On the Spot: Unanticipated Conversations about Race
When I was pregnant with my second child, I prepared to tell my then-two-year-old about the baby-on-the-way. I anticipated questions about where babies come from and whether we were having a boy or girl. I planned age-appropriate answers for these questions and for the barrage of “whys” that would inevitably follow.
So I was surprised when her first question after hearing the news was, “Will the baby be Black or White?”
In retrospect, it wasn’t a surprising question. She had two baby dolls at the time: one Black and one White. And talking about skin color and race wasn’t new for us. So why was I caught off guard?
First, I was surprised that she didn’t assume that the baby would be White like the rest of our family. We had talked about skin color differences and the idea that no skin color was better than any other, but we had never talked about where skin color comes from. Second, I had mentally choreographed this moment and, frankly, my vision had not included a conversation about race. Although my current self howls at the notion that a toddler’s response to anything will conform to a parent’s vision, at the time, I was still learning. Having established that it is OK to talk about race, my daughter would initiate these conversations on her own terms, sometimes when I least expected it.
Despite my surprise, her question wasn’t hard to tackle. I pointed to her forearm and explained: “The baby’s skin will probably look like yours and mine and Daddy’s skin, the peachy color we call White.” I reminded her that some families include people with many different colors. She toddled off, ending our first conversation about the baby.
It was only the beginning of child-initiated conversations about skin color and race.
“I guess she has a lot of melanin in her skin,” my then-four-year-old daughter once remarked while chatting on our porch with some new neighbors, a White mother and her Black toddler.
“Yes, you have less,” I agreed, but I wasn’t sure of what to add.
A more socially-typical observation (e.g., “And I see she is quite the walker!”) would have seemed too change-the-subject. A comment affirming the beauty of differences or identifying one way in which the toddler was the same as my girls may have seemed too your-family-is-a-lesson-for-my-family. And she hadn’t pointed or highlighted a feature that I consider impolite to talk about (as in the time she publicly asked about someone’s double chin) so I didn’t offer any reminders about manners.
And yet, given that multiracial families often field a tiresome share of remarks and questions about appearance and backgrounds, I worried that a seemingly innocuous comment about skin color might sting. Further, describing the Black child as having “a lot” of melanin, reflected a normative perception of Whiteness.
I then suggested that my daughter invite the toddler to choose a toy to play with (“Too change-the-subject?” I wondered). While the neighborly chatter continued, I pondered how to teach my children to observe and talk about race and skin color without framing Whiteness as the norm and without unfairly putting anyone on the spot. Not what I planned to think about while meeting the neighbors.
Part of raising race conscious children means accepting that we won’t control our children’s conversations about race and skin color. When their comments give us pause or express conceptual frameworks in need of adjustment or overhaul, we have opportunities to learn, challenge our own thinking and theirs, and to adopt practices more in line with our goals for helping them develop a healthy race consciousness.
My inner White privilege voices might whine, at times, “Really? Do I have to think or talk about this now?” My better self, however, knows that if I want to prevent those voices from dominating my daughters’ thinking, the answer is: “Yes, I need to think and act and follow up to learn more when I don’t trust my initial thoughts or responses.”
In the spirit of that learning, I look forward to hearing from the Raising Race Conscious Children community as to ideas for responding to the porch scenario and to the questions it raises.
Kim Sherman is a school psychologist who lives in New Orleans with her husband and two daughters, ages five and two. They are a Jewish, white family of Eastern European descent. Kim Sherman has a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rhode Island, an M.A. in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University, and a B.A. in American Studies from Grinnell College. She works for the Plaquemines Parish Public School Board.