A few days ago, my five-year-old son and I were listening to Louis Armstrong records, and “What a Wonderful World” came on. Like a lot of kids who live here in Nashville, he’s used to this song because he hears it every time we go to story time at the main library. He’s also used to my tears (“Mom, why are you crying during Frozen again?!”); but this time when I teared up, I said—kind of to myself—“This song is so incredible because why would Louis Armstrong be singing about it being a wonderful world?” To which Noah said, “Why wouldn’t he?”
“Because… well, see… well… the thing is… okay. So, at the time he sang this song… well, people just weren’t very… nice to… um… people like him,” I finished lamely. I was already prepared for the follow-up question, of course. “Why?”
Let’s pause so that I can ask a very serious question—one that was playing like ticker tape in my head: why indeed? How was I going to explain what black Americans were going through in the 1920s to my five-year-old, who thinks “black people” means people wearing black clothes? This was worse than when he asked me, out of the blue, “But Mom, how does the Daddy get the sperm to the Mommy’s egg?”
See, I had this strategy all worked out: I just wouldn’t talk about race. I’d been operating under the assumption that not bringing up racial issues until they presented themselves was the appropriate way to talk to my kids (or not talk to my kids) about those issues and our own white privilege. As a white parent, it turns out I wasn’t alone. Kristina Olson, a University of Washington psychologist who studies racial bias, says, “White parents seem very, very resistant to talking about race—even really liberal ones—and they have this attitude of ‘I wouldn’t want to talk about it because it would make it real to my kids.’” Madeline Rogin, a young child educator and expert on diversity and inclusion, notes that “many white parents avoid talking about race in an effort to develop a sense of ‘colorblindness’ in their children, thinking that a colorblind child is a more inclusive child.”
This was certainly true in my case. I was terrified to bring up race because my kids hadn’t ever mentioned it. My fear was that I’d somehow make him racist by pointing out race, but research has shown that to be a fallacy. Madeline Rogin assures us that “young children notice difference all the time. At a young age, they are busy sorting and categorizing their environment by a single attribute,” which means that whether or not we parents are talking about racial differences, our kids are noticing them.
Sadly, the fact that I can debate whether or not to talk to my kids openly about race and privilege is, in itself, coming from my place of privilege. Many minority parents don’t have that luxury; they are living racial issues, so their children are seeing systematic racism played out with their own eyes. More than anything else, this is what made me realize that we parents—especially white parents—have to talk to our kids about race. As I discovered while reading up on how to do it, now is the perfect time in my son’s life to start that conversation. “Between five and eight, children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs. By the fourth grade, children’s racial attitudes start to grow more rigid. Our guidance is especially crucial during this impressionable, turbulent time,” notes civilrights.org.
Of course, it would be easier to discuss diversity with my kids if we didn’t live in Whitey White-Town. Have you seen the New York Times infographic on the distribution of ethnic and racial groups? It’s truly eye-opening that even in a city like New York, which boasts a hugely diverse population, neighborhoods are largely segregated by race. Needless to say, our southern city is no exception. Indeed, we live in a predominantly white neighborhood. Most of our friends are white, our homeschool group is mostly white, and therefore, quite unexpectedly and certainly not purposefully, we ended up in a white bubble. Not surprisingly, one of the best ways to stop racism before it starts is for our kids to have friends of different races and ethnicities, and for we parents to have a diverse set of friends as well. However, because of my privilege, I’m able to stay home with my kids, and I’m able to homeschool—like many of my white, privileged friends. I know many minority families don’t have that ability, so it’s no wonder we ended up with many similarly privileged white friends and our children don’t see a lot of diversity on a daily basis. How to branch out of our white bubble without forcing token ethnic friends isn’t something I know how to do just yet, but I do know it is important that we try.
Back to the present. I was standing there, wondering how to tell Noah why for African Americans—especially in the 1920s—it sometimes isn’t such a wonderful world. Was I just to dive right in with slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, police brutality, racial profiling—the whole nine yards? Or would that be too much for any five-year-old, no matter the race? Madeline Rogin points out that getting into some of those horrifying details may actually be too overwhelming and scary for kids of any race and may even distract them from the issues that they need to understand right now. As I talked to my son about Louis Armstrong, I also tried to remember another important thing I’d read on talking about race to kids: not “blaming racism and discrimination on ‘bad people’ or ‘bad behavior,’ because doing so may dismiss inequality as something that’s the fault of an ‘evil few’ rather than being an institutional problem”—a problem that’s real for everyone, in other words. One that, together, we can help solve.
No matter how we approach it, current research is very conclusive: we parents have to start talking to our kids about race, and the sooner we do, the better. How we start the conversation depends on our own kids, how much diversity they’re already exposed to, their age, and their temperaments; but it’s up to us to figure that part out. Madeline Rogin’s quote encourages me: “What does matter is that young children have support in understanding race, through listening to stories and engaging in conversations about skin color.”
Raising our kids to be inclusive is up to us. We have to swallow our discomfort; we can’t pretend racial issues don’t exist. Maybe that means getting books that include racial awareness from the library. Maybe it means learning about a non-white historical figure. Maybe it means branching out, going to different playgrounds, meeting non-white people, making non-white friends. Whatever it looks like for us, we have to do this. We can do this.
“I hear babies cry
I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more
Than I’ll ever know
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.”