Brown Skin People Are the Boss

According to my five year old in any given scenario where there is a group of people, people with brown skin are the boss. We don’t talk about skin color in our home, I just make sure the kids’ screen media, toys, and story books show diversity so it is not something I have to “teach” or strive for but rather something that is just completely normal to them. They have a somewhat diverse group of friends at school and their after school program. When Benny was three and was introduced to our new pediatrician he fell in love with her “brown fur” and spent the appointment stroking her hand. He told me he wanted her colors to rub off on him.

We live in a mid-size Wisconsin city so our lives could certainly be more diverse. We take the kids to Milwaukee and Chicago regularly to widen their horizons. We never really comment on race or ethnicity unless the kids ask a question, usually about what someone is wearing or if they hear a foreign language.  So I was surprised when my kindergartener and I had the following conversation after I noticed all of the people in the picture we drew together were white….

Me: “Benny, I really like our picture but I noticed something. You colored all of the people with peach skin. I just thought you should know when Daddy was in the Navy his two best friends had brown skin, so maybe our picture should show that. What do you think?”

Benny: “Dee boss always has brown skin.”

Me: “What boss honey? It looks like the Chief in the white uniform has brown hair.”

Benny: “Dat is his brown skin. Bosses always have brown skin.”

Me: “Oh, well I can think of many bosses who have brown skin but someone who is a boss can have any skin color.”

Benny: “No, bosses have brown skin. Like Presthedent Obama, Mike Tomlin, Martin dee King, and Oprah.”

Me: “Do you mean Martin Luther King Jr?”

Benny: “Yes dee one who gives speeches and sells rainbows and was born on Amelia’s birfday.”

Me: “Right. Martin Luther King Jr. I don’t think he sold rainbows. His speech was about helping people understand that skin color doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t mean people are treated differently. He worked very hard with many people to make sure people of all colors were seen and treated as equals. He had to teach our whole nation that because it is something we didn’t always do.”

Benny: “Why would he teach people dat? Dey should already know dat in der hearts when dey are born.”

5yo Benny and I drew this picture as part of a booklet for my husband in honor of Veterans Day.

5yo Benny and I drew this picture as part of a booklet for my husband in honor of Veterans Day.

 

Benny is right, we are born without the knowledge that people could be considered less than because of the color of their skin. It is difficult to introduce to a child the concepts of inequality and racism, why they matter, and how they hurt people. I realize as a white boy, Benny has the privilege of not already experiencing these things for himself. What I try to teach my children is not to be color blind, but to see all colors as equal.

Some books we’ve used along the way:

The Sandwich Swap  – about understand different cultures

Me I Am! – celebrates individuality and diversity

Whoever You Are – journey of cultures from around the world

The Crayon Box That Talked – teaches about being different colors and working together

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr – gorgeous picture book, perfect for young kids

Cultural guide/activity books, like A Kid’s Guide to African American History

Reference books like Scholastic’s Encyclopedia of Women in the United States

Comments

  1. I actually have tears in my eyes. I love Benny so much…what an awesome child he is!!

  2. Your kids say the most AWESOME things!!!

  3. Awesome? It’s awesome your son is using a handful of famous people to create his own stereotypes? No. This is not awesome, it’s privilege. This sounds like the only POC he is familiar with are the famous and powerful.

    If you aren’t talking to your children about race and skin color, you’re enjoying your privilege and perpetuating racism. As the mother of three brown boys, I find this disturbing. I’m glad your son recognizes everyone is inherently equal, and it’s a lesson you will continually need to teach both yourself and him. Because we are still not equal, and there is a long road ahead.

    It’s not difficult to talk to your kids about racism and inequality from a young age, and simply providing toys and TV shows with diverse characters isn’t enough. Have you reached out to the non white friends at his school and arranged play dates? Taken the opportunity to talk to parents of color? Attended any festivals/celebrations as a family? Lunar New Year is coming up- why not use that as a chance to teach about Asian customs? There are so many ways to learn and explore with your kids, and a few anecdotes about daddy’s former colleagues isn’t enough to combat the stereotypes that he’s bombarded with daily. There are some wonderful resources on anti-racist parenting and avoiding stereotypes (even “positive” ones). I hope you look into it further, both for your and my kids’ sakes.

    • Lisa –
      You’re going to need to take a step back, Friend. Your comment makes some ENORMOUS assumptions about my family, so let us clear a few things up:
      1. My husband is not the same race as me.
      2. I have friends of all races, many different countries. They come to our home. My son’s best friend is Hispanic. They play with each other 3x/week.
      3. We regularly attend festivals celebrating people and customs of other cultures.
      4. My brothers live abroad and in learning about their new countries my children have a global view of the world and very much understand inequality and what it looks like. That is different from believing in their hearts that all people should be equal.
      5. Through my business and my role as PTA president at our school, yes, I talk to parents of color on a daily basis.
      6. You can read my reply to Laura about how I talk about race, skin color, diversity, and equality to my kids.

      This one, singular story you are so harshly judging me on was about one, singular picture my son drew. He listed the famous people that he did because those were “bosses” he could think of, which is what our conversation was about.

      I wouldn’t judge your family based on one thirty second story I read about all of you. Maybe you should extend that same common courtesy to mine.

  4. Laura Jean says:

    I love the work you do with media literacy for children around gender stereotyping — so I’ll confess I’m a little surprised that you say you don’t talk about skin color in your home. Of course race and gender are different, but I think a lot of the really powerful practices you use to name media stereotypes and bias can (and perhaps should?) be applied to race as well. What do you think?

    I have been inspired/ convicted by Jaime-Jin Lewis (really helpful tips for talking with grade school kids about race)
    http://4riise.org/?p=424
    and Jennifer Harvey (an urgent call to white parents about the importance of these conversations)
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-harvey/dear-parents-of-white-children_b_3719818.html

    • Laura -
      We talk about people as a whole person. So if I am describing someone I am trying to get my children to remember, I would not use skin color as the first descriptor. When I am describing our pediatrician, I don’t mention that she is our African-American doctor, I just call her by her name and describe her bedside manner. I don’t mention to Benny that his best friend is Hispanic, we just call him by his name (sometimes his English name, sometimes his Spanish name). They love spending time with our babysitter’s boyfriend who is African American and Benny once mentioned that the boy’s brown skin was nice. I agreed, brown skin is nice. But mostly when the kids talk about this boy they go on and on about the day he fought off a bee at the park. My husband is not the same race as me, we talk about it as a family because my kids have some physical characteristics that are different from me due to sharing half of his genes. That conversation focuses on how we are more alike than different. I don’t have to point out the diversity of people in their media because it is their norm. If we are watching something that doesn’t show balance, we talk about it. Amelia and I just had a huge conversation about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr and why they were so incredibly brave and important to America, but specifically to African Americans. She is now proudly sporting a Rosa Parks stamp on the cover to her Tablet.

      I don’t ignore skin color, I just don’t make it salient. Also, skin color and race do not always coincide.

      You know, I recently listened to Thandie Newton’s TED talk on self, and in it she speaks a great deal about otherness and race – and that scientifically “race” is a very false concept we’ve created to protect ourselves: http://www.ted.com/talks/thandie_newton_embracing_otherness_embracing_myself.html

  5. Benny at the pediatrician reminds me of a wonderful Sesame Street clip with Elmo and Whoopi Goldberg (and I’m normally not a huge Elmo fan). http://youtu.be/ce0yGNG_VEU

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