What are some of the phrases/ actions associated with race/racism that you never want children to hear or see?
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A mentor, who’s taught me much about multiple perspectives, has often told me, “unmentionable becomes unmanageable.” So when faced with an awkward conversation about race, I try to forge ahead despite my fear. I do worry that I may say the wrong thing but I’d rather start a dialogue than miss an opportunity.
According to Pro Bronson (see this post) ,many white parents and educators don’t find these race conversations easy. I am no different. But if I’m not willing to engage, then I’m responsible for making the unmentionable unmanageable.
A library class with lots of five year olds clamoring for books was one such occasion when I felt out of my depth but obligated to speak. A girl requested a “princess book”. I handed her Rachel Isadora’s stunning version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. When she replied, “no, I want a pretty one,” I had two choices.
I could find another book. Or I could find out why a classic fairytale set in Africa was not acceptable. Obviously, she couldn’t articulate that she had been indoctrinated by Disney’s values of beauty, princesses and fairytales.
I had five minutes left of class and was at a loss for words.
As my mentor said, “just start the conversation. You don’t have to finish it.” So I told my student, that Isadora’s version was beautiful. However, it sounded like she was looking for a specific type of book that was of a different style. I showed her a Disney style fairytale she left happy.
I may not have said the right thing.
She may not remember the conversation.
I may not have shifted her thinking.
I feel better for trying, in my awkward, off-guarded attempt, to interrupt her unconscious, internalized racism. I, at least, acknowledged the unmentionable to myself.
I hope she heard, so that one day it won’t be unmanageable for her.
Here are 10 books to use as spring boards for discussions about skin color. They range from picture books to young adult titles. Hope they help.
The Skin You Live In By Michael Tyler, David Lee Csicsko, (Illustrator) Chicago Children Museum, 2005
This picture book uses rhyme to celebrate the range of skin color and the fact that children are simultaneously unique and similar.
Skin Again By bell hooks, Chris Raschka (Illustrator) Jump at the Sun, 2004
Another good title to discuss differences in skin color but honor that what’s inside is what counts.
Shades of people By Shelley Rotner, Sheila M.Kelly Holiday House, 2010
Echoing the above titles in theme, this title uses photographs to show that skin is a covering that comes in all different shades, even within a family. Yet we have more in common when we move past these external differences.
Daisy and the Doll By Michael Medearis, Angela Shelf Medearis, Larry Johnson (Illustrator) University Press of New England, 2005
While this story is 100 year old Daisy Turner’s memory that she recounted about her experience growing up in Grafton Vermont in the 1890’s, the emotions and issues of what it feels like to be different and face racial prejudice are no different today. Click here to find fascinating information about Daisy’s experience on the Vermont Folklore Center’s website.
All the Colors we are: the story of how we get our skin color By Katie Kissinger, Wernher Krutein (Photographer) Redleaf Press, 2002
A useful resource to teach children the environmental and hereditary aspects of melanin, or skin color.
The Skin I’m In By Pat Thomas, Lesley Harker (Illustrator) Barron’s Educational Series, 2003
This nonfiction title provides young children with examples of racist acts while encouraging children to embrace differences.
Racism (Let’s Talk About) By Bruce Sanders Creative Co, 2005
As the title indicates, the book explains how skin color can be cause for unfair treatment. It also suggests that we can combat racism if we work together.
YOUNG ADULT / ADULT
The Skin I’m In By Sharon Flake Hyperion Books, 2007
This awarding YA title is great for older audiences. The thirteen-year-old heroine, Maleeka, doesn’t like being dark skinned because everyone at school makes it a problem. Befriending a bully doesn’t help. She has to learn to love herself and the skin she’s in. Click here to see what one school has done with this profound text.
Face Relations: 11 Stories about seeing beyond Color Marilyn Singer (Editor) Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2004
This YA collection explores issues of diversity, racism and ways to move beyond with well known authors such as M.E Kerr and Joseph Bruchac.
Black Like Me By John Howard Griffin Wings Press, 2011
Though it is 50 years old, this adult or young adult title is not to be missed. It explores the issue of racial injustice after a white writer darkens his skin and spends time in the American South. Click here for Smithsonian’s view of how the book has stood the test of time.
I was raised not to notice skin color, it was polite and kind to be color blind to not acknowledge difference. That race doesn’t matter; all people are humans;
And if indeed you are taught that racism is learned, you’d think it would make sense don’t talk about race or skin color, then children’ won’t learn to be racist. If adults don’t point out the racial differences, kids won’t see them. But in fact the opposite is true.
If you don’t have explicit conversations with children about race, they will be drawing their own conclusions without adult guidance. Children, like all humans, categorize all day long. When they are young, they can only categorize using one attribute at a time. They use the most salient one, which is often color.
And when white parents use phrases like “we are all the same” that code is confusing for children. It ignores the physical differences a child sees without actually explaining that we aspire to have everyone treated equally.
White parents often wait until third grade to talk about race. But it is too late. Research shows it must happen earlier to be effective. If you don’t have practice, these conversations can seem hard, awkward, uncomfortable. But if you don’t try, children also lack the practice and vocabulary. And suddenly when they don’t know how to acknowledge differences a child may say something like “he looks like us,” setting up an “us versus them” paradigm.
Does your child have the vocabulary to talk about skin color and race? What conclusions would you want your child to draw? Do you know what they are really concluding? Ask them. Talk with them. Find out and feel free to share your findings.
You can learn more about the need to stop color blindness in Pro Bronson’s & Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock, Chapter 3 ” Why White Parents Don’t talk about Race.”
Here’s another great article written by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton “Should we talk to young children about race?”
Stay tuned for ways I discuss race and skin color with kindergartners.
If you’re in Los Angeles, don’t leave without visiting the Museum of Tolerance. The 1993 museum was designed to examine racism and prejudice. My exploration was too brief, but it got me thinking.
What would I include in my museum of tolerance? What would you?
What stories /histories of injustice, hate, intolerance, civil right abuses, human right abuses would you highlight? Why? What would you say?
What legacies should children not forget? Are there stories not told in your region that should be included? For example have you heard of the 1946 Ca civil rights segregation case Mendez vs Westminister ? I hadn’t.
How would you bring these stories to life? What medium? How would you engage the visitor?
How would you spark dialogue or broaden horizons to be inclusive of many multiple perspectives?
Below are some exhibits that the educational arm of the Human Rights Simon Wiesenthal center includes. Use them to get you thinking.
Glossaries : What words are important to share? How would you define them? Does everyone agree with that definition?
Timelines: What would you include? How far back? How detailed? Would you want to highlight big themes? Or focus on one topic and go into great detail?
Multimedia exhibit about a time of injustice: One exhibit is the Holocaust. What would yours be?
Tolerance center: How would you encourage genuine celebration of differences?
Point of view diner: What controversial topics would you include to help viewers tackle their personal responsibility for an issue?
Globalhate.com: What sites do you think promote fear, hate, injustice, prejudice?
Making your mark: How would you encourage others to make their mark?
Finding our families ourselves: What stories do we need to preserve? Why? What do families have in common in the U.S?
Special exhibits: I saw Para Todos Los Niños – how Mexican families fought for equal education in Ca. Other special exhibits included toys from trash, Black is a Color, and Albanian Muslims saving Jews during the Holocaust. What special exhibits would you create?
I’d love to hear plans for your museum of tolerance. And maybe before we know it, they will pop up everywhere and we can all learn from each other’s stories of the pain that we want to avoid recreating in the future.
I ‘m excited to hear your brainstorms.