“Pardon me, your epidermis is showing…”

Pardon me, your epidermis is showing, sir
I couldn’t help but note your shade of melanin
I tip my hat to the colorful arrangement
Cause I see the beauty in the tones of our skin…
(DC Talk, “Colored People”)

A month or two ago I re-read Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s excellent book NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children. I first read this book years ago, when I was working as a nanny, but coming to it again after having my own children lent it some fresh interest and relevance to me. Bronson and Merryman bring together some fascinating research on children, looking at (among other things) the “inverse power” of parental praise (see this New York Magazine article), new insights into sibling relationships, and why products like those “Baby Einstein” videos don’t foster language development but actually retard it.

One chapter that seems especially relevant right now is their look at race relations between children, and the surprising finding that the more integrated a child’s school environment is, the less likely they are to have a cross-racial friendship. School diversity isn’t having the effect that most people assumed it would. So what does that mean?

The answer to that question is at least partially tied up with the notion of “white privilege” — bear with me, now. I know that this can be a bit of a loaded term, particularly as it seems to be used in a couple of different ways. But as I understand it, at its simplest, it’s just this: white privilege is the privilege of not needing to think about race. This makes sense to me; I’m not really conscious of my whiteness in my day-to-day existence. When I watch TV, the people I see there mostly look like I do. If I have an unpleasant interaction with someone, it’s never even occurred to me to wonder if the colour of my skin was a contributing factor. Bandaids and “nude”-coloured undergarments always match my skin. Et cetera. (See also: Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay on the subject.)

Because white parents mostly don’t think much about the colour of their skin, they also don’t talk much about racial and ethnic differences with their children, whether out of uncomfortableness with the subject or because it doesn’t occur to them to do so. Or sometimes we assume that if our children are in multi-racial/multi-cultural environments, they’ll simply pick up the notions of equality on their own, without the need for parental guidance or intervention. Not so, say Bronson and Merryman.

The trouble with this thinking is that children naturally notice different skin colours and types of hair (and the like) — and of course they do! Young children are very interested in categorizations and in nearly every other subject we encourage them to discern differences: “this is a boy and that is a girl; this is a dog and that is a cat; this is green and that is blue; this is how you tell which is which.” But without some straight talk about light and dark (and medium) skin, they are left to their own devices, noticing differences but not sure what they mean. And in that situation, they tend to default to people “like me” and “not like me,” and those “like me” quickly become the preferred playfellows.

So what to do? The answer is simple enough: to talk with our children about skin colour and race: regularly, from a young age, and (this is important) explicitly. If we keep it too vague (“Everyone’s equal!”) our children simply won’t have any idea what we’re talking about.  So we’ve started having very simple conversations about it with Anselm, using people he knows as examples: “Mr H– has very light skin, like we do. We call skin like that ‘white skin.’ Mrs H– has very dark skin. We call skin like that ‘black skin.’ [Their daughter] has medium skin. We call skin like that ‘brown skin.’ God made people to have all sorts of beautiful skin colours. People of every skin colour can love each other and be friends.” As he gets older there are a lot more things that will be added to the conversation, but this seems like a reasonable foundation for a two-year-old.

An acquaintance of mine on facebook recently posted this article from Motherly: 20 children’s books to spark important discussions about race and tolerance. Several of them are earmarked as appropriate for youngest readers, and I’ll be checking some of them out from the library over the coming weeks. We’ll see where the conversation takes us.

(Bonus: here’s DC Talk’s 1995 music video “Colored People” — because I love me some mid-90s CCM.)