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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Should I discuss racism with my toddler?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 22, 2012 at 1:33 PM

This morning on the way to daycare, I asked Luki if we could hold off on our conversation about the weather and the seasons for a few minutes. There was a story on NPR I wanted to listen to. It was an update on the Trayvon Martin saga, a news piece I’ve been following closely with shock and disbelief.

Yes, my first reaction to blatant acts of discrimination continues to be disbelief. Rationally, I know it’s real, I know it happens every single day, but whenever I encounter an actual, tangible example of it… I just… I can’t accept it as commonplace. Really? This poor kid got shot and killed just because he’s black? And the white killer didn’t even get arrested? Really? For real? Am I being punked?

All signs point to yes, for real. That actually happened. In the United States. In 2012.

Perhaps the reason I’m so unsuspecting about discrimination is because my parents never really talked to me about race when I was growing up. My mom loves to tell a story about how, when I was about six or seven, I came home complaining about a little girl who had bothered me at school. A relative heard me mention it and asked, “what color is the girl?” and I responded… “she’s beige with some pink spots.” Back then, white and black were just colors inside my box of crayons.

So far, I’ve taken the same approach with Luki. We haven’t talked about race at all. He’s been exposed to people of all different races in our own family, at his daycare, at church… but he’s never asked me anything about their skin color and I haven’t brought it up. In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to… right? It shouldn’t matter.

But our world is not ideal.

An image from the video Racismo en Mexico
  • An image from the video "Racismo en Mexico"
When Luki was born, I joked with friends and family that I was a little disappointed in how light his skin was. I wanted him to be browner so that he’d look more like me and less like his dad. But now, taking Trayvon Martin into account, I wonder… should I feel relieved that my son might never be perceived as black? Is his lighter skin a built-in bullet proof vest?

Still, Luki has a funny last name, wild curly hair, speaks Spanish, loves to wear his Thomas the Train hoodie… any of those things might deem him “suspicious.”

In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Mary C. Curtis talks about teaching her African-American son rules in order to keep him safe — things like, “don’t run in public” and “don’t talk back to the police.” Should I do the same for my Hispanic child? Should I explain to him that, even though it’s not fair, he needs to tread extra carefully just because of his appearance? Should I begin to talk to him about racism and discrimination so that he’s not as shocked as I am when he encounters it in the future?

When the NPR story ended, I considered trying to explain the situation to my not-quite-three year old, but didn’t know where to begin — instead, we continued our talk about spring and the flowers it brings. But I made a mental note to research it, to figure out how to approach the subject with him. And I hoped that the blooms of spring bring Trayvon’s parents a trace of hope as they fight for justice.

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