When Palmer came home from his babysitter’s house last week and excitedly shared “Mom I went to pizza with Anna and Gray and Justin and he’s brown!” I said “Oh cool. I am so jealous you had pizza, tell me all about your new friend Justin!” He laughed and said “MOM – his skin is brown and it is SO COOL!” This opened up to a great conversation about race and how we all look different. We have talked about differences and diversity a lot, but it was the first time I could tell he was beginning to connect it all and recognizing someone he knows has different skin than he does. We talked about what color his skin is “It’s kind of yellow, kind of pink?” in his words and how the world is a much cooler place because we all look different and have different experiences.
So, why does talking about race make a lot of my white friends so uncomfortable? I asked a friend recently about whether she has any books with people of color in them. She cringed and attempted to change the topic before finally saying “No.” I don’t shy away from conversations and I don’t do the same with my kids either. I want them to know that my home and conversations with me are always a safe place to ask questions and explore topics. Therefore, race is no different. The way you as a parent respond and react to diversity and race is the way your child perceives and responds, even when you may not think they are listening or looking. Take some time today and think about your conscious and unconscious thoughts and behaviors regarding race. Do you make assumptions about people based on how they look without giving them a chance? The first step is to be real with yourself and confront these thoughts and think about why it makes you so uncomfortable.
Maybe you don’t feel prepared to have an open conversation or maybe you feel like your kids are really little and need a little more structure around talking about race? I would love to share a few books that our house LOVES that I would recommend adding to your collection as well.
- Henry’s Freedom Box – By Ellen Levine. “Henry dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. Henry grows up and marries, but he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.” The pictures are breathtaking and the book is heartbreaking. Not sure what to talk about during/after reading? Talk about emotions during the book, how did Henry feel when his family was taken away? How did that make you feel? What do you think it would be like to stay in a box to travel so you could be safe? What if someone treated you unfairly because of your skin?
- When Marian Sang – by Pam Munoz Ryan. “Marian Anderson is best known for her historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, which drew an integrated crowd of 75,000 people in pre-Civil Rights America. While this momentous event showcased the uniqueness of her voice, the strength of her character, and the struggles of the times in which she lived.” This book is great for older kids, but the boys loved listening to me read aloud. There is great historical info in the back of the book as well! Not sure what to talk about during/after reading? Talk about how music brings people together. Talk about different kinds of music and the people who sing. Talk about how you feel when someone tells you that you cannot do something. Talk about how Marian felt when she sang in front of 75,000 people.
- I am Rosa Parks -By Brad Meltzer”Rosa Parks dared to stand up for herself and other African Americans by staying seated, and as a result she helped end public bus segregation and launch the country’s Civil Rights Movement” Regardless of what you know about Rosa Parks, there is nothing more empowering that re-reading her strength and fight when she refused to stand up and give up her seat on that bus. Not sure what to talk about during/after reading? After we read this book I asked Palmer if he would stand up for his friends if someone was being treated unfairly. He without hesitation said yes. We practiced marching around the living room to say “We will fight for whats right!” to practice marching like Rosa and her friends did. Talk to your kids about buses today, how anyone of any color can sit in any seat! Talk to your kids about segregation and the many people that fought for equality. Remind your child, like I did, that I would ALWAYS support him taking a stand for equality and match him step for step.
- This Jazz Man – by Karen Ehrhardt. “Presents an introduction to jazz music and nine well-known jazz musicians, set to the rhythm of the traditional song, “This Old Man,” and includes brief facts about each musician.” LOVED this book, we sang the words and laughed through the story. The illustrations are phenomenal and funky. Don’t miss the RVA musician highlighted in this book. After reading this Palmer wanted to hear more about Jazz. We jammed to Jazz station on Alexa and pretended to be in a jazz band with imaginary instruments for the remainder of the afternoon. Not sure what to talk about during/after reading? Talk about how music is a way to express your emotions and your story. Explore new genres of music and celebrate the amazing talent that created it.
- The Skin You Live In – By Michael Tyler. “With the ease and simplicity of a nursery rhyme, this lively story delivers an important message of social acceptance to young readers. Themes associated with child development and social harmony, such as friendship, acceptance, self-esteem, and diversity are promoted in simple and straightforward prose.” This book is a must have. Its simple, colorful, and is a catchy way to remind us all that our skin is different but we are similar too! Not sure what to talk about during/after this book? Talk about how our friends may look different but we can always find a similarity! Palmer and I talked about how aunt Kiki used to live in the Philippines and we found it on a map. We talked about how aunt Kiki has dark hair and more tan skin but we love her so very much and don’t know what we would do without her!
There are so many other amazing books available, but give this list a try if you aren’t sure where to start.
You may be thinking, “Whats this white mom talking about? What does she know?” Fine. Ignore me – but lets hear from my friend Chelsea who talks race, prejudice, and all things RVA in her radio show and in articles in RVA mag. I asked Chelsea if she had advice for white families and how to talk about race and race relations what would she love for them to talk about?
Here’s Chelsea’s advice on talking to your child about race:
1. Don’t wait. There’s no reason to “protect” them from race. And if you’re white thats a privilege you get, so be proactive like parents of brown babies and talk about it sooner than later.
2. Talking about race does not and should not be heavy when talking to kids. If you dont wait until a traumatic incident happens, parents can frame race as a positive attribute of variety rather than human hierarchy thats taught through indirect messaging in our society. Starting early will dismantle the systemic racist thought process for the next generation. Give your child the tools for freedom rather than only arming them for defense.
3. Make sure your modeling the right messages. Do you have black people on the tv you watch? Do you listen to black media? Music? Talk about issues that specifically target people of color. Do you have black friends? Do you go to black restaurants? Do you have black books in your house? Do you celebrate black accomplishments? What about your family sends the message that you would be great to invite over their house? No, not invite us to you, but earn the trust to be invited….?
4. Don’t separate race from gender… talk intersectional. Yep, go big. Diversity means celebrating our uniqueness. Dont set them up for being cool with black folk but dont know what to do with a black transwoman. Go ahead and talk about bodies and love and how we are all humans with awesome styles.
5. Practice the talk. Seriously, if you are wondering how to talk to them it means you may not feel ready. Which means your own language may need some fine tuning. Get in the mirror and practice saying “black women, gay men, trans women, cis-gender” see if your face twitches or if you look uncomfortable. If you do, own that. Tell your kid you’re still working on it and want to do that as a family as thats not an excuse to procrastinate.
Chelsea is amazing, and I am thankful to know her. As a parent, it is my job to surround my family with outstanding people of all backgrounds, histories, and stories. How boring would it be to just have a social circle with people that look just like us?
But more importantly than books or even a blog…look around your neighborhood, your sports club, your gym, your child’s school – is your social circle diverse? Reading a few books is not enough. Talking about race one month a year is NO WHERE near enough. Expanding your life to include people of all colors, races, backgrounds, and ethnicities is key. You will find that the people who you may think at face value are so different and have nothing in common with you, have MANY similarities.
“Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.”
— Author Unknown