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Raisin’ In Minnesota: All The Colors In The Box; Talking To Kids About Race

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“I don’t see your color! Why?”

Okay now you know the hair on my neck was standing up when this phrase made its way to my then six-year-old. How do these statements translate to our children? Do we honestly want them to believe that people need to suffer a defect in order to view them as their equal? This is in effect what this statement says. In my experience, people who say this, mean no harm. It seems to be in line with their belief that they are liberal thinkers who are enlightened. But to a child, it means something is wrong. Either, you can’t see or there is something bad about their color.

Coloring is one of the first things we teach our children. We teach them the names of the colors, and in two languages, if you’re in my house. We, as parents, pretend not to obsess as our child creates the pink sky with green clouds, but somewhere along the way, we check that they know the sky is blue and clouds are white just to make sure everything is working well in their developing minds. When the tree bark is brown and the treetops are green, we breathe a little sigh of relief and praise the fact that they are learning the proper shadings of the world around them.

So my child, who I know sees color (I’m raising a starving artist) begins drawing her family portrait. She draws mommy a nice shade of Mahogany (we have the 120 color Crayolas in our house so Mahogany is an actual choice). She and her sister are a nice shade of Coffee, and Dad is Peach. She has noticed all of our nuances and recorded them well.

Her classmate draws a picture of their rather diverse group of friends. Everyone is drawn with the same Peach crayon. My daughter asks her “Why?” The friend tells Jenna that her mom said she shouldn’t see her friends’ colors; that color doesn’t matter and all people are the same. A wonderful sentiment, but Jenna is now very confused. Was her family portrait wrong?

This was just the question I needed in the morning before my caffeine infusion. How deeply do I go into this? The child’s mother is not wrong, my daughter is not wrong. So I swiftly put on a pot of coffee and think; I sit down with my baby girl and try to explain to her that her friend’s mom is right, all people are the same on the inside, but that we look different on the outside because of our cultural heritage. I explain that the way we look on the outside is important to our identity. My child looks even more confused, so I try to simplify. I pull out the photos of my family, particularly my grandmother, and great grandmother. It’s time to discuss the famous Gamble nose.

You see my grandmother and mother have a distinct nose. I have it, and Jenna does too. My Grandmother, Mamie Gamble’s nose for lack of a better description looks like a sort of old style vacuum. It has a sort of rounded top with two pronounced nostrils that flare to the sides.

I draw a quick picture on the napkin of my nose and Jeff’s nose, my best crayon attempt, and I ask Jenna whose nose she has. She quickly points to mine. I ask her whose nose she thinks I have, my mother’s or my father’s, she looks at the pictures and chooses my mom’s. I then show her a picture of her great grandparents and great great grandparents. The results are conclusive: her nose is the same as Mamie’s, she’s a Gamble.

I then shared with her that I love knowing the history of my nose because it connects me to my family. I have my father’s eyes and my mother’s nose. I can trace them all the way back to Melba and Mamie my two great grandmothers. I see a light bulb go on. Jenna looks at me and asks, “I belong to this family because of my nose?” “Actually, I say that nose is a part of your heritage, just like the color of your skin. Your skin is half Mommy and half Daddy. The color of your skin is one of many things that connect you to Mommy and Daddy.  So while all people are the same in spirit we all have very special features that connect us to our family.” Her eyes widen and she smiles at me. She then proceeds to get a Ziploc bag out of the kitchen drawer. She loads six shades of brown crayons into the bag. I asked what she was doing and she smiled and said, “I think (insert friend’s name here) needs more brown crayons. Now she can draw all of her friends’ noses and connect them to their families.”

I think I did it, simplified the importance of identity without calling anyone else’s mommy a “story-teller,” Mamie Gamble’s name for a liar – a word I was not allowed to say growing up.

So tell me your thoughts. Am I wrong? How have you handled this topic? Should the Civil Rights talk have been worked into this one? And how do you explain color to your kids? Do you tell them not to see color or are you more in line with my approach?

More From Good Enough Mother:

Hollywood’s Big White Out

Raisin’ In Minnesota: Will You Raise The Baby Black Or White?

Rachel Vidoni: When Kids Ask Tough Questions

Race and Racism: Why is it STILL too Hot to Handle?

Hillery Smith Shay, is a proven leader in Visual Communications and New Media Marketing. She holds a MBA, from Bethel University and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Haverford College. Shay is an award-winning photographer who has worked for the Associated Press and various newspapers. Hillery resides in West Saint Paul with her husband Jeff and their daughters Jenna and Hayden. She is also the proud stepmother of Erin, Ginger and Jack. Read more about her at hilleryshay.com and follow her on Twitter too.

7 Comments

  1. Scott Clendaniel

    March 15, 2012 at 6:17 am

    I’m not sure that’s practical or even particularly useful in the long run. I am hardly qualified to speak about this being a middle-aged WASP-y guy, but my humble input would be to teach kids about color and the incredibly destructive effects of judging people by that instead of the content of their character. Just my two cents…

  2. Christina Gleason @ Cutest Kid Ever

    March 15, 2012 at 10:33 am

    I think it sounds like you did an amazing job explaining that to your daughter. Teaching kids “not to see color” at that age isn’t concrete enough, as your daughter’s friend proved with her all-peach portrait. Teaching them instead that it doesn’t matter what people look like on the outside – that’s where it’s at.

    I was a bit worried about my son’s world view when he was younger. When I went to school, I remember we were all white. There were very few kids of other ethnicities in my school, and I wasn’t exposed to any real diversity until I went to college. But my son’s preschool class had kids with all colors of skin, a variety of disabilities, and even a child whose parents were little people. So “different” people are already part of the norm for him at the age of 6. We just had a talk last night (when discussing his school code of conduct) about how everyone is different – some look different, and some have brains that work in different ways – but that everyone deserves respect, even if they are different than us.

  3. Hillery Shay

    March 15, 2012 at 11:07 am

    Thanks Christina, what a great experience for your son. The more we are exposed to the diverse people and experiences, the better the world will be.

  4. Tiffany

    March 15, 2012 at 11:50 am

    I love it! You hit it right on the nail in a way people of all ages can understand. I also love the book The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.

  5. April

    March 15, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    I’m glad you wrote about this. My children are what they call brown (I’m white their father is black). And my oldest is very proud of his brown skin and curly hair. But he does notice that majority of the people around him are white. He also notices nationalities as well. It’s a difficult subject to address and I like your explanation.

  6. Hillery Shay

    March 16, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    I respect your opinion Scott. I do think your approach would work for my daughter now that she is 8. I think 6 is a bit young to understand the destructive effects of something with out being to complex. April I’m glad you found this approach useful. Tiffany I’m gonna check out that book. I still have a 4 year old whom I’m sure will have her own opinions.

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Combing the aisles at Target in search of the best deal on Cheerios, it hit Rene Syler like the stench of a dirty diaper on a hot summer’s day. Not only is perfection overrated its utterly impossible! Suddenly empowered, she figuratively donned her cape, scooped up another taco kit for dinner and Good Enough Mother was born.

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