Monday, June 27, 2011

Inquisition Monday: Race

Inquisition Monday this week is a question for you all: How do you talk to your three year old about race?

Or more exactly, is it offensive if Margaret says that a person is "chocolate" and do I need to talk to her about that and how do I do that?

On one hand, it's absolutely normal and age-appropriate that she's noticing and pointing out the differences in people: some are boys, some are girls (and sometimes she's wrong about who is which!) and some people have blue eyes and some people wear red dresses, and some people are fat and some are skinny, and some people (in her words) are "chocolate." And she wants "chocolate" hair and insists to me that her hair will grow chocolate when she gets bigger.

But on the other hand, I have no idea what's going to offend. When I was in elementary school, we were told to NEVER refer to black people as "black;" they are "African American." Then in high school, we were told "black" was fine and "African American" can be offensive because not every "black" person is from Africa. And recently I've heard "people of color" more. And I have no idea where "chocolate" fits in this discourse except that I'm pretty sure whatever term is chosen pick, someone will take umbrage.

And then, how do you talk about it? I don't remember my parents talking about race at all when I was small- and the few things I heard, I repeated, only to find that it was racist. Because of this, I have patience with kids who are repeating things they've heard at home, but absolutely nowhere to start talking about race as the adult.

I don't want to ignore it because race is a very important part of a person's identity and culture. And I can't pretend that race doesn't matter. It does.

So my friends of color, is "chocolate" ok? I usually say, "Yes, his skin is brown" or "Yes, her hair is black." Is that enough? But it doesn't keep Margaret from using "chocolate" because she uses "chocolate" to refer to brown even with her crayons or pant color. How do you discuss this with a 3 year old?


  1. It seems chocolate is a normal reference for her age. My mom loves to tell the story of how when my second to oldest brother was in Head Start, he would talk about how the other kids were chocolate kids. He referred to himself as vanilla.

    And yes, you're totally right that no matter what term is chosen, I'm sure someone will find it offensive.

  2. I can't speak for all people of color but I wouldn't find it offensive if I heard a toddler refer to a person of color as "chocolate." I also don't agree that any term that is used will be offensive to someone. I don't mind if someone refers to me as either black or AA. Both terms are fine with me. I've never heard someone get offended by being called AA, although it is a misnomer for almost all of us. Sure my ancestors were originally from Africa, but besides that, I have no connection to that continent and don't even know *where* in Africa my ancestors were from (of course I can guess west Africa because that is where most slaves came from, but you get what I mean.) Anyway, I think the best thing to do is talk openly about race in a way that is age appropriate, which it sounds like you are already doing when you say "yes her skin is brown." Have you read the chapter on race in Nurture Shock? It's actually a huge problem that white parents never talk to their kids about race. Look at the books you are reading to M&I. Are they diverse? Are you reading books to her about people of color? Are you taking her places where she can encounter diversity? I don't know what your neighborhood is like now but I assume it is much more diverse than anything you might've gotten in Utah. So yes, keep talking about race, expose her to people of other cultures/races, make sure you are reading about them, etc.

  3. 3rdTimeMom- Thanks!

    Elita- I haven't gotten around to Nurture Shock (shocking, huh?). I hear contradictory things about it, but I guess that's the nature of that book. Will need to read it some time.

    Our neighborhood is very diverse. In fact, according to the 2010 Census (, the "Census track" for our current neighborhood reported around 40% black, 30% white, 10% Hispanic, and 10% Asian (I'm rounding the numbers for anonymity's sake). So yes, far more diverse than Utah, or even where I grew up in a suburb of Chicago. We do try to read books with diverse characters. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, the three books she picked out were a biography of Marian Anderson and 2 copies of a Cesar Chavez biography. I didn't realize they were the same book until we got home- oops! And I'm ashamed to say, I had never heard of Marian Anderson until that book, and what a story! She's my new hero.

  4. I remember in one of my PSY college classes, we talked about discussing race with children. One lady was the mother of several biracial children. She said she taught them the difference between races (and how a white mother and black father make black children) by using ice cream flavors! She would tell them "I'm vanilla, and daddy is chocolate. When you mix them, it still looks chocolate!" It worked for her, so I think it's a nice way for helping children understand. (Plus, they probably like both vanilla and chocolate ice cream!) I like how you validate her observations, and use other words to help her describe the different people she sees, without putting a title to it all ("His skin is brown" not "That man is AA/black/of color/etc")

  5. You seem to be doing just fine. I've read NurtureShock, and it mostly just stresses that you talk about it. The authors claim most parents don't talk about race, assuming that children are "color-blind" in that sense. Obviously, they aren't.

  6. It's interesting having kids of both races. And not just both AA and caucasion, but *really* dark AA and *really* light caucasion. So in our family, I let the kids decide what they will be called. G is really insistent that "black" is a dumb word for his race. "I'm brown!" he insists. And they are equally aware that their rest of us are not white. But they call us white anyway. Makes me giggle.
    I think as long as you are talking about race and acknowledging it, you are doing pretty darn good.

  7. I've mostly let my son talk about it however he wants to. He would say something about "brown" people. I think it is appropriate as you said because is is simply an (accurate) observation.

    One time he showed me a picture that he had drawn of himself and some friends and "Oops" he said laughing, "I accidentally drew myself with brown skin." Kids automatically are interested in differences.

    So far we've simply explained it as "kids usually look like their parents." Which I think is fine for a young age.

    This last year his kindergarten class studied some issues of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr Day. His teacher mentioned how this brought out a strong concern over social injustice in him. I thought that was interesting to hear, but based on my own conversations with him I could see that his grasp on the concepts was still pretty shaky.

    I don't want to raise my kids with the idea that the world is out to get them. I also don't want to pigeon hole them into fitting into a stance based on a previous generation's way of dealing with an issue. Nor do I want them to feel *guilt* (like your last post) over their own race or place in history. As a white male my husband says he has felt (since his teenage years) that people try to shame him over something that was completely out of his control--namely race and gender.

    I don't know if this makes sense, but those are some of my concerns with talking about "Race" with my three young boys.

  8. We actually did storytime with that Marian Anderson books with the 3 year olds at my library recently. We dug up the recording of her singing My Country Tis of Thee at the Lincoln Memorial and played it for the kids. Lots of great lessons in that book.


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