“I don’t like the brown children,” my three-year-old daughter told me one day. In shock, I asked her to repeat herself, convinced I’d misheard. I hadn’t.
I didn’t get it. Although I was aware that our neighborhood was far from multi-cultural – it’s unusual to see anyone who isn’t pasty white in our Western New York city suburb – we’d also spent plenty of time visiting my family in London, where hundreds of nationalities mix. My husband is South American too, and his nieces and nephews have brown skin. We had certainly never done anything to give her the impression that people with darker skin than ours would be any better or worse than people with lighter skin. As a child, my parents took me on anti-apartheid demonstrations, and I knew from an early age that prejudice based on skin color is inherently wrong. Yet here I was with a racist for a daughter. What had I done wrong?
When I asked her why she felt bad toward ‘the brown children,’ she told me they weren’t very nice, they didn’t ask to borrow, and they snatched. My three-year-old’s language is advanced for her age, so I told her that while she was right that that behavior wasn’t very nice, she shouldn’t connect this with someone’s skin color. Some people were good, kind, or funny, I said, and other people were bad, mean, or serious – it didn’t matter whether they were girls or boys, pretty or ugly, tall or short, fat or thin, or brown or white or any shade between, it was their actions that should be noticed, not the way they looked. “Do you understand?” I asked her. She nodded.
I wasn’t convinced my rather complicated explanation had made sense to her, so, knowing the profound effect books can have on a child, I went to the library. I borrowed picture books that featured children with a variety of skin colors (in one there was even a child with green skin!) and I ordered some books online. It was tougher than I expected to find picture books featuring brown-skinned kids doing normal, everyday things, but I got a handful I knew my daughter would enjoy. And I thought that along with my explanations, the stories would sort out the problem.
The following week, she repeated her brown-children comment. This time, it made me panic. Could it be that someone at her school was making racist comments, and she was parroting them? So I called the school. And that was when I got to the root of the problem.
My daughter’s regular class at nursery is by chance all Caucasian (this is not the case with the other classes at the school), but once a week a group of children from another part of town join them for gym. These kids have special needs and, unbeknown to me, most of them also happen to have brown skin. My daughter had noted that their behavior was different from that of her classmates, noted that they had different skin color and come up with what is actually a logical conclusion for a three-year-old: “I don’t like brown children.” Two plus two equals five.
Phew. My daughter wasn’t racist … at least not yet. I realized that despite the well-meaning intentions behind joining the special-needs class together with my daughter’s group, the integration wasn’t working quite as the teachers planned. I found out that other children had also responded negatively to the situation. Having their usual classmates around day-in day-out, then just one hour each week with the “other” group meant the kids weren’t getting a genuine chance to get to know each other or understand each other. Rather than seeing the special-needs children as individuals, they were grouped together as “the outsiders.” I can’t say how the weekly hour affected the special-needs children but I really hoped they got something positive out of it. If my child was coming home with negative feelings, it could well be that they were too.
To try and find out what other moms had done in similar situations, I asked around. Some people said what I was doing was just fine, others told me to move her to a different school, but a huge number told me to leave off. Their concern was that by specifically mentioning skin color, I would make her more aware of it. I would be creating a bigger issue. This added to my worries: Was I turning my child into a racist by talking to her about skin color?
Luckily for me, one wise friend lent me a book that showed me the “ignore it” logic was, like my daughter’s, flawed. In Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors describe a now well-known study by Dr. Brigitte Vitrup of Texas Woman’s University that showed how ignoring the issue of skin color or opting for vague comments like, ‘We’re all the same,” simply doesn’t work. What does work is introducing your child to multicultural situations, whether that be on TV or in a book, then actively discussing the issue of color with them.
In hindsight I’m glad my daughter made that comment. She wasn’t being racist; she was just being an observant child who made a mistake. But it gave me the opportunity to talk to her about skin color. Had I not had that and several other discussions with her, who knows what attitudes she would still have today?
Lili no longer says she doesn’t like “the brown children.” Instead, she points out the children whose behavior upsets her by name. But she’s not colorblind, by any means. Ask her what color her skin is, and she’ll tell you. Then she’ll add, “But that doesn’t make me good or bad, it just makes me pinky-beige.” Exactly right.