This is pretty different, but it reminded me of something that happened to a friend of mine recently. My friend is white and she teaches at a majority black elementary school. One day recently she heard one of the kids (he was arguing with another kid I think) say something like, “that’s like something one of those crazy white people would do!” Which, hey—given the context, maybe he had a point! But that’s not the kind of thing teachers let kids get away with saying in the classroom.

So she came over and was like, “hey, I’m right here! How do you think it makes me feel when you say these things?”

And the kids all look at her and frown. “What do you mean? You’re light skinned, like (classmate who is light skinned)!”

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And it turns out that after a year together, during which my friend has never intentionally misrepresented herself to anyone, quite a few of her kids think that instead of being Italian, she is in fact a light skinned black woman. I’m actually not sure she cleared it up, either—she has limited time to get through the lesson so she might have just kept going.

On a similar note of children learning about racial identity and racism, the six year old I nanny began to learn about slavery, segregation, racism etc in school lately. Not a ton of details, just the beginnings of the concepts. His life is very different from the kids my friend teaches—he has a lot of advantages in his life and these concepts were foreign to him. He and I were having a talk about it later because the idea of a whole race of people being hated and perceived as inferior was really confusing to him, and he happened to say that he and I would have been lucky if we lived back when slavery was legal, since we’re both white. I said something about how he was right about white people being lucky in that sense (I don’t think I used the word “privileged” bc I don’t think he knows what it means yet), BUT...I wasn’t sure what to say next because he is not a white child, at least not completely. He is half white and half Korean.

“Well, you’re half Asian,” I said finally, just intending to point out a fact. I wasn’t planning on going into the history of discrimination against Asians in the US right then, thinking that could be for his own family and, later on, history classes to teach him. I hope that his own experiences are always free from racial hatred, although knowing our society he probably will face racism in his life, but I don’t think it’s my place to try to prepare him for that since I am not Asian. And just his nanny! I don’t want to risk saying anything that could make his parents mad at me for overstepping my place.

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His response? “NO I’M NOT!” In a tone of confusion and outrage. I dropped it right away and we went back to discussing Jim Crow laws.

Anyway, he thinks he is completely white? Or maybe he was confused about what “Asian” means.

Any stories or tips about discussing race with children? It’s hard to talk about it with him, because on the one hand I want him to be sheltered from harsh truths forever, and always feel safe and happy. But on the other hand, I want him to grow up to be a good man, and that means understanding our problems as a society.