By Trina Moore-Southall, Ed.D.
I was in a department store with my beautiful, Black children. A white child from his stroller examines the skin tone of my children. He then asked (who I assume to be) his mother, “Why is their skin brown?” The lady responded, “That’s not nice”. This response communicates to the child that recognizing people as different is wrong. The message is clear: Diversity is a bad thing. I felt a need to intervene. I knelt down to the young boy and put my brown hand next to his white hand. I explained that my hand was bigger, because he is still growing and maybe one day his hand will be bigger than mine. I also said we both have something called Melanin. I have a lot, which has made my skin darker. He has a little bit, which has made his skin lighter. When I had my children, they also got my melanin. He then said (at maybe 4 years old)” My mom and dad didn’t have a lot of melanin, so I ‘m white like them!” Kids are so much smarter than we give them credit. The lady still seemed uncomfortable and did not know how to respond to me or the revelation her child just had. I said to her, “This is only the beginning.” When children have questions, we answer them. My hope is that her next conversation with her child about difference is ongoing and purposeful. I also hope that this child will not silence his friends, family members, or maybe one day his own children when they equate the recognition of difference with something erroneous.
The idea of being colorblind is noble in its efforts. The impact in participating in a false concept of colorblindness means that we are ignoring people’s identity. Yes, let’s see people for who they are, but let’s also be honest in knowing that the world responds to people differently. Have you prepared your child for this? People of color in predominately white spaces are in conversations about race and identity all the time. There is no other option. However, a white family is less likely to include race as a topic of conversation…until it’s too late. It will happen. When there’s discrimination, hate speech, bullying or some other act of injustice, it will happen. Then who do these children become? Adults that are ill-equipped to productively and effectively discuss race.
Here are a few suggestions on engaging your child about race and other identities:
Commit to more than one conversation. There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle. As you recognize together that Mia has two dads, Kamara’s parents are white and she is Black, Michael has big hair, Devin has smaller eyes, Ellen has one leg, Jason’s family lives in a big house and Austin’s family lives in an apartment. Don’t ignore it. These are the realities of our world.
Different is not weird. Be attentive to the adjectives used to describe something that your child recognizes is different from their own. His hair is crazy. Her eyes are weird. They look odd. Those clothes are strange. They speak in a funny language. These comments reinforce the ideas of superiority and inferiority. The underlying message is “I am better.” Instead, focus on what is similar in a way that acknowledges the dominant culture is not the premise for everything right. “English is a pretty funny language”, or “His hair is not like yours. People have all different kinds of hair and it can all still be beautiful. “
Teach your child to be an upstander. This is important in all situations, but particularly when we know that our history as a people has given certain groups and identities more power. You are modeling now what is fair, right and just to your child. If you engage in conversations that insult and demean other people, you are teaching your child what to do. Prepare your child with tangible steps to take when someone is not treated fairly. Talk together about what means and why it is so important. Whether that means to speak up, tell an adult, or come to you-something must be done. Practice it.
As parents, we are concerned about the overall well-being of our children. In the end, we are often on the same page about developing compassionate, empathetic children who we send into the world to do good things. We have the opportunity to help shape how our children will contribute to the world. It is critical that we engage them in doing good. They will be smarter, more creative, honest, adult citizens who have a skillset to develop personal and professional relationships with people of all backgrounds. It is your responsibility. If you haven’t yet started, the time is now.
Dr. Trina Moore-Southall has been an educator and administrator in independent schools for over 20 years. She graduated with a BA from UCSB, MA from CalState Northridge, and Ed.D. from Cal Lutheran University where her research focused on a sense of belonging for African Americans in independent schools. In her current position as Director of Equity and Inclusion at Brentwood School, Dr. Southall is focused on creating an environment where all participants and constituents can be their best selves, irrespective of background, experience and lifestyle. She has a passion and love for students, ensuring that the school is strategic about inclusivity with every constituent, in all conversations. As a Diversity Practitioner, Dr. Southall works with various schools and organizations in the areas of professional development, keynote speaker and workshop facilitator for events as well as accreditation. Trina and her husband, Patrick, have two sons that attended independent schools: Isaiah, currently a first-year student at Cal Poly Pomona and Donovan, a 9th grade student at Brentwood.