Towards the discussion of race with a 6 year-old…

February 11, 2009

in no manual for parenting, this i believe

Every day is a trial and error in my effort to bring my kids up the “right” way…

Here is an incident happened last month which I have been chewing over and over:

My 6 year-old came home excited one day to tell me all about what he had learned at school about MLK, about Rosa Parks, about the civil rights movement, and about what it was like before for people of color. (Except, of course, he did not use the ultra PC term, “People of Color”…)

“Do you know that the white people had their own sinks, and they wouldn’t even let the colored people use them? And do you know that the white people get to sit in the front of the bus, and the colored people have to go sit in the back. And guess who gets to sit down if there are no seats left? The white people!”

On one hand, I was glad that he learned so much and seemed to be grasping the concept/idea. On the other hand, I winced every time he used the term “colored people”. I sat him down and gently asked him where he’d learned that term, he said from
a book he read at school. My guess was that the book describes the situations in the past, esp. in the South, and there were signs on which “Colored people only” and “Whites only” were shown. But as a Kindergartner, my son did not understand that the term is no longer in use. Political correctness is not factored into his choice of vocabulary yet.

Although he is probably too young to understand the concept of Political Correctness, I did try. I explained to him that we no longer use that term to refer to people with tanned skin, and that now we use the term “people of color”. For example, mommy is a woman of color. He looked at me, puzzled. I am not sure how much he understood.

I wrote the teacher a long letter and here is her response:

“We read the book last week. The book we read showed the signs for ‘Colored Only’ above water fountains and bathroom doors, as well as referring to those terms in the story. There was quite a discussion about unfair laws. We talked about everyone having color in their skin. People are not white or black – there are different tones of color. The phrase you used, ‘people of color’ was introduced. We also used, ‘African-Americans’ as a term as well.

I try to keep the concepts simple and easy to understand because the terms are so abstract. The main goal is to teach how we are all alike and all different as well as respect.”

By god this whole thing is complicated since NAACP has “Colored People” in its full name: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It is confusing sometimes even for adults, let alone Kindergartners.

I was caught off guard again when my boys heard on NPR the term “Black women”, when a lot of discussions happened around Michelle Obama’s role as the first Black First Lady, and what it means for Black women, and also, especially, young Black women that are just forming a sense of themselves. My 6 yo asked, “What do they mean by Black?” Probably the first time he heard the term so loud and clear, and it registered in his head that it means more than just a color but something else.

So we started a discussion on “African American” = “Black”, but you want to be careful when you use the term Black because you need to use it appropriately otherwise people may be offended or hurt. And the most appropriate term is probably “African American”.

“Why do they call themselves Blacks? Their skin is not black, just tanned. Like your skin is tanned, just different. But Auntie R’s dad (who is Asian Indian) is not Black even though he has dark skin too?”

(I mused, inside my head, about the usage of the term “Blacks” to refer to any non-white people, including the large population of Asian Indians and their UK-born descendants in the U.K. That would have made my duty as a parent a lot easier! But I refrained myself… Maybe some other time…)

From there, we got into a discussion on why President Obama is African American and NOT African even though his father was from Kenya. And the conversation quickly turned (or deteriorated) into who is American and who is not… And the question inevitably came up: “So Samantha next door is Korean and not American?” “No, no, no! She is American just like you guys. It is just that her grandparents came from Korea and that they still honor some Korean customs and traditions… If you want to label her, she would be Korean American. But you know, it does not matter what kind of American you are, and you shouldn’t label people anyway. It does not matter: you are all Americans!”

So, yeah, I was mentally kicking myself for singing to the tune of “We are the World”… and secretly praying, “Gosh. Please please don’t ask me what being an American mean… Not on this car ride… I need to write a thesis just to answer that question!”

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