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Talk to Your Kids About Race. (There's an App for That.)

Can't tell them apart, can you?

My 6-year-old Lily came home from camp last week truly excited two girls she’d met that day. “Willow and Piper are sisters,” she explained of the identical twins. “They’re really hard to tell apart.” She thought for a minute. “Just like me and Rory.”

Colorblind. Isn’t that what we want for our kids? Complete oblivious-ness to obvious racial differences. From her comment on similarities, you’d think Lily has it (as does her sister, whose recent response to someone pointing out that Lily looks like her Daddy was to say cheerfully “and I look like my Mommy!” As you can see from the picture, Rory is Chinese, and her siblings and parents are not). As it happens, I know Lily isn’t always this immune to noticing things like skin and hair and eyes; I’ve heard her in the back seat comparing her arm to a friend’s: “look, yours is brown! Mine is kinda yellow-y.” But she’s never once asked why the same friend’s mother has skin that looks more like Lily’s than like her friend’s. I’m not sure where her inner conviction that she and Rory look alike comes from. (I’m guessing it hasn’t occurred to her yet that other people notice they ways they look different.) I have more than a little trouble believing it will last.

My parenting style, thus far, has been to embrace sensitive subjects. Sex? Explained. The guy with the “Legalize Marijuana Now” poster? Done (although I did choose to wait until we took Sam’s fellow third-grader and playdate home). Death? Covered, perhaps a little too bluntly, along with female Muslim imams and gay marriage. (Thanks, NPR!) As a kid, I felt there were things, plenty of them, that one just did not mention. And I drew my own conclusions about them, and most of those conclusions were, well, kooky at best.

Which is why when I read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s NurtureShock and their Newsweek article earlier this year, the chapters about kids and race really resonated with me. Briefly, the research Bronson and Merryman highlight show that the common parental policy of waffling about race by either not discussing it or referring to it only obliquely (“we’re all the same under our skin”) doesn’t result in colorblind kids at all. Lily’s optimism aside, they notice that people have different skin color. They notice that we don’t talk about it. And they conclude that nothing so blatantly obvious and yet so hushed can hardly be without some deeper meaning.
So kids— who are, we can see, very ready to classify themselves based on sex, sneaker color and who’s in what classroom—classify. The research shows that they’re ready to make distinctions based on everything from team membership to t-shirt color. What starts out innocently enough ends in kids who pick friends who look like they do, not every time, but often enough for it to make a statistical difference. In other words, kids discriminate. Unless their parents do one seemingly simple thing: talk directly about racial differences.

It sounds easy enough, until you sit down to do it. President Obama has called for a “national conversation about race, and we all know how that’s gone. It’s not much easier at your own dinner table. Ever tried looking at your son and saying “So, have you noticed there’s only one black kid in your class?” Or possibly, “Do you know why some people are so surprised that your (asian) sister is such a good athlete?” Those are conversations even I hesitate to embark on. But fortunately, there’s an app for that.

In fact, there are two.

Harvard cultural anthropologist Michael Baran helped develop two iPhone apps from the Race Awareness Project. The first, “Guess My Race” presents pictures of real people and multiple options for guessing how those photographed answered the question, “What race are you?” The second, “Who Am I” is deceptively simple: One player selects a picture from a group of photos, and the other player must guess, by asking questions and eliminating options, which picture was chosen. Both sound almost too easy, and they’re anything but.

As I wrote earlier this year for Slate’s XXFactor blog, I hesitated to try these out. How corny was it that I needed an “app” to talk to my kids about race and discrimination and the ways people make assumptions about one another based on appearances? In truth, we were never short of opportunities. We could start with, say, the fact that the only black face in attendance at the Vermont State Fair we attend (the Tunbridge World’s Fair, as it’s known locally) was the restroom attendant—a fact that’s so bothersome to me, so freighted, that it’s hard to even write about. Sure, we could start there. But once I’d pointed it out (hard enough, whether it should be or not), what would I say next? Would I launch into the complex historical trends that led up to our handing the nice black lady a dollar and saying thank you for the paper towels? I wouldn’t. I didn’t. But I did try out “Who Am I” with my 6-year-old.

She loved it. As did her nine-year-old brother. It doesn’t make things easy: you choose a person, and your child has to figure out who you chose by process of elimination. Many of the people in the pictures aren’t easily identified as “black” or “white” or “latino” or “asian” or even male or female. You have to reach to describe them in other ways, and once you’re talking about hair, and dress, and wrinkles, you realize that there are actually any number of things about appearance that we avoid saying out loud. Fat, skinny, old, big-nosed: Sam, in particular, reacted as though a dam had been burst, freely discussing the appearance of each of the possible people on our “game board.” He liked “Guess My Race” even better. Each pictured person had been asked to name his or her own race, and the game presented Sam with a menu of exotic (to him) options like “Pacific Islander” or “mulatto.” Are those really races, he asked? I didn’t know. What is a “race,” anyway? What’s skin color and what’s culture, and what’s more important: the race he chooses for a person, or the race they use to identify themselves?

If you know the answer to those questions, I congratulate you. For me, the apps were a call-out of my own tendency to sort and label people in ways that had little or nothing to do with the ways they see themselves. For Sam, and to a lesser extent 6-year-old Lily, the games were an invitation to see, and talk about, the fact that “black” and “white” and everything else are human constructs: names we use to tag other people, and that will be used to tag them, too.

Sam and Lily aren’t colorblind. They’re not fools. They have friends whose skin is colored differently than theirs. They have a sister whose eyes are shaped differently. They’ve walked through China and had their blond hair touched, ogled and commented on by literally hundreds of strangers. They know that things like skin and eyes and hair must matter, somehow. I owe it to them to try to explain why they’ve mattered in the past, and why it’s important not to let the past get in the way of the present. I owe them more than bland platitudes like “we’re all equal.” This is complicated stuff—too complicated for me to leave them to figure out own their own. Those apps got us started on a conversation that I’m now hoping won’t end until we really don’t need it any more.

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