If you’ve been following our blog, you know that Adam and I talk openly about race in our family. Our son is 2, though, so I never in my wildest dreams imagined having a conversation about race with someone who isn’t able to use the potty, yet, although he is right on schedule according to studies.
But today, it happened.
He is a pro at colors. He loves pointing at things and naming the color of it. Today, he pointed at my skin and said, “Mommy’s skin is brown”. I was a bit surprised. I asked him what color his skin is.
“My skin is white”, he said.
I struggled to quiet the inner panic inside of me as the questions of where the hell in his two years of living did I go wrong sprang up.
When Adam came home, I revisited it. Because who the heck am I kidding, right? The questions were raging in my mind, as well as the urgent need to google every “how to talk to your kids about race” book for toddlers and buy ALL of them pronto. I asked our son what color my skin is. He said brown. I asked him what color his skin is. He said white. I asked him what color Daddy’s skin is. He said white. We’ll skip the part where I asked him a few more times just to make sure he wasn’t guessing.
My black soul hurt. I was crushed. Adam and I talk about race openly with each but our son’s racial consciousness snuck up on us. We spend lots of time talking ABOVE him about politics, religion, race and more. We were clearly not spending enough time talking WITH him about these topics. In my defense, who would imagine that at age 2, a child would be thinking about the color of skin?? I figured he must have gotten it from somewhere so I asked him who told him that. He pointed to himself and said “ME!”
After the initial shock wore off, I started to strategize. It’s no longer enough to make sure that there are many books featuring kids of color on his book shelves. It’s not enough to read them to him frequently. It’s not enough to consciously ensure that our time with friends mirror their diversity. It’s not enough to make sure he has a balance of both families in his life. It’s not enough to model openness to him through our approach to each other.
After some time, I realized that his main focus is color. I don’t think he was asking about ethnicity. My job was to correct him while realizing his is asking about colors but leave the door open for a more nuanced conversation about race related to the color of skin. I fully believe that someone told him he is white at school. There is no way a toddler as literal as my son would call himself white without some outside prompting.
Adam and I went back to him and asked him the color of my white shirt. He said “white”. I pointed out to him that Daddy’s and his skin were not the color of my shirt. I asked him to tell me the color of my eyes and his eyes and Dad’s eyes. After our convo that was based solely on the factual color of things, I told him “You are half black, half white. When people ask, that’s what you tell them”. I asked him to repeat it to me several times. We explained that Mommy is black and Daddy is white so Ari is a bit of both. I also explained to him that factually his skin is brown, Mommy’s skin is brown and Daddy’s skin is brown. We just are different shades of brown. The discussion ended with him running around the room pointing at things and naming the colors.
So how do you explain to a toddler the nuances of race and ethnic background? And who the hell is telling my child he is white? In his mind, things are very literal. I chose to go the route of factual color identification because that is something he could easily understand. He doesn’t know how to process that little Mason in his class has a higher chance of being pulled over by the cops because his skin is darker. He doesn’t know how to process that there comes privilege with his lighter shade of brown skin. He won’t understand my lecture (it’s brimming, trust me) that there comes great responsibility to stand up and make space for others without that privilege. Talking race with a toddler is also difficult because he has the attention span of Dory. He is off to the next thing is 0.2 seconds. That’s why I chose to just drill it in that he is a mix of Mom and Dad so therefore a mix of black and white and that he is not solely white.
Child development is a tricky thing. Just when you think you’ve mastered a phase, the child becomes 10 times smarter overnight and you’re forced to up your game and spend Scandal night reading child development books. Adam and I know that we want to be open at all times about everything with our son but this was an eye-opening experience because the definition of openness shifts over time. Openness with kids means being in tune with what they are internalizing so that you can protect them from certain things but also challenge their emotional development by introducing new discussions. I still never thought I’d be having to have a conversation about race with a toddler but he is telling me he is ready to wade into those waters toe-first.
I also never thought I would be having such a simple conversation about skin color with anyone. If someone my age were to proclaim that they are brown and not black, I would point them to a library to study the history of their race and ethnicity. Personally, I identify as black even though my skin isn’t factually black in color. To me, black is a racial group and there are connotations to that in current society, history and for the future. I am proud to be black and would never have thought to identify myself as brown. But there is no way to explain to our son that he isn’t white when talking about skin color without telling him he is not the color black. I had to remind myself as I revised that conversation in my head several times after it happened that he is still 2 years old. I chose to make the most important lesson at that moment be that he is a mix of Mom and Dad and that Mom is black and Dad is white, so he is mixed with the two.
My soul is in turmoil even as I write this and I’m off to find some more books for his age talking about skin color.
What do you tell your toddler about skin color?