This post is by contributing blogger Kelly Coyle DiNorcia, a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and a humane educator specializing in helping parents raise joyful, compassionate children. Find out more about Kelly's work at her website Beautiful Friendships, and her blog, Ahimsa Mama.
Last week she had her first recital, and let me just say: She did fantastic! A virtuoso! Look out Carnegie Hall, here she comes! Okay, maybe not…but I was proud. (You can watch it on You Tube if you want. Yes, I am that mom.) It was a pleasure to watch all the children perform with poise and confidence.
Afterwards, my daughter shared that she really likes watching violinists who move their bodies with the music. One child in particular is an animated performer, and so I asked Bess if she complimented Shoshana on her playing. “Which one was Shoshana again?” she asked.
As it turns out, Shoshana is African-American. But as I was about to answer, “One of the African-American girls,” I stopped. I couldn’t say it. In that moment, I could not use the term “African-American.” African-American as opposed to….what? I don’t describe my second-generation American children as “German-American.” It felt, in that moment, like labeling, as opposed to describing. Add to this the fact that I didn’t want the conversation to reinforce a common stereotype - namely, that black people are good dancers - and I just couldn’t make myself say the words.
What I said was: “Shoshana is one of the girls who has very dark skin. She played 'The Two Grenadiers.'”
“Oh, yes!” Bess said. “I didn’t tell her, but I will the next time I see her.”
Was that the right thing to say? I don’t know. It felt right at the time. Or at least it felt less inappropriate than the alternative. What I said is absolutely accurate. Shoshana’s skin is darker than my daughter’s Mediterranean complexion, just as my daughter’s skin, inherited from her father, is darker than my northern European shade of pale. In one sense, it is as simple as that.
And yet…in another sense, it couldn’t be more complicated. It isn’t accurate to pretend that the difference between Shoshana and Bess is melanin-related in the same way skin color differentiates Bess from me. To imply otherwise is insincere, and unfair, and disrespectful. It is easy for me to describe Shoshana that way, given that I am speaking from a place of relative privilege. I cannot even begin to imagine all the ways in which people of color do not experience the world in the way that I do.
Was this about the way I want my daughter to see other people? My desire to treat Shoshana respectfully? A selfish desire to see myself as “color blind”? All three, probably. At any rate, I was surprised by the degree to which I was caught off-guard given the amount of time I spend thinking about these types of things.
I am interested to hear from other parents: How do you talk to your children about race? What kind of words do you use? What kind of community do you live in, and do you think the demographics of your community affect the way you approach these types of conversations with your kids?
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