Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How White is Your World?

I'm taking a study break from reading about diversity to write a blog post about diversity.

Hmm, can you tell where my heart is these days?

One of my classes this semester is Multicultural Children's Literature. It is nearly the toughest class I've ever taken (save an undergrad linguistics class that was INSANELY hard, but interesting). My reading level for the class is beyond what any reasonable person could handle. My papers and class discussions are challenging. And just when I think I have a handle on it all, something else comes along to upset the apple cart, like the massive paper I need to get cracking on but for which I still haven't chosen a topic.

But really, I think anyone parenting transracially should take a class like this. Because so much of what our children learn about race is formed through how we live our lives, and the materials we choose to bring into them. Through this class I've read and talked a lot about how racial identity is formed -- and it is formed a whole lot sooner than most people think it is. In fact, in this interview Professor Erin Winkler discusses studies that now show children as young as 3-5 years old may begin to use race to identify and exclude. Yikes! And, bias comes as part of the larger process of enculturation, which means kids learn bias from society, not just from the adults in their lives.

Did you get that?

Let me reiterate: kids learn bias from society -- and as most of us know, society does not offer equality of opportunity for everyone.
So it's up to us as parents to educate our kids as much as possible about diversity, particularly where it concerns race. Because studies also show that kids notice race beginning at a very, very young age (see this article - a bit long but worth reading - for more). So ignoring it, or putting off conversations until our kids are older might just result in some serious misconceptions for our children. This is especially crucial for those of us who are parenting transracially, but don't think that just because everyone in your household "matches" that these aren't important issues. Because really, we live in a diverse world, where people look differently and live differently and believe differently. And tolerance is a keystone of the kind of society I want to live in, and where I want to raise my son.

How does this come back to literature? Easy -- look at the books on your shelves, and the DVDs in your cupboard, and the toys your children play with. Does everyone look alike? Are all your bedtime reads "classics" that might harbor hidden stereotypes? Could all the dolls be sisters? Maybe it's time to mix things up a bit. Add in some multicultural family sets. Read a story set in India, or one set in Nigeria. Choose a Thanksgiving title that honors Native Americans. Watch a movie about how families live around the world. Pick out a new friend whose skin is a little darker.

Above all, talk. Talk about skin color, talk about religion, talk about difference. Talk about ability, talk about gender, talk about acceptance. When your kids ask "why is that guy in a wheelchair?", don't shush them. Talk to them about it, and if possible, let them talk to the person in question -- if it's my husband, believe me, he WANTS to talk to your kids about disability. Above all, be open about the things that make us different as people, and the things that draw us together. Because if your kids see that you are uncomfortable talking about how someone is different, what message will they take away from that encounter?

Not too long ago I was at the park with Sprout and a little guy he was playing with asked if I was Sprout's mommy. I said yes, and the boy said, "But you don't look the same." I told him no, we didn't, because Sprout was born in Africa. "Oh, okay," said the boy. "Can he come swing with me?". And that was that. Simple. Honest question, honest answer.

If diversity is a "life lesson" you try to teach your kids, it's going to come off awkward and be hard to approach. If diversity is a walk that you live every day, where your kids see that people come in all shapes, sizes, colors and varieties, then accepting difference will be a natural thing for them. And isn't that what we all want, just to be accepted for who we are, recognized for our unique gifts and personalities?

Be accepting. Be inclusive. And first and foremost, be open -- with yourself, with your children, and most importantly, with others. The richness your world will take on may just surprise you.


Kid World Citizen said...

SO, so interesting! Have you ever read the book Nurture Shock? I don't agree with all of the points made in the different chapters, BUT it is very thought-provoking and I am pretty sure it references the article about children recognizing race at a young age. My kids ALL have talked about skin color as young as 3 and we talka bout it all the time. So important!!!

Tegan, Gregory and Maiya said...

Love what your are writing.....keep it up! Yes, discussions around skin color differences started around 20 months. Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it. Well written!