Discussing Diversity

November 26, 2012

By Amy Hackworth.

“Hey, where’d you get your brown skin?” my five-year-old nephew asked his school bus driver as he got off the bus one day. My sister’s cheeks flushed as she made eye contact with their friend, bus-driver Bill.

What was true for my nephew is true for most kids — his comment was sparked by nothing more than a simple observation and some innocent curiosity, but the complexities of race, diversity and tolerance weigh heavily on our parenting shoulders when our children publicly notice differences in others.

We’re sensitive about being offensive, disrespectful, or discriminatory, but remember, recognizing differences does not equal discrimination and ignoring questions about diversity or shushing observant kids sends the wrong message. Pretending differences don’t exist is foolish (and boring!), which is why I love Karen’s philosophy: what makes us different is the essence of what makes us beautiful, so starting with the things that make your family unique can be a great way to navigate potentially tricky — but essential — conversations about our differences.

What conversations and experiences have helped your children appreciate diversity? If you were my sister, how would you have handled the school bus situation?

P.S. — Aren’t these darling matryoshka prints a sweet way to explore cultural differences?

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 findingmagnolia November 26, 2012 at 10:30 am

Our favorite way to get conversations started about diversity is through books. Our fave is called Shades of People. We also love Whoever You Are, by Mem Fox.

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2 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I just came across Whoever You Are…glad to hear you like it.

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3 Gina November 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

My little boy is 2, so I suspect those conversation are coming soon. But it is funny you mentioned this topic, because I have had the exact same topic in mind to write about.

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4 amy November 26, 2012 at 10:55 am

Living in an urban area, my kids’ schools have always been very diverse, beginning with the earliest pre-school years. So we’ve got a handle on racial and ethnic diversity issues. However, I was unprepared for the day when my then two-and-a-half-year-old son pointed to a woman and loudly proclaimed, “Look mom! She is so fat!” I realized that my son was merely noting something unusual because the woman in question was one of the largest people I have ever seen. However, his innocence did not compensate for the humiliation the woman experienced (fortunately, we were alone in a waiting room, so no one else was witness to this event). I apologized profusely to the woman, which she did not accept. I also gave her the opportunity to tell my son how his remark made her feel. She told him that he made her feel sad and embarrassed. My son and I then left, and I explained to him that it is never appropriate to comment on how a person looks. However, because of his young age, it took a few more years before that lesson really took hold. During those years, he also commented on a young man’s high-tech artificial leg (the young man was gracious and let my son see how it worked) as well someone’s very freckled skin.

It can be tough with little kids, but they are operating out of honesty. How would you have handled the interaction with the heavy woman? To this day (14 years later!) I can still remember the tension in that waiting room when my son blurted out his remark.

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5 Whitney November 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm

I understand the woman must have been embarrassed, but how could she not accept your apology? It’s obvious to just about everyone that children say what they think. I think the fact that you were eager to help smooth the transition should speak volumes about you and your child’s character and her reaction tells us a lot about her. You did the right thing!

Here’s my personal example: my son was born with a cleft lip and palate. It was very obvious for several months and many people commented on it. Several times, children would say something and their parents would be horrible embarrassed. I never minded it, because they were always genuinely concerned and curious. I would answer their questions and they would be totally cool with it. What I did mind was a close relative, who, at 80 years old, said that they didn’t want a picture of my son because of his deformity. That was very hurtful, especially from someone who should know better. We were able to move on from that, but you should be able to accept children for what they are and not shame them for something that’s inherent to them.

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6 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm

It sounds like you handled it beautifully. I would hate feeling that tension of the unaccepted apology, but it sounds like that had more to do with her than with you.

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7 Amy November 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Thanks, Whitney and Amy, for the support. I wish I could go back in time and really talk it out with that woman as clearly, we did not come to a resolution!

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8 Azure November 26, 2012 at 11:27 am

I tell my kids that it is poor manners to talk about how people look. If they have a question about someone’s physical appearance, whether it be a tattoo, a scar, or anything else unusual, they are to ask me privately after the person is gone. I treat this as a manners issue, rather than a racial awareness issue.

Separately, we also discuss the history of prejudice against people of different races and skin colors in America.

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9 Jenn November 26, 2012 at 11:29 am

Last year at the beginning of the school year my four year old daughter made friends with one of the other parents at my older children’s bus stop. They chatted every morning and afternoon. Some mornings after the bus came he would invite us over to his house to see his giant aquarium. My daughter loved Jimmy. About halfway through the school year we were walking home from the bus stop, my daughter was holding Jimmy’s hand and she gave their enjoined hands a funny look and stated matter-of-factly, “Hey Jimmy! You’re black!” Just like your sister, I was mortified. Fortunately, he answered right back, “Yep, I’m black. That’s how God made me.” My daughter, still trying to figure things out, said, “But I’m white?” Jimmy said, “That’s ok. That’s how God made you.” Then they kept walking like nothing had happened. Jimmy didn’t seem bothered at all, but I still felt like I needed to apologize. Ironically, I think I was the one most uncomfortable.

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10 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I love this story, Jenn. I think that’s just it for most kids–a sudden realization and innocent comments. I see your daughter’s story as really, really sweet. Interesting how we project our concerns onto a situation when no one else does, isn’t it?

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11 Rachael November 26, 2012 at 11:52 am

It is an interesting subject. My four year old daughter asked me about skin color the other day and I told her that’s how Heavenly Father made us, all different. My kids have never used black or white but tan and brown instead which is kind of nice and more accurate.

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12 the emily November 26, 2012 at 11:56 am

Last year we moved to Gallup, New Mexico from Utah. The population in Utah is predominantly Caucasian and here it is 90% Native American. There were obvious differences right away, but my kids have never questioned it, which I am grateful for. They did, however, ask a lot of questions about our transgender neighbor, which we didn’t see much of in Utah. We’re teaching them that everybody is different and that’s okay, I hope that’s good enough.

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13 julia [life on churchill] November 26, 2012 at 12:06 pm

So far my kids haven’t commented on the color of people’s skin. We live in a city and their friends are from a variety of regions and varied backgrounds. They do make blushing comments like “that man is OLD!” Which can get quite awkward. I’m interested to see what other parents say about this topic!

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14 Miggy November 26, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I could talk about this for hours. My daughter does not have a left arm–except a little stump. Her right arm is significantly shorter with a small hand that consists of 3 fingers fused together. Her legs are also affected, but less noticeably ‘different.’ Add in a prosthetic arm and a power chair, we definitely get a lot of looks and questions! In my experience the best thing a parent can do when a child points/notices/asks/yells “hey why doesn’t she have an arm!” is to answer the question the best way possible (often some variation of the ‘she was just born that way’ talk), open up a dialogue and let them come talk to my daughter. Turning a child away, shushing them and telling them it’s not polite simply reinforces the idea that my daughter is too different (and perhaps even too scary) to talk to and be friends with. I always appreciate when the parents are involved in trying to explain these differences because I don’t know what language will help your child understand–most children under the age of 4 for example can’t seem to wrap their brain around the “she was born this way” answer. But perhaps they have a relative who uses a wheelchair or who has differences the parent can reference. And I always try to help children understand that she is more alike than different– “Do you like ice cream? So does she! Do you like playing with toys? She does too!” Additionally, sometimes we’re literally surrounded by curious children asking questions and pointing and that can be really, really daunting to try and manage by myself. Also, please keep in mind that while this might be the first time your child is seeing new differences, keep in mind that for special needs parents this is our 1 billionth time having a kid look, stare and ask questions . I’m not always on point or having a great day and to always be ready to be in super-mom educational mode is not realistic. So if I, or someone in similar shoes, doesn’t seem to be handing the situation as well as you think we should, just know we have our off days too.

Great topic! Thanks for opening the dialogue.

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15 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Wow, Miggy, thanks for your perspective. I love what you shared. I’m sure it can be exhausting, as you point out, and that’s a good thing for me to remember. I also love how you focus on similarities between your daughter and curious kids. That seems so wise.

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16 Amy November 26, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Miggy, overall, what is your preference for how you would like your daughter to be noticed and/or approached? Without taking the temperature of everyone’s moods that particular day, it might be easier for parents of curious kids to have an overall rule. Would you rather a parent just smiled at your daughter, told his or her kid that “everyone is different,” and moved on, even if the kid wanted to interact with your daughter? What does your daughter prefer? Thanks in advance for sharing your perspective (and experiences).

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17 Miggy November 26, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Amy–I can’t think of a time I haven’t preferred that a parent and child engage us in conversation. Even the times that I’m not “on point” I would still prefer a conversation–I just might not be as bubbly. In fact, I do a special needs spotlight on my blog–a weekly feature where I interview parents of special needs kids. I always ask them “how can other people respond to or approach your child so as to avoid any hurtful situations?” This is by far the question that is 98% of the time answered the same way–just ask. Start a conversation and ask us about our child and their differences. Especially if your child is curious and asking questions. Questions are OK–starting, shooshing and walking away are not. Now in the 40+ spotlights I’ve done I can think of 2 times this question wasn’t answered in this manner and one dad summed it up when he said “He doesn’t want people to approach his son as a curiosity but as a person.” Which of course, I also relate to and understand. My daughter is only 2.5 right now and so she’s just starting to understand these things and for her I think she’s always excited to have new friends, so the sooner kids can get over their apprehensions the sooner they can interact as kids. :)

Thanks so much for asking!

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18 Miggy November 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm

*staring, not starting. :)

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19 Amy November 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Miggy,
You have done a world of good with your answer. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond. Most (all?) people want to do the right thing but second-guess themselves. Thank you!

20 Rachel November 26, 2012 at 12:26 pm

When I was about three, I asked my dad why there was a monkey in church- I had never seen someone with black skin before. The man overheard and happened to be a good friend of my dads. Of course my dad was super embarrassed but after church the introduced me to the man and told me he was a person just like us, but his skin was a different color, and isn’t it beautiful? And the man was really nice about it. Now that I am older I appreciate what my dad did. I can imagine his embarrassment but he took the time to teach me to appreciate and celebrate out differences. Everyone is beautiful.

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21 Elizabeth November 26, 2012 at 12:40 pm

We live in a part of New York that is very diverse, so there isn’t a “normal” shade of skin. My oldest son notices people’s shades and mentions it, and I find it pretty easy to discuss it in a way that’s simply about observations, without loading the issue too much. What I find more difficult is how to discuss other physical traits, such as obesity… my son sometimes comments loudly on people who are “puffy” or have “such a big stomach”. I’m trying to convey to him that it’s not something to say to people without making peoples body shape seem shameful. Finding it harder than the skin-color issue, actually.

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22 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 1:14 pm

I agree, Elizabeth. That’s a trickier issue for me, too.

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23 Amy Hackworth November 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Also, isn’t it kind of interesting that there are certain obvious things we allow ourselves to mention and other obvious things that are off limits to comment on? I’m just this moment becoming fascinated by that.

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24 Emilee November 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm

I am white-white, but my husband has lovely olive skin which he passed to our oldest daughter. I’ve called her “brown baby” from day one. One day, one of her African-American friends from the apartment downstairs was playing at our house and my daughter suddenly stopped their normal conversation and loudly asked, “Why are you so brown?” From the other room, I started to hurry in to help explain, but the friend just responded, “Because my mama’s brown. You’re pink because your mama is pink.” Olivia replied quickly, “No. I’m not pink like my mom. I’m my dad’s brown baby.” I loved the friend’s answer, and I’ve used it again when my other children have asked about skin color. “She’s brown because her mom was probably brown,” or “He probably has all those freckles because his dad had freckles.” It’s an answer small children can understand, and it doesn’t make the topic feel shameful or embarrassing. Aren’t I glad for the wisdom of a child!

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25 Stella November 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I don’t have insight on how to discuss diversity with kids since I don’t have any yet… but just wanted to add a funny story. A friend of mine grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood/community. The first time she saw an African American woman, she was pretty young (I imagine about the same age as your nephew). She and her mom were in a large crowd of people. My friend pointed at the African American woman and loudly exclaimed, “Mom!! That lady ate too many brownies!!” Luckily the woman chuckled, so it wasn’t too awkward… but apparently she and her mom had never really discussed diversity.

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26 jessica November 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm

He got it from his mom and dad of course, just like white folks!

We are a mixed up black, white and indian family. My kids tease me all the time about being too light/yellow/not really brown enough.

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27 Sarah November 26, 2012 at 6:00 pm

I’m Muslim and wear hijab. I am used to stares and comments from small children. And unfortunately many parents and adults make derogatory comments as well. I think many assume that I don’t speak English or just don’t care if I hear them. There are certain communities where I definitely don’t feel welcome so I tend to avoid them.

Most of our friends are non-White so my son has always been exposed to diversity. He’s nearly 2, but he already understands how different people can look. When we are out, he will see a light-skinned African American girl and call her by his friend’s name who looks the same way. If he sees a blonde girl with curly hair he will call her by that friend’s name. It’s really never too early to start talking about diversity because they pick it up so naturally!!

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28 Sarah November 26, 2012 at 6:16 pm

Oh! I wanted to add my favorite story:

It was about this time last year and I was sitting on the train at a kids park with my son in my lap. A little girl who was boarding was yelling “Look Mommy, it’s Baby Jesus!” Her mom didn’t get it until she finally pointed at me and said that I was his Mommy. The mom was completely silent. I was trying so hard not to burst out laughing!

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29 Dee Dee November 26, 2012 at 6:54 pm

Thanks for this discussion.

We have lived in East Asia for ten years. My husband and I are caucasian and our daughters 7 and 5 are Asian. The girls have always attended Chinese school and the vast, vast majority of their classmates are Asian, mostly Korean. As a family we attend an international church and have friends from India, Angola, Taiwan, and Korea, as well as from the US, Canada and Germany.

My husband and I like that we are the ‘different’ ones in this community and that the girls fit in perfectly at their school and in the community (even though they speak English and Spanish at home with their parents). It’s been a unique experience for us – one that we never anticipated – and we celebrate that as often as possible.

Recently our eldest daughter remarked that it’s a good thing we have her and her sister in the family to teach us about ‘eastern’ things and we can teach them about ‘western’ things, otherwise all our lives would be so boring! (She was saying this in Spanish, so my translation is a bit off.) Families are people and people are each different and special.

Are there any other books you recommend for children?

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30 Lisa J. November 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Hi all, I’m Amy’s sister. My son will love hearing that his innocent question was the start of a great conversation today! After he asked Bill about his skin, we came home and looked at a book we have about children from all over the world. When we came to the pictures of children from Africa my son said that was the skin he wanted and I realized that when he asked Bill where he got his skin, he really wanted to know where he got it so he could get some too. In most of the situations (there have been many more since that time) my kids were actually paying strangers a compliment, except when one of my other sons told the repairman that his belly was fat like Santa Claus. I really liked the comment about teaching kids to let you know in private if they want to make observations or have questions about a persons appearance, that’s a good idea. I think it’s also important to show them by your example that it’s nice to notice good things in others and to pay someone a compliment.

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31 McK November 27, 2012 at 6:53 pm

I’m glad you covered this topic and enjoyed reading the comments. I actually went to school for the specialization in Race-ing children. Studying and teaching children how to learn about race in an empowering environment. The best thing parent’s can do is encourage the conversation when their child asks questions (that way they are never taught that you shhhhhh difference and don’t talk about them. My second biggest advice, break it down scientifically. She has darker skin because she has more melanin in her skin….he has lighter because he has less. By far, the most appropriate way to teach a child is with the facts.

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32 Design Mom November 28, 2012 at 8:58 am

I think this is genius, McK. I love the idea of equipping your children with facts — so much easier to leave emotion out of it.

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33 Lena November 28, 2012 at 11:58 am

There’s a really great book that talks about discussing race (among many other topics) with your child and it’s based in scientific studies. It’s called “Nurture Shock” and is a must read! I found it somewhat surprising to learn that you ought to talk very openly and directly at a very early age. In fact, people of color (the research shows) talk to their children about race and diversity at a much earlier age then their white counterparts. It makes a difference. I’m trying to incorporate all I’ve learned from the book and it isn’t always easy or natural but it’s been very thought provoking and empowering as a parent to follow something scientifically based to help me raise my child more conscientiously.

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