Recently after interviewing a potential nanny, I asked my daughter Chloe, 4, what she thought. "I don't like her brown skin?" my daughter replied, phrasing it like a question in that hesitant way she does when she knows she's testing.
I was shocked—and horrified. She'd never mentioned skin color before, despite having good friends of different ethnicities, and I naively believed she was colorblind. Now, faced with the fear that I had inadvertently raised a pint-size racist, I biffed it. "That's not a nice thing to say,' I scolded her. And then, unsure of what else to say, I said nothing at all.
I'm pretty sure that falls on the "how not to handle it" list. We spoke to Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race to find out what you should say, and when.
Don't be afraid to bring it up
For many parents, the race talk is as difficult as the birds and the bees talk. Dr. Tatum attributes this awkwardness to a lack of communication about race in many of our own childhoods. "There are concerns about saying the wrong thing and sounding racist, even if that is not the intent." says Dr. Tatum. "Sometimes parents naively believe that if they talk about issues of race with their children, they will cause them to notice race in a way that they did not before."
Look for teaching moments
Not sure how to get the conversation started? If your child comments on different skin colors, that's an easy in. Children's books that discuss race are also a gentle introduction. Or, you can look for subtle openings in everyday life. "I was cooking with my 3-year-old," says Dr. Tatum. "We used the last white egg in the carton, and then took out another carton of eggs, this time brown eggs. My son noted that the eggs were different in color. 'Yes,' I said, as we cracked both eggs open, 'But look—they are the same inside. Just like people, they come in different shades, but they are the same on the inside.'"
Make the message age-appropriate
For preschoolers, use concrete examples, like the egg example above. Since even young children can understand when something is unfair (how many times have they lobbed the "not fair!" charge at you?), you can break down slavery (or segregation) for them: Slavery happened a long time ago, but holding people captive and making them work without paying them is unfair. So slavery ended, because many people thought it was unfair and worked to change it. "I think it is important to emphasize that no racial group is all bad or all victims," says Dr. Tatum. "For example, in the US, white people were slaveowners, but white people also worked against slavery. Black people were enslaved, but many resisted their mistreatment by running away and helping others escape. Offering examples of people working together is also important."
Accept that prejudiced comments may happen—and that doesn't mean your child is racist
If your kid makes a questionable remark, don't freak. "Children often repeat what they hear others say, and it doesn't necessarily mean that the child believes it," says Dr. Tatum. "Ask questions. 'What made you say....?' Gently dispute the stereotype or prejudiced attitudes. 'I've heard people say X about Y, but my experience with Y people is...' and give an example to dispute the stereotype."
Most importantly, be a role model
"The best way to reduce children's prejudices is to model an inclusive home, demonstrating that you have friends of all backgrounds," says Dr. Tatum. "Parents who have learned to lead multicultural lives, connecting with people different from themselves, are more likely to have children who develop those important life skills at an early age."
As for my own little stumble, we've recovered. Hanging out together on Martin Luther King Day, I asked Chloe if she knew who Dr. King was, and somehow she did. We talked about the work he did, and how unfair it is to treat someone badly just because they have different color skin. And then we went back to coloring.