© Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Nov 7 2012.
A few weeks ago, just before my son turned 3, he informed me he didn't like one of his teachers because of his "brown skin." My heart stopped. I was horrified and totally panicked. For 5 seconds I was completely tongue-tied. My son looked right into my eyes, waiting for a response. He was clearly testing. What happens when I say this thing? Eventually all I could muster was a, "Really?" (to which he answered firmly, "Yeah") And then frankly I don't remember what I said because I became completely overcome with shame and a feeling that I had failed as a parent.
Before I was ever a mother, I was an early music educator. After a half decade working with primarily middle upper income, White families I felt a growing dissatisfaction with my career trajectory. I wanted to be more involved with families of color. I transitioned into anti-bias preschool teaching and in so doing learned a lot of techniques for discussing and exploring race with young children. So of course when I had my own child, who is a child of color, I launched immediately into racial ethnic explorations with him. I have talked to him about skin, hair and eye color since he was a baby. This was not something I experienced growing up - so I've been flying blind a little bit. Other than the training and reading I've done, I have no role models for how to discuss race with my young child. Just going by the book, so to speak. And I guess I thought this radical, progressive approach would result in a son who would never think a racist thought.
But what happened instead is my little guy developed early a vocabulary to talk about the racial differences and inequalities he was seeing. He knows this subject is extremely important to me and my husband. He hears us talking about it all the time. So he folded what he was hearing and observing into to his thinking and experimenting. And here's the truth - at this particular facility where he interacts with this particular teacher, there are very few people of color. The few that there are, are mostly light-skinned Asian. People with very dark skin, like my son's teacher, stand out like a sore thumb. Watching class one day, I asked a White mother (of a multiracial Black/White child) which was her daughter. She described the girl and I pointed out the wrong child. In correcting me she said, "I know - my husband and I were like, great. The only other Black girl in the room is wearing the same outfit." There were probably 50 children in the facility at the time. Indeed I later said to my son (referencing his teacher), "Well Mommy has brown skin and you like me." He agreed but then walked up to me, stroked my cheek and said something like, "But Mommy doesn't have brown skin here."
My feelings of failure overwhelmed me for a week. I stopped talking about race with my son. I started censoring myself in his presence. I was embarrassed to reach out for support because I didn't want to admit he had said this horrible thing. I didn't want him to be judged. I felt like everything I had done was wrong. But eventually, with the kind encouragement of my husband and my community, I stopped being so hard on myself and realized it was perfectly normal for a 3 year old to begin verbalizing and exploring these issues. That it was important, no matter how hard or painful, for us to keep talking.
And here is the mind-blowing research: Children actually begin noticing differences, and constructing classificatory and evaluative categories very early. As young as 6 months, infants demonstrate that they notice differences in skin color. By age 2, children are learning color names, which they begin to apply to skin color. By age 3 (and sometimes earlier), children show signs of being influenced by societal norms and biases and may exhibit "pre-prejudice" toward others on the basis of race (i.e. discomfort with physical differences). They can have negative biases toward others of different racial groups, even if they have never personally met a person of another group. By 4 or 5 years of age, children can already be seen using racial reasons for refusing to interact with other children different from themselves. Studies have found that by age 5, children can attribute an individual's ability according to the racial grouping in which they are supposed to belong. Despite some progress since the 1960s, US society remains intensely segregated across color lines. Generally speaking, Whites and people of color do not occupy the same social space or social status, and this very visible fact of American life does not go unnoticed by children. Not surprisingly, all children in this society learn at an early age that whiteness is privileged and darkness is not.
Young children are not the unsophisticated, innocent beings we adults imagine them to be. So many of us think they are incapable of seriously understanding the implications of race and racism. The reality is that 3, 4, and 5 year olds often hold a solid and applied understanding of the dynamics of race. Ignoring racism - perpetuates it. It's so important for us parents to bring race to the table. To challenge it. To acknowledge how tangible and real it is, but also how unfair. To talk about strategies and techniques for coping, surviving and fighting. And so I keep trying to swim upstream. To have these deeply painful conversations with my sweet little man when all I really want him to do is be young and free.