. See your skin? People call that White skin. Other people have different color skin.

I see A’s eyes glaze over. The moment is gone. Disappointment washes over me. Maybe A’s eyes were going to go blank no matter what I said that day, but ever since, I’ve been reflecting on how I could have handled the situation better and more importantly, I’ve been preparing for my next opportunity.

My disappointment stemmed from the fact that I am an advocate for social justice and want to raise conscious children…and yet at the time of this incident I had not done any intentional research on the subject of talking to kids about race. Sure, similar concepts appeared in my school counseling course work and the occasional article had floated by my Facebook feed, but I hadn’t really absorbed that content with any focus on how this relates to my life, right here, right now. My complacency frustrates me and is one of the biggest indicators of my White privilege. Being White affords my children and me the luxury of not having to think about or discuss race, but by being silent I’m doing harm.

So what have I done? For starters, I googled (and I kid you not) “how to talk to your kids about race” and BOOM…countless articles geared towards White parents. I selected just a few to share here, here, and here, but there are many more. To paraphrase what resonated with me, key strategies are to avoid the knee-jerk reaction to correct before attempting to understand where our kids developed their views from; be direct rather than glossing over a teachable moment, which may be embarrassing to us as parents, with a benign comment like “that’s not nice”; help children question media and the messages they receive (this includes books).

Research suggests that children are aware of race as early as 2.5 years old. 2.5?! So we are missing crucial opportunities to educate our kids if we stay silent and assume if we don’t teach our kids to be racist, they won’t develop any racist tendencies or biases.

One of my biggest fears around talking to my kids about race is that I want everything I say to be perfect. If I worry about saying the wrong thing to an adult, that feeling is amplified times 100 when it comes to my children. But just like with any part of parenting, I need to take a deep breath and accept that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Meaning, I don’t only have one shot to get it right.

But this interaction with my son showed me that I can’t just wing it. Reading the aforementioned articles definitely helped and I believe the more I talk about these experiences with other parents and brainstorm ways to improve the more adept I’ll become. I don’t expect myself to get it right every time, but I want to arm myself with as many tools in my tool belt as possible. This is crucial and again, for those of us who ask what can we do? Well, raising our children in a household that openly and thoughtfully discusses race feels like a really good place to start.

What are some strategies that you have used when broaching the subject of race with your children? Do the articles offer approaches that you could see incorporating into your daily life? What articles am I missing? What other tools would be helpful to make talking about race easier with our children?

For a follow-ups to this post, please read “Discussing skin tone with my toddler” and “Proactively naming race with my infant.”

Shannon Gaggero holds a Masters in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in School Counseling from The University of San Francisco and a B.A. in English from Cornell University. She is the author of the blog A Striving Parent, which is a forum for parents striving to engage in the social justice movement and to raise socially conscious kids. Shannon lives in her hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and two young children. Her current full-time position is stay at home mama.

This article was originally posted on A Striving Parent.

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