I didn’t expect to spend a night discussing racism with a 4-year old.
That’s the thing about being a parent – it keeps you on your toes. My oldest son is frequently described as kind, empathetic and a gentle soul. He shares his toys graciously and is often found comforting or encouraging other kids.
Earlier this week I was chatting with a 6-year old black child at the playground. My son rudely interrupted us and called the child “poopy face,” a put down our younger son uses randomly. Appalled by his bullying behavior, I demanded that he apologize to the boy. He did, but not before saying he didn’t like the child.
On multiple occasions my son has said he doesn’t like people with curly hair. When I listed curly-haired people we know, from grandma to his teacher, he conceded that he did like those people. At one point, I even asked Daddylibrium if he thought perhaps our son was using “curly hair” as a descriptor for black people. Daddylibrium didn’t think that was the case as he is only 4, plays with black children both at school and at home and has not had a bad experience with a person of color to our knowledge. I was happy to let the subject die, but I had lingering doubts.
I had mentioned the curly hair comments to our son’s preschool teacher the day before this incident, asking if he was ever unkind to kids with curly hair, and if she thought curly hair might be his way of referencing race. She encouraged me to explore the issue and ask questions. “Have you ever had a bad interaction with someone with curly hair,” I could ask. “Why don’t you like people with curly hair?” The teacher also suggested if our son did have issues with race, it would be better to address it now than later.
As we left the playground, I stopped, looked my son in the eye and asked him if he was mean to the child because he had curly hair. “Yes,” he replied. Then I said, “When you said you don’t like people who have curly hair, did you mean people who have dark curly hair and brown skin like that boy had?” “Yes,” he replied.
I asked him about some of his friends who are black or bi-racial. “Do you like Joseph? He has brown skin and black curly hair like that boy.” He admitted that he liked these kids, but perplexed me by saying they did not look like the boy he had bullied. Is it possible that because he knows these children he glosses over their skin color? Perhaps their differences do not register as he is able to see them as individuals?
Confronting a Flicker of Racism
As we walked home I was seething, frustrated and, most of all, worried. How could my child be a bully? Where did my child learn he could hate other children? Did I contribute to this? What if he never grows out of this and becomes a racist teenager followed by an adult who embraces racism?
What came next was probably not my finest parenting moment. I told him that I was disappointed in him, that I was embarrassed by him and that his behavior was horrible. I told him that there is a word called “racist” which means that you treat people badly based on the color of their skin. I told him that in America we value the idea that all people are created equal and that being “racist,” which he was when he called that boy a name, was one of the worst things you could be. I told him that mothers will not let their kids play with racists and that kids do not want to play with racist children.
Then I said, “You have dark hair. Your brother has blonde hair like me. What if I decide I don’t like people with dark hair, and that I am only going to love and be nice to people with blonde hair?” “No, are you going to do that?” my son wailed. “No, honey I’m not, but that’s kind of like what you did to that boy back there. You treated him badly because of the color of his hair and skin. He was born that way and can’t control it any more than you can control the color of your hair.”
“Is it ever OK to call anyone a poopy face?” I asked. “No,” he replied. “Is it ever OK to be mean to someone because they have brown skin and brown hair?” I asked. “No,” he replied.
After dinner we talked about skin color. Some people have skin that looks more pinkish, some have tan skin and some are very dark brown. I pulled out a book that had beautiful pictures of landscapes and people from across the world. I explained that the world is like a big ball and that people often have a similar skin color, hair color and facial features as people that live around them.
We looked at pictures of people from places such as Kenya, Cambodia, Haiti, Ecuador and British Columbia. Instead of ignoring their differences, I asked Eli to identify the differences. He asked a lot of questions, especially about pictures showing traditional African tribal dress. Acknowledging the differences seemed more authentic than giving him a speech that we are all the same on the inside.
Next, I pulled out photo albums containing pictures of me with an ex-boyfriend who was black. There were pictures of us building sand castles, riding a bicycle built for two and just looking happy together. I told my son that this was someone I had dated before I met his daddy and that if I had made a different decision and married this person, he would have brown skin and black curly hair just like the kid that he bullied.
That hit home. I was thankful to have those beautiful pictures.
Personal Perspectives Hammer Home Lesson
Later that night before we went to bed, I pulled out his class picture. There were six or seven non-white students in his class of 20. I asked my son to point out the students that had different color skin. He did not single out all the non-white students, but he did single out all the non-white students from immigrant families.
Our conversation changed from one about race to one about culture. The boy my son had bullied was clearly from an immigrant family. We had a candid conversation about culture. I gave my son a safe place to ask questions and learned that his largest concern was about the smell of some classmates. This conversation highlighted the nuances of racism and multiculturalism.
We also discussed language. My son hadn’t realized that some of the kids in his class are learning English at school because they speak another language at home. I explained that they can communicate in their native language, but sometimes they struggle to find the right words in English. I reminded him that he didn’t have all the words when he was 2 and 3, and it takes several years to master a language. I encouraged him to talk to and help these kids as his kindness could help them learn. I also told him that when we go on vacation this winter he will be in a country where he does not know the language. I asked him how he would feel if people treated him badly because he won’t be able to communicate well.
I can’t answer all the questions my son will ask me about racism and culture, but we will both benefit by being able to discuss this issue candidly. I wish I could thank that 6-year old boy at the park for starting a discussion that needed to be had.