The other day, my 3-year old niece, completely unprovoked, said to me, "Tia Liza, I'm white. You are not white." This was the first time she had ever brought this to my attention. "Yeah, sorry" says my Puerto Rican brother-in-law, "this whole skin color thing started since her first day in pre-school."
"It's okay," I added. "She's right. Good observation. Though I'd prefer to be considered 'brown' and not 'not-white', this is probably the first time she's really talking about it."
I returned my attention to my niece, "Yes, you're right. My skin color is brown. Your skin color is white," I replied.
Technically, yes, my niece's skin color is white (or beige/off white - I'm leaving that one to the art majors in the crowd). Ethnically, however, she is Puerto Rican. She calls me "Tia", she was raised on beans and rice. She is also ethnically Greek - her mother had her baptized in a Greek Orthodox church, she celebrates Greek holidays, and her extended family lives in Greece. But, her skin - the color is white. Her hair is light brown -- though, curly like my own daughter's hair. Her eyes are blue. She looks nothing like my Puerto Rican/Filipino children. You would never even think they were related.
In my circle of parent-friends, I'm rare. I'm still trying to get my friends to consider the effects of raising their children in a colorblind manner. Many of them still believe that it's too early -- at ages 2, 3, 4 -- to talk about race in a meaningful way. My husband and I both believe that it's never too early.
In a recent Newsweek article, the authors of the new book Nurture Shock, draw from their research to discuss the problems of being colorblind and of not talking about race at a very early age. So many people want to a) wait until it comes up, b) wait until there is an issue with race, c) wait until they, as parent, feel comfortable talking about it. But, when is that?
The point Katz emphasizes is that this period of our children's lives, when we imagine it's most important to not talk about race, is the very developmental period when children's minds are forming their first conclusions about race.
Are "colorblind" parents really raising colorblind children? Or, rather, are they raising children who are afraid to talk about color? Why is it so easy for us to correct a young child who says, "Only boys can be firefighters!" with "Both boys and girls can grow up to be firefighters!" but we are afraid to address when children bring up race? Rather, we shush them or tell them they cannot say things like that.
My role as a college diversity educator is to engage students in conversations about race/ethnicity/privilege/etc. I'm finding more and more, however, that college is the first time many of these students are talking about it. Only a year into President Obama's election, I find it hard to believe they are already so "post- racial"; and, I do know that they aren't really learning about race relations in school.
But, what about at home? Are parents afraid to talk to their kids about race? Are they more comfortable talking about sex? Or, does race follow the sex-assumption? That is, as parents, we kind of assume that our kids already know about sex. So, are we assuming that our kids also know about race?
For my husband and me, we talk about race all the time. We talk about skin color, about hair color, hair texture, why one child in our family needs the deep conditioner and the other child only needs a comb-through. We talk about the blond hair of my sister-in-law, the brown skin of my brother-in-law, and the almond eye shape of my own. My children have never been "shuushed" about race or color. Talking about race is as normal as talking about the cereal they had for breakfast. It's just natural.
Nurture Shock. It isn't without it's critics of course. But, for the most part, I'm on board with the notion that kids learn about race at a much earlier time that most people admitted.
And, therefore, it's never too early.