Children, regardless of how small, can notice things easily. Even in utero, babies know when their mom is happy or sad.
As they grow older, they tend to notice similarities and differences between themselves and the people around them. One day, your 4-year-old might come home and ask you why her hair is different from Lisa’s in her class. It could also be Lisa’s skin or eye colour that makes your pre-schooler curious to know why these differences exist.
How do parents navigate this difficult conversation?
The reality is that our racial history is a complicated one. Some adults still find it difficult to have race conversations with each other. So chances are, a parent will dismiss a child’s curiosity by shutting them down as they ask the questions, or avoid giving them details regarding our history.
In her Ted Talk titled Is my skin black because I drank chocolate milk, Dr. Bervely Daniel Tatum associates these feelings when kids notice racial differences:
Dr. Tatum also wrote a book titled Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race.
If a candid 7-year-old has previously inquired about racial differences and was not received well, they will be scared to ask as their curiosity and confusion grows. For example. the general misconception amongst young white children, according to Dr. Tatum, is that black is dirt. So if a white child ever shouts out in public “why is that girl so dirty?”, her mother would immediately shush her and the young girl would be too scared to ask again in future.
At that moment, mom had the opportunity to teach her daughter about melanin. She could have taught her daughter that black people have more melanin than white people. She could have made an example of tanning and how that is associated with melanin.
For Dr. Tatum, it was difficult to have a full race conversation with her 4-year-old son without talking about slavery.
You should, therefore, be open with your kids about our history of colonialism and apartheid. Just be sure to assure your kids that it is in the past and they should not be scared or worried.
For a lot of parents, it is easier to revert to Christianity and how we were all made different. This does not help clear your child’s confusion and will not give them the tools they need should they experience any prejudice.
The reality is that children still experience racism in schools. We’ve had reports of school teachers separating children according to race, and this will contribute to your child’s confusion.
So, be appropriately honest.
Shying away from the discussion does more harm than good.