I raised my hand during kindergarten class in 1979 when I was 5-years old and announced that I’m black. I actually got up on my feet to say it. I am black. And then afterward I sat back down again. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be doing at the time.
In and of itself, this announcement wasn’t all that unusual. The teacher was black, and we were sitting on the carpet of a classroom in the Washington DC area, which meant that plenty of the children around me were also black. What I said wasn’t glaringly out of place, if you can forgive the timing of it. The real problem with what I said—and the reason why the children laughed and I was sent to the principal’s office—was that I am not black.
At least to the casual eye, I’m not. I’m mixed. Both black and white, but what’s different about me is that I look a whole lot more white than I do black—a lot more. Pale skin, brown hair, grey eyes. It’s not what people expect when they think biracial. And no one in the class knew about my identity, teacher included, and so it’s understandable that the reaction wasn’t very positive.
The school administration was understandably confused. My parents were called. They were understandably furious. But once my black father and white mother showed up at the school office, everything between the adults was quickly resolved. I went back to class. What happened was never brought up again. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was settled.
But for me it took a lot longer—probably another 30 years—for things to settle. The incident stuck with me. It was the first—and in many ways the most powerful—lesson I can remember learning about race.
Here are the three things I learned from the experience:
• People don’t see you for who you are.
• There is something wrong with you as a result.
• Race is not something to be discussed.
These are hard lessons for any child. (If they are your worst problems you’re pretty fortunate, of course, but that doesn’t change that they were difficult to shoulder.) I struggled with these feelings for decades after, and while none of this is the fault of the adults involved, I think some portion of what happened was preventable. Here is my advice tackling the complicated issues of race and identity with children:
• Be open to discussions about race early. They say that we start to develop a concept of race when we’re between 3 and 5. And, more crucially, we start to develop a distinct preference for one race in particular. By the time we’re 10 or so, our concepts of race seem to solidify, absent any life-changing experience. What this means is that there is a crucial window of opportunity for discussion during these formative years.
• Help children see themselves. I think it would have helped if I myself had understood the many shades of biracialism common among people with black/white heritage. If I had, I might’ve known that I’m actually not all that unusual. It would have been easier to communicate this in the modern era. Now there are visible black/white athletes like Jason Kidd or Kris Humphries and actors like Wentworth Miller and Rashida Jones. But as I grew up there was no one that I knew who I could look to and say: there I am, that is me. This modeling can be important to a child. The person you choose doesn’t have to be a celebrity—just someone to admire.
• Expose children to diversity. Ideally, a child sees different kinds of people in all facets of her life. Doctors, teachers, classmates, workers on the roads, custodians. At the grocery store, at the park, at school. Different people inhabiting different roles, in such a way that no one group becomes inextricably tied in a child’s mind to one profession or to a particular perceived station in life. That’s the ideal. It is, of course, easier said than done. Not all geographical areas are diverse, which makes the next lesson even more critical…
• Avoid stereotyping. Even if you can’t provide diverse experiences beyond a Cinco de Mayo party, you can absolutely avoid doing the diametric opposite. Stereotypes are terrible for a child. They are overly simplistic and broad and lazy-minded. And for those reasons, they often fit very well into a young child’s thought processes, which often lack nuance and crave basic, clear-cut rules. So eliminate stereotypical imagery and messages from your home. Teach your child to understand complexity—they can handle it.
• Don’t make race a taboo topic. There is a strong probability that when your child first broaches the topic of race, it will be by blurting out something excruciatingly embarrassing. In public. You will likely want to disappear from the earth when this happens. And you will want to silence them to show that you are, in fact, a good parent and not an evil hate-monger who breeds small versions of yourself to inflict on the rest of us.
This is an understandable feeling. However, don’t shame your child. When a young person talks about race, they are often making very simple and logical observations about the differences they notice in the world. Yes, they need to be taught the kinds of things polite people do and do not say in public. But they don’t need to be punished for honest mistakes.
• Use an age-appropriate approach. Referring back to number 1 on this list… to be clear, just because children begin to develop an understanding of race between 3 and 5, it doesn’t mean they’re ready to talk about it like an adult might. Meet your child at his level. Discussions of race can actually come about fairly naturally and comfortably if you’re willing to take the child’s lead.