I’ve mulled over this entry for the past week. I realize that the subject could turn into a dissertation, so I’m going to do my best to keep it simple.
My son is Black.
And he knows it.
My son, in my opinion, has been racially conscious since before he was 1-year-old. Maybe not conscious, but he definitely showed cultural/racial affinity at that time.
Meet Quincy. He is the trumpet-blowing pre-schooler on Disney’s show, Little Einsteins. He is also the first character my son developed an attachment to, or rather, showed preference towards. I, in my say-it-loud ways, was excited that my beautiful Black baby boy immediately connected with the only Black character on the show before he was able to walk. When he became able to talk and walk, he made it clear that Quincy was not his friend or best buddy. He made it clear that he WAS Quincy. “Mommy, I’m Quincy!” “Mommy, look at ME on TV!!”
According to this Newsweek article, babies as young as 6 months old judge others based on race. Of course, further exploration suggests that babies are drawn to people who look like them and the people they are around the most in their formative months and years. It would make sense, then, for a White baby to prefer White characters or toys that remind him of his parents or his own reflection. So then, it isn’t simply about “racist babies” as some have called this phenomenon. It is more about understanding the differences in people’s appearances and developing a certain level of familiarity and comfort in these differences.
I realized, or thought I did, that it wasn’t about Quincy looking like him. Clearly, he is a different skin tone from Quincy. It wasn’t about Quincy playing the trumpet; Garvey prefers the keyboard and drums. Garvey could have just as easily identified with the lighter skin-toned White male lead character, Leo, if it were simply about the character who looked like him. So I figured maybe it was because Quincy has brown skin like Mommy and Daddy (his father is dark chocolate skin and I’m on the caramel side). I basically brushed it off and enjoyed the fact that he had a vivid imagination where he saw himself as a character on a TV show.
Over time, however, I began noticing that he continued to show preference for Black male characters. His newest favorite is Shout, the Black male from the Fresh Beat Band, a group of musicians on Nickelodeon (along with Kiki, the Latina, Twist, the White male, and Marina, the White female). He exclaims, with confident certainty, that he IS Shout. It has gone so far that he assigns characters to his family (I’m Kiki, Daddy is Twist, Janniyah is Marina). I had to think, why didn’t he make Daddy Shout, since they are the closest in resemblance? So I asked him. He says, “No no no Mommy, IIII’M Shout, not Daddy!”
I think that’s the most I will get out of him. Despite the tests run on 3-year-olds in the article, they are not exactly scientific in their own explanations of why they show racial affinity at such early ages.
Another example is gymnastics class. He has two primary coaches: Coach Phil (Black male) and Coach Jonah (White male). Initially, Garvey was not very responsive to Coach Jonah, but if Coach Phil got a hold of him, he was compliant and responsive. Over time, he grew warmer to Coach Jonah and I realized that this was the first significant White figure in Garvey’s life thus far (he’s had almost zero contact with my maternal family). It took three years for my son to come in close contact with a White person. This was not anything intentional, but rather the circumstances of where we live and the types of contacts he’s had with the outside world.
When I found out I was with child, I made a very conscious decision about two things: One, my son would be raised with an appreciation for his African heritage and he would learn everything I could teach him about the greatness and struggles of his people in this country and the world; Two, my son would be exposed to people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities and I would do the best I could to not enforce any ideas of supremacy or prejudice.
The article says that parents, mostly White parents, do their children a disservice by taking the “colorblind” approach to race issues. It suggests that kids basically figure it out on their own if we don’t intervene and teach them in our ways and beliefs. “In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”” Citation
So while I was trying to not thrust my own oft-radical racial views upon my son (until he was at least 5 lol), he has figured things out on his own thus far. It’s rather amazing how this works. Why is this on my mind now?
My son is about to start pre-school and the discussions about education and socialization are very important. In his gymnastics class, he befriended not any of the White or Latino children, but one little Black boy named Max and a Black girl named Chloe. He gravitated to them on his own, with no encouragement or bias from either of his parents. Fascinating, isn’t it?
Now, as we begin making schooling decisions, we have to take into considerations how environment can shape his racial views. As a mother who went to a predominantly Black and Latino private middle school, a predominantly White boarding school, and then a predominantly White Ivy League university (but stayed almost completely isolated within the small Black community there), I understand how much of an impact schools can have on the shaping of one’s racial consciousness and experiences. I want my son to have as much exposure to other races and cultures as possible to develop understanding and embrace diversity, but I’m not sure how that desire meshes with my desire for him to be a strong, culturally conscious, heritage-loving, say-it-loud Black man.
For now, he seems to be carving his own path. I’ve begun teaching him about his namesakes, Kwanzaa, and among his diverse library of books, there are beautiful characters of every shade of Brown in stories from Africa and Black America. I don’t want my son to be bigoted, prejudiced, or God-forbid racist, but I have to admit that I’m secretly loving his preference and his identification with his own Blackness.
Is that bad?
8 thoughts on ““It’s Racial!””
Bad? Absolutely not.
NurtureShock (the book upon which the Newsweek article is drawn from) is a great book if only for that chapter on race. One of the things you say though, that I think the chapter tries really hard to get parents to reconsider, is that simply placing our children in diverse environments gets them to value diversity. I think the reason G values his blackness is because you explicitly talk to him about valuing it, along with explicitly talking to him about valuing diversity. So what you see is exactly what you have been working toward.
Most parents are shocked when they don’t see what you have, and that’s because they’ve thought that simply placing their kids in diverse environments was enough to teach their kids the value of diversity – but it’s not. Without the explicit conversations, kids learn all kinds of lessons from their environment, primarily that adults think talking about race is a bad thing! They notice race, just like they notice colors and gender and height and all other kinds of markers, and they make judgments about them – children are not “passive absorbers of knowledge; rather they are active constructors of concepts”. You are telling him what value to place on his blackness and what value to place on diversity. You are giving him exactly the right tools to live in a diverse environment.
And as a closing comment – it drives me BONKERS when I hear black parents say they don’t talk to their kids about race, or they are waiting for the kid to bring it up to them first. While you are waiting, your child is making his or her own judgment, informed by the reflected appraisal of other children. If he or she goes to school with white children, who are being told implicitly or explicitly that they are the superior group (“most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth and control in society”), then the same is happening with black children: he or she will learn that they are socially inferior – unless you teach them otherwise. This does not have to be a discussion of how downtrodden black folk are, or how bad white people are, but like Benee does – a teaching of a glorious history and culture and a healthy dose of the realities of race in an age-appropriate manner that emotionally buffers against the social reality. There is study after study that points to the advantages of this strategy in academic performance, self-efficacy, emotional health, etc. But if you wait until it comes to you, you’ve most likely waited too long.
“But if you wait until it comes to you, you’ve most likely waited too long.”
On another debate board, we were debating at what age does a parent bring up race? It was centered around this article. White parents were clearly skittish about bringing up race, unsure of how to address the issue. Black parents were offering recommendations of books and films, etc. It was as if we were like “Ok, your kids are going to come up with our kids, and we don’t want our kids having to deal with your kids’ ignorance”.
But we didn’t really get into what WE are doing to teach our own kids about race. Whats interesting is that most Black children in this country grow up in racially homogeneous environments and this is of various class levels. This country is still pretty segregated. The early contact most Black children (especially the 30% living in poverty) have with White people are police officers and teachers. Authority figures who lay down the rules and try to structure their minds and behaviors. They don’t generally have White friends. In my opinion, the best way to teach kids about diversity is to have teachable moments during various experiences. But it’s hard to have a teachable moment when there is a gross lack of intimate exposure.
So just as many White children only hear or read about Black people through certain media, children of color have limited exposure as well. And as parents of color, we have to be just as conscious, if not more so, about the impact this has on shaping their own racial consciousness.
Benee: I love your post. As a half-Iranian, half-Mexican American family, this is such a complex issue for us. We (mostly I) talk about it all the time and have since the kids were newborn. Since obviously there are not that many half-Iranian/half-Mexicans running around, we’ve chosen to take a more expansive view of who “our people” are. My kids do go to Farsi and Spanish classes and learn about their Middle Eastern and Hispanic heritage, but I don’t think that goes far enough for us. Race in America is so complicated. When I got to the States as a little brown girl, I suffered quite a bit. The media, other children, their parents, schools, lots of institutions can send very perverse messages about what is beautiful, what is preferable, what is superior. I coped by *expanding* my view of where I belonged and who my people were. I’m trying to do that for my children NOW by pointing out the beauty of “color,” pointing out beauty that is not always reflected in magazines and TV shows, not buying into toys and companies that aren’t reflective of our diversity, values and family. We are truly blessed that our kids get to be around a group of children of color who look like them, many of whose names are different like theirs, some of whose parents are foreign-born like their mother, some of whom speak different languages like their parents. My daughter is 5. She’s been hearing my subtle and not-so-subtle messages since she was tiny. Sometimes I wonder if she says things because she’s internalized them or because she thinks it’s what I want to hear. I’m not quite sure but I pray the former. I worry about her more than I worry about my son. I do think it’s harder for girls because of the whole beauty subtext. Sorry if I’m rambling. Long day …
I think you know how I feel about this subject sys…but I am now struggling with age appropriate content. My sun and I were talking about MLK and Malcolm X the other day…and he announced to my neighbor that white people kill black people. Now…of course we know the truth in that, however to an almost 4 year old…this is not the view of the non-colored people of the world he needs to have at this time. I need to be able to explain context and history and more info….
Any suggestions ladies? Books? Websites?
I think you need to explain to him the difference between what happened in the past and what’s going on in the present. I had a friend for whom a similar thing happened – the school did a unit on MLK. His mother is bi-racial, and is very fair skinned. He came home very upset, believing that when the white people turned on the black folk again, he would be separated from his mother. So you need to explain that times have dramatically changed, and what happened then will never happen again. And explain to him the bigger point, something another friend teaches her kids: most of the tragedies in history could have been avoided if the bystanders would have stood up and taken a stand. All those people who stood by and simply watched – if they would have said “No, this is wrong,” many lives would have been saved. Teach him the larger issue is when you see a person being bullied, even if you are not the one bullying, that standing by watching, doing nothing, is as bad as participating. Show him the lessons that we’ve learned from the tragedy, the lessons all of us can take away from what was done.
And then also teach him about all the white people who were good people, the white abolitionists, the white people who marched with Dr. King, the white college student Freedom riders who spent their summers registering voters. Without them, we may not have gotten freedom.
I love how Garvey has adopted these characters as images of himself. I often tell my children, see “he’s brown like us,” at the preschool age. In order so that they can learn to associate themselves with progressive representations as well. I was really sad that neither one of my boys took to Little Bill. Both of them, however, love Dora, and now my youngest son has taken a liking to Diego also. That’s brown enough for me 🙂
Watching Obama take office, while living in DC, was quite remarkable for my family. I remember Mekhi asking me, “Mommy, do you think Barack Obama looks like me?” I thought about it for a moment and then realized the resemblance, which I had never thought about is somewhat uncanny. When you see pics of Obama as a child, in particular, you can certainly see a resemblance.
I can remember, as a girl, being starved for images of black girls/women. Cabbage Patch dolls, are still as white today as they were then. I wish there were more black girls (and boys) for children to emulate (shot out to True Jackson!). But I am happy to see that your son feels he is in good company 🙂
Garvey loves Diego and Dora too. I think that also flows with his having a Puerto Rican grandmother who has had significant influence in his life. She is currently watching him and told me she is working on his Spanish. I’m totally fine with that. G likes Little Bill too.
He knew Barack Obama early on, but didnt associate with him, which is WEIRD considering of all the Black males he speaks of, he looks most like Barack. So much in fact, I was going to dress him up as Barack for Halloween LOL
I think its interesting how is drawn to characters much darker than he is. Maybe thats because when they make Black characters, they make sure they are chocolate brown. I don’t see any light-skinned Black characters too often.
I love this post! And no, it’s not bad. Not at all. I was becoming concerned when my daughter became of fond of Caillou, and I was weirded out by the possible thought that she was identifying with a white, French-Canadian, male! And then I started pushing Lil Bill on her…but I digress.