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What Do We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Race

January 18th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  5 Comments

Yesterday JP asked me why he wasn’t going to school, and I began to tell him that we, and everyone we knew, were celebrating the birthday of a very important person named Martin Luther King. JP loves birthdays, so he was curious when and if there was going to be a party, and would he be receiving a gift. I told him there wouldn’t be a party, that this birthday was a little different than the ones to which he usually was invited. King was dead, I told him, but he lived such an important and good life that even now, after he was long gone, we take time off from work and school to remember him.

I didn’t say much more than that, and I didn’t bring up race, which is a subject that hasn’t come up with JP before. He’s of mixed race, although I’m not entirely sure he knows it, nor do I know if he’s aware of black, white, and all the other clothes in between.

Not that I thought about it overly much, but it has never seemed important to me to explain bigotry or other unpleasant societal distinctions. I’m aware he’ll learn of them eventually, and I’m also aware that it’s better that he learns from me than from someone else. Yet it just felt like I would be disillusioning JP in some way if I were to sit him down and explain that people often hate each other due to the color of their skin, that his skin color was considered unusual and potentially hatable, and that this is something he was going to have moving around in his mind for the rest of his life.

But there’s also the counter-argument that I wasn’t doing justice to King’s legacy. He gave his life for these issues, and to keep JP unaware of them, while protecting him from the nasty reality of life, also denies the honor and inspiration of someone like King.

That said, if anyone out there has the slightest idea how to educate a four-year-old about bigotry, I’d like to hear it.


  1. Megan says:

    January 18th, 2011at 5:14 pm(#)

    We haven’t gotten to this point with our little just yet
    (he’s 15 mos), but I found this discussion informative (lots of
    convo in the comments…):

  2. SCOTTSTEV says:

    January 18th, 2011at 8:34 pm(#)

    Just had to have this talk with my 5 yo today. It was definitely bittersweet, and I wished I could have put it off a little while longer. But, at some point human cruelty will be discovered by everyone. He didn’t shame me with angelic virtue, though. Upon hearing a very high-level discussion of de jure segregation, he responded “I’m glad I have white skin, if it ever happens again.” A natural enough response; one that I’m guilty of more than I’d like to imagine.

  3. Carly says:

    January 21st, 2011at 11:28 am(#)

    On MLK Day, my 4 yo told me the story of when the white people didn’t let the brown people sit where they wanted on the bus and how MLK and others sat where they wanted and were thrown in jail and then he got people to change the law. They had talked about it at school. I was surprised at how sad his new vocabulary, of brown and white people, made me. Like Theodore, I wish he had stayed ignorant of the idea that some people not only categorize people by skin color but that they then abuse them on the basis of it. His class at school has all hues in it, and I wonder if it now occurs to the kids to distinguish among themselves based on this criterion.
    Or is it naive to think that they weren’t doing it at all before? Or, on the other hand, is it cynical/world-weary to worry that they will suddenly start thinking racism is such a useful idea? (In the end, his biggest question about the story was: Why was MLK put in jail? Why did the people have a bad law?)
    The link to the Po Bronson book discussion that Megan posted is interesting: it points out that kids make essentialist distinctions all the time. But it still doesn’t answer for me the question of, why skin hue as a distinction, among all other distinctions? I’m not convinced yet that very young kids do get to that one “naturally.”

  4. SCOTTSTEV says:

    January 21st, 2011at 12:48 pm(#)


    My son did some distinction/classification based on skin color in preschool. So I think it’s natural that such an obvious differentiator is noticed. He didn’t classify culturally though and referred to African Americans as “having a tan skin.” I tried to answer scientifically, and focus on diversity of hair-color, eye color etc. Like you, it was heartbreaking seeing him realize that these incidental characteristics had/have such heavy baggage.

  5. Nathan says:

    January 21st, 2011at 1:35 pm(#)

    I’m with you, Berwick. I don’t see it as a natural distinction that kids make. I think they’re just as likely to notice hair, fingernails, whatever. And if anything, they would tend to realize levels of skin tone without lumping them into those sad baskets of brown and white.

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