Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tell The Truth Tuesday: The Race Issue

It all began with stickers. It's a paperdoll concept in the form of stickers and my daughter LOVES to play with them. There are shirts and skirts and shoes and dresses--all stickers. And the girls come in every nationality...also cool. But what I thought wasn't so cool was when my three-year-old daughter pointed to the African American girl and asked for the "chocolate" one. She requested "vanilla" next.

Lydia loves sweets. LOVES. So it didn't surprise me that when noticing differences, she made a connection to food, specifically chocolate and vanilla--her favorites. But, I wasn't comfortable with her terminology, so I explained that every person in the world comes in all different shades. There's brown and dark brown and beige and light beige, etc., etc.--all different colors, all the same on the inside. But it's not nice to refer to people as chocolate or vanilla. End of story, moving on, let's choose a skirt.

This was all well and good until we were out in public and Lydia pointed out an African American person. "What color skin do they have, Mommy?" I told her again that all people have different colors of skin. She then proceeded to say, "It's not nice to call people chocolate face." And I wanted to crawl into a corner of the store and die of humiliation. My goal was to raise colorblind children. And now, my daughter was saying "chocolate" and "face" in the same sentence. We were past the point of ignoring, of hoping that if we didn't talk about it, it would just go away (like many embarrassing things kids do). In fact, it became apparent that we needed to talk about it. That Lydia was beginning to notice differences and that this would continue--and not just with skin color, but with heavy and thin and boy and girl and glasses and hair (or lack thereof) and any and all differences out there. And I was responsible for helping to guide her through the process to understanding.

So, I began the search for picture books. Because skin color was the particular difference she had landed on, I decided to start with that topic. And you know what? I didn't find a whole lot out there. There were a few picture books, one by an author Lydia loves, but after reading the description of the book, I wondered if it would send the right message. There were all sorts of comparisons to skin and food! Granted, the comparisons were to yummy food, but still! Call me crazy, but I don't want my daughter walking around comparing people to melted chocolate. I did, however, find a few new favorites. ALL THE COLORS OF THE EARTHSHADES OF PEOPLE, and THE SKIN YOU LIVE IN (what a beautiful message!) are at the top of the list.

When Lisa and I talked about it, we realized we struggle with essentially the same issue in our own writing. As we were writing THE LIAR SOCIETY, we wanted race to be a non-issue. We created Pemberly Brown as a diverse school, but when describing the diversity, we seemed to fall short. There's nothing worse than reading a book and not properly imagining a main character. Ditto to book covers  that feature a character completely different than described in the book; it drives us crazy. If a main character is black, I want to see them that way in my head. If a main character has red hair, I want to imagine it. If a main character is a boy, I want to know. But here, as writers, we lacked the right words. We used words like "caramel" and "mocha" to describe Bradley Farrow's skin and explained that Grace Lee's eyes were shaped like "almonds." Here we go with food again. WHO AM I TO JUDGE?

What's the answer? How do I raise a child who ignores differences, but instead focuses on what makes us the same? Or is it okay to embrace our differences? After all, those differences are what make us unique. The world would be an awfully boring place without them. Obviously, this isn't just a hot topic in parenting, but in publishing as well. With cover-controversies like LIARMAGIC UNDER GLASS and the re-designed SILVER PHOENIX cover (to name just a few), it's clear that our differences aren't always handled very graciously. But we'd love to get YOUR opinion today. Any advice for an embarrassed mom?


KatieO said...

When my son was little, he had a fascination with obese people. Loved to point them out in the stores and such, much to my complete embarrassment. Mortification, really.

We had many a long talk about why it wasn't polite to yell out about someone being fat, how it hurt their feelings. Then in fourth grade, he spent an afternoon in the school psychologist's office for calling a girl in his class "Brown." She reported him for being racist. We had to sign up for two months of counseling sessions. As we left the school and headed to the car, he turned to me and said, "At least I didn't call her fat, right mom?"

It's hard to "win" - as parents, we just have to keep doing our best to help our children understand people come in all colors, shapes and sizes, and it's not what they look like that's the important part but rather how they act.

Good luck!

Matthew MacNish said...

First of all I commend you for caring about this, and being aware that it matters, Laura.

There is no tried and true, answer, but as a father whose kids are older than yours, and (hopefully) pretty well adjusted, in spite of the average culture of where we live, I can tell you what has worked for me.

Exposure. It can be difficult to accomplish, because going out of the way to make sure your child has black, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic friends isn't exactly genuine either, but what I did was make sure to embrace any differences that my daughters expressed an interest in.

Kylie once asked to visit a Buddhist temple, so I took her. Sure, it was filled with more burned out white people than Tibetans, but I still think it broadened her horizons.

When it comes to Lydia I wouldn't worry about it too much. She's still young, and as far as I can tell you handled it well.

Jill Hathaway said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christa said...

Okay, I believe this is an age thing. My son (as a 4yo) told me he didn't like people from Africa because their skin was dark and they spoke funny.

Me: You mean like your grandparents??? (My in-laws are Haitian)
Him: Er, oh...
Me: You know, you're half-Haitian, right?
Him: No, I'm not. I'm tan.

For bi-racial kids, I loved "Am I A Color Too?" as a book. Don't worry. I'll start sending you Christmas cards and you can tell your kids those are their bi-racial cousins!!!

Katy Longshore said...

It IS difficult to raise color-blind kids! And if children are observant, there's no such thing as color-blind (unless it's my kid, who can't tell the difference between green and orange).

And it's GREAT that Pemberley Brown is so diverse! It's hard to write about physical differences intelligently and sensitively, but the two of you do a great job.

Check out Nathalie Mvondo's brilliant blog, http://multiculturalismrocks.com/ if you want to find out more about multiculturalism in kids books.

Jessica said...

I remember when my youngest sister went through this stage and I was upset too. My mom told me this was her curious stage and that she would outgrow it. Mom just answered her questions, and ignored her comments and my sister, Lydia, did outgrow that "curious stage". It took her a couple of years though!

As for food descriptions, I think that is a good way to go. A lot of people use food to describe their own skin color and others skin color too.

It does not help me out, because I write fantasy, in a world where people don't eat the same kinds of food that we eat. hmmm

Lori M. Lee said...

I wish I had an answer for this. I'd like to say it's easier, being Asian, to teach my daughter not to see skin color, but the truth is that she sees it even more. She sees that she's not the same color as the majority of her classmates, and I know she might sometimes wish otherwise (judging by her fascination with fair skin and blond hair). I know I did when I was younger.

I love that you're taking an active role in teaching her though, instead of just hoping it'll "go away" or that your daughter might sort it out herself (she could come to all the right conclusions, yes, but she could also come wrong ones).

Books are a great idea, and I will definitely be taking a look at those titles as well. Also, as a commenter said above, exposure helps. And, possibly the most important, your own behavior. Children will sometimes look to an adult for how to behave when presented with something new.

Casey McCormick said...

I'm going through the same thing right now. My daughter (turning 5 in Sept) is obsessed with differences and the more we try to explain, the more questions she asks (often in public!). I'm sort of at a loss.

emery said...

i don't have kids, but i'm right there with you- writing physical appearance in general is hard.

recently, i sent this really awkward email to my critique partner like: um...did you picture this character as biracial? did that come across? not enough, too little? i wanted to use the word "coffee" but i've been WAY overthinking everything since finding this list: http://joelleanthony.com/my-non-fiction/red-hair-is-not-as-common-as-you-think-by-joelle-anthony/

great post, laura!

Christine Fonseca said...

You KNEW I would have to comment on this, didn't you...first, this is AGE NORMAL! It just means that a developmental milestone has been reached. Teaching her that different = normal will help achieve what you are looking for, I think. You know where I am if you want my more specific two cents. :D

Tere Kirkland said...

First off, WOW, Laura, I commend you for tackling a subject a lot of people would rather shy away from.

Despite how Lydia described the paper doll, the fact remains that she still wanted it. She saw that it differed from the "vanilla" doll, and didn't care. In my eyes, that means you're doing something right.

Good luck finding more picture books for Lydia. I'll email you any rec's I can think of.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

It's never easy to know, I guess. I've struggled with this too, and I really think it depends. Sometimes, like for job applications or evaluation of character, 'colorblind' is a good philosophy. In art, however, the differences are beautiful. Words like 'alabaster, mocha, cream, chocolate, porcelain' all add to richness and complexity of character. If artists decided to do away with color and just paint everyone blue - it'd actually be interesting for awhile - but the world would lose its 'flavor'.

Sera Rivers said...

First of all, KatieO's comment made me crack up :) Thanks for the laugh.

My son is multi-racial. He is Puerto Rican, Italian, Blackfoot Indian, French and Irish. Whoa. I know. he goes around telling everyone he is black. Yes, he does, even when I point out that he isn't. "Look at the color of my skin mom. I'm black."

It is an age appropriate curiosity for your daughter. When my son was little, he pointed at people and announced at the top of his lungs "Why is that woman so fat?" "Why is that man as short as me?" (he was four) etc. etc. As mortified as I was, I always made a point to say in a slightly loud voice why people were different, right then and there.

My son is now 14. He embraces all differences. I have heard him stand up for a boy who has down syndrome to mean kids at a party . He politely tells gay teens who ask him out. "Sorry, dude, I'm not gay. But thanks."

I think making people difference-blind only makes differences seem shameful or bad.

When my son was in head start, a boy with a fake leg and missing fingers (birth deformity) came into the classroom. The parents had all the kids sit in a circle and explained to the 4 year olds why he was different. Then they said, "You have 15 minutes to ask questions." After that circle time, the kids embraced the boy like he was one of them.

Celebrate differences!!!!

Sorry this is so long winded... I've had a lot of experience in this department.

Marsha Sigman said...

Hmmm, I really think the more you address it, the more attention they give it.

When my son asked when he was three, I just commented offhand 'yeah, that man has a great tan, doesn't he?' and there may have been a mention of chocolate but after that it didn't come up again.

When he was older we discussed people's skin color being a direct result of where they live in the world or their ancestry. He has always had a wide mix of friends of all races who run in and out of the house all day long. Pretty proud of that kid. So my advice is not to ignore it but don't let them see you stress over it either.

Corey Schwartz said...

Ugh, my whole comment disappeared. So, here it is again.

My friend took her kids to an author event where Michael Tyler read The Skin We Live In and then gave the kids paints and had them try to mix and create the exact color of their own skin. Cool, huh?

On the other side of cool, my son calls African Americans "dark people'

Karen Sandler said...

I remember when my son was maybe 6 or 7, he would refer to a particular character in a TV show as "the black one." It turns out he was referring to a character who *wore* black, rather than whose skin was black. Which probably made sense because I would differentiate between individuals in a group by anything other than their skin color (like what they were wearing).

In my YA TANKBORN, where skin color is a decider of status, there's kind of an obsessiveness in comparing one person's color to another. Very light and very dark are both low-status. Only a special medium-tone brown is considered high-status.

Riv Re said...

Just want to say that I greatly respect you, Laura, for being so focused on bringing up your kids "colorblind" as you call it. It's a good thing you're doing :)
I was actually trying to solve this same problem in my writing. Food aside, how do I describe a dark-skinned character without calling them "black"? It's common terminology, but on paper, it sees kind of...insulting.

It's nice to know that, at least, diversity is getting more...diverse. New York just passed a law legalizing gay marriage, as I'm sure you heard. The US claims to blur lines, but they're still too clear, in my not-so-humble opinion.

Krispy said...

I think it's great that you care about this and are trying to take an active role in teaching your daughter about diversity. You're awesome. I think we all hope for color-blindness, but in a world that isn't color-blind, I think it's kind of impossible. The best we can do is to acknowledge that there are differences (because there are), but that those differences aren't what defines us. Teach that everyone needs to be treated with respect and tolerance.

Do the best you can, and because YOU care about the common humanity in all of us, I think your kids will pick up on that and follow suit. :)

Hayley said...

My cousins have reacted the same way. We're a big family and have three adopted kids who are of a different race, for the older kids like myself and my sister they're just our cousins, but to the cousins their age (4,6,7) it is odd. They do make comments and such, and our family has tried their best to acclimate them to our mixed raced family and they seem to have adjusted well. But it goes both ways, the adopted kids have asked me more than once why I'm "vanilla" but they're "chocolate". It is just the basic curiosity of kids.

What I've seen from my own experience is just you have to show them your tolerance and they'll mimic it, it's what kids do best--mimic.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I say don't stress about it. If your kids think you're upset or uptight about it, they might feel like it's wrong to ask these kinds of questions, obscuring the real message you want them to come away with.

I struggle with describing skin color in my writing, too. I want it to be there, but I don't want it to be a focus. It's hard to find the right words, in writing AND in real life!

Candyland said...

This is a tough one. Being of darker color myself, with my nationality always in question, it's hard to explain to children how sensitive skin color really is.

My daughter hasn't said anything about this yet, though she is noticing people with disabilities and I've had a tough time helping her understand their still people with FEELINGS and don't want to be stared at or pointed to.

Good luck with this.

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