Discussing race with my 5 year old

Most weeks, my daughter’s class sends home three books for parents to read with their kindergartners. Last week, one of ours was a book of poems written by African-American children, celebrating their blackness. One little girl wrote that black is beautiful, and so is white — and my blond-haired, blue-eyed child perked up.

“She said ‘white!’” she exclaimed, then her shoulders dropped. “It’s not fair that this has only black children in it,” she said. “I want to be African American.”

I flashed on a conversation we’d had the week before, about Martin Luther King Jr. and how her class, which is racially diverse, had discussed the atrocities inflicted on black people by whites; on the five books I’d given her about girls interested in science, all of them black; on the only baby doll I’d ever bought her: a brown-skinned infant to balance the white one her grandma gave her — the one who actually looks like her.

Then I wondered: “Have I gone too far — or is this societal progress?”

I imagined the discussion we were about to have was one that had been held in black households for generations, the children bombarded with images of kids who look like mine. Maybe it’s right that it’s our turn, or just time. Or maybe this is just a kid thing; she could have coveted someone’s toy or monkey bar skills, but in that moment she chose skin color — not comprehending the enormity of race in America.

My husband and I tell her that looks don’t matter, that all shapes and sizes and colors are beautiful, and that what counts in life is what you do, not how you appear. But we also tell her that some people have been picked on because of their physical characteristics — essentially shut out, shut down and shut up for being brown, often by people who look like us but don’t think like us.

So, while we say that all people are equal, we clearly make a special effort to say why black people in particular are equal. Because we know our country’s troubled past and present, we highlight a group based on the very characteristics we’ve told her aren’t important.

Even at 5, she sees the contradiction. And, it appears, an unintended consequence has been to send a message that black is actually better.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, especially knowing we were headed into February — Black History Month. What would it mean for her? Many white adults still struggle to understand why we must proclaim “black lives matter,” rather than a blanket “all lives matter.”

Without historical context, singling out a month to honor the achievements of black Americans could be especially confusing to a child trying to figure out the world. Why would we do that if skin color doesn’t matter? My kid doesn’t know that the country is attempting to atone for its sins, that for decades those accomplishments were ignored or that the only history that was revered was some shade of white — that, in essence, the other 11 months are really white history months, that skin color does in fact matter to many.

But she isn’t completely without context, even as a kindergartner. She’s appalled by the exclusion of girls from anything, and she is learning to apply that to other characteristics in other people. She pointed out recently, for example, that brown people are unfairly underrepresented in the shows she watches.

Of course, for too many kids of color, context has never been an issue; they’ve already felt racism both subtle and overt, and it’s likely to get worse as they age. My daughter, too, will come to recognize it with ease I expect — and to understand that whites are still largely privileged in America.

So I took a moment to lament the fact that we are so far from “post-racial” it’s pathetic, and I did my best to offer some perspective without doing damage.

We talked a bit about history and why we sometimes make a special effort to include and appreciate people who have previously been left out, and how that doesn’t mean she’s lesser than they are because she looks different. She agreed and said everybody is the same inside, and I made a mental note to ease up on my promotion of Moana over Elsa (though the former is clearly the better role model). Then she asked me if we have any brown people in our family, and I said no.

“When I grow up, I'll marry a brown person, then,” she said. “If I marry a peach person, our family will get bigger, but still be the same color.” I laughed and told her she could marry anyone who would be a good partner to her, and that was that.

In the end, I needn’t have worried; she seems to have a better grasp on the issue than the grown-ups. I hope that’s true of her generation overall — and that conversations like this happen all over the country this month. We parents have a lot to learn.

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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