Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Blink… Blink… Blink… Goes the cursor as I look for the words to write this post. Sophie has said some pretty strange things in her short little life, but her recent comments on race have left me quite literally, speechless. Here is an example of two separate conversations we’ve had:

After school one day:
Me: Soph, how was your day?
Sophie: Not good.
Me: Why babe?
Sophie: Emma (who’s black) said she wanted to be Elsa and I said no because I am Elsa. Elsa has a white face and yellow hair like me and Emma has a brown face so she can’t be Elsa.
Me: ….
Me again: …..
Me once again: Soph, Emma can be Elsa. Anyone can be Elsa it doesn’t matter what they look like.
Sophie: Ja it does.

Riding in the car playing “I spy”:
Me: My turn! I spy something with my little eye that’s brown (thinking of Regan’s brown t-shirt).
Sophie: Gracie!
Me: Excuse me?!
Sophie: Gracie’s brown.

I have to fight the urge to scream “where does this trash coming out of your mouth come from?!?!?”


How do you talk to an almost 4 year old about race, racism and institutionalized racism?

I have reaslised that it is not one conversation, but a continuous conversation and at Sophie’s age, that conversation is less about race and more about diversity and acceptance.

Here’s a picture of my sisters and I with my maternal granny:

All my life, growing up, I felt like I was less, uglier, different. My sisters are fair with light eyes. In high school I was accused of lying about being related to my sisters. I was told that I must have been adopted. Later in life, while living in Norway, I showed someone a picture of my younger sister and was asked “how was it to grow up looking so different to your siblings?” Asked in such a way that “different” could so easily have been “much uglier”.

Thanks to Sophie’s “yellow hair and white face” I have not managed to shake these thinly veiled racist comments years and years later. Hours after Sophie was born, the nurse popped in to check on us and loudly asked, “whose white baby is this?” she was using a joke to hide her racism. After showing people at work pictures of Sophie I was often told how beautiful she is and also how surprisingly fair she is. When I was pregnant with Grace, lots of people wondered out loud whether or not Grace would be as beautifully blonde and fair as Sophie. Friends would jokingly say, “are you sure this is your child”. Well you only have to check my Instagram account to see that Grace is the splitting image of me, not blond at all. So now I have to deal with a different kind of commentary: “wow she looks so different to her sister”, “isn’t it crazy that Sophie is so fair and Grace has your dark colouring” or my favourite: “who does Sophie look like though?”.

What I hear when someone makes a comment like any of the three above is:

why is one of your children white?
Why Is One Of Your Children White??

It’s racist AF.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I need you to understand that the challenge I face when educating my children about race is two-fold:

FOLD ONE: They need to understand, love and accept their own identity, one as a fair (I hate the word “fair”) child and one as a brown child.
FOLD TWO: They need to understand, love and accept everyone else’s identity.

How though?

Here are four things I know for sure about racism and kids:

We live in a country where issues around race and racism are part of our national identity. To sweep this under the rug is to diminish the very real struggles that people of colour face daily. Everything we do is a lesson to our children, even our silence.  Not talking about race could also leave the door open to your children learning from society and their peers instead of you and frankly, I find that terrifying. I’ve recently learned that children see skin colour from as young as 6 months old, so knowing that, how could we possibly think that preaching “colourblindness” would work? Your child sees the world the same way that you do: people are white, yellow and various shades of brown. Speak to them using the words that society does. Address race.

As previously mentioned, race is a huge part of who we are in South Africa - both positively and negatively. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s so important to address your own bias before attempting to talk to your children about race. None of us are free from racial prejudice. Tackle that first.

If you start this process by lecturing your children on racism and what they should not be saying, you are basically going to teach them that they can think what they want, but they shouldn’t say it out loud, because that would be wrong. What we need to do is listen and ask why. Why do you think brown faces are ugly? Why do you think yellow hair is better than brown hair? Understanding the why behind these uncomfortable comments is more important that expressing your own views on race. In dealing with the why, you will be able to address the root of the issue and also help your child arrive at a place of racial tolerance and acceptance in a way that makes sense to them.

Embarking on a quest to raise racially tolerant children is pointless if your children are not attending a racially integrated school, mixing with children of colour and if they don’t see you mixing with people of colour. Practice what you preach. If your children are not instinctively mixing with children of colour at school, go out of your way to arrange a play date. Go out of your way to seek real and meaningful moments with multicultural communities.

How do you chat to your kids about this sensitive topic? I would really love to hear what other parents are doing.... 


1 comment

  1. I'm wondering where to draw the line. When is a comment from a child racist, and when is it just an observation, and what do we teach our kids? Is it wrong to observe differences? I do not think so. I teach my kids that to be different is ok, it makes you unique. So I allow and encourage them to remark on differences as long as it is done with respect and in a positive way. My 6yo speaks about her friends skin color, she calls them brown and peach and dark brown. But I don't find this racist because she thinks her friends with "brown" skin are beautiful.

    When are remarks racist? I have reasonably light skin and brown hair, while my husband has black hair and olive toned skin (please bear with me, I promise this is going somewhere). My eldest daughter inherited his olive skin (lucky girl!), but her features resemble mine. My youngest, however, has skin so light that it is translucent and almost see-through. And her features resemble absolutely no one that we can think of. Not me, not my husband, not her sister. She also has flaxen white, curly hair (the rest of us have straight hair) and green eyes. So people remark on this. They ask me, who on earth does your youngest resemble? Where does she get her curls from (possibly a great grandparent, is my best guess)? They remark and say, 'Your two girls look absolutely NOTHING alike!' This is not upsetting to me, its the truth. I am, myself, a little amazed and intrigued by our differences. So this is not offensive.

    However. Me and my husband happen to be of the same race/culture. If, on the other hand, we were from different races/cultures, or our kids were mixed race, would it immediately make these remarks racist? Or is it only racist if we perceive "different" to be "less"?


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