Ask Miriam | Face the Race

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Dear Miriam,

My kindergarten daughter is obsessed with her classmate’s mom. She spends a lot of time in my daughter’s classroom as a volunteer, so my daughter sees her quite a bit. My daughter talks about the mom’s beauty, how she generally likes people who look like her and that she wants to be her for Halloween. The problem is, my family is white, and this family is of another race. In that context, everything my daughter says is exoticizing and inappropriate, but in her 5-year-old mind, she’s giving compliments and looking up to a respected adult. How can I talk to my daughter about this?

Signed,


Talking about Race

Dear Talking,

Not so long ago, talking about race at all was considered taboo in most white circles. White people described themselves as “color blind” as a badge of honor to show how tolerant they were. While I do not wish a return to that scenario, it may actually be helpful for your daughter, at least in the short term. “We don’t generalize about groups of people based on how they look,” is a good starting point.

It’s important to make sure that your daughter doesn’t feel like she’s done anything wrong, though. Being criticized for noticing differences in people is never productive. Instead, next time your daughter talks about this beautiful mom, encourage her to share all the things she finds beautiful about her. If she specifies something that is typically a non-white feature, listen attentively and non-critically.

Then offer that when white people, who are typically the majority, point out things about how people look who are from different backgrounds, it can make people uncomfortable and can be a stereotype or generalization that doesn’t respect people for being individuals. You can also say that sometimes white people talk about those differences as a way to imply that white is “normal” and everything else is “different.” Tell her you want to make sure that she is respecting all people no matter what they look like.

You may also want to talk about treating people with kindness who aren’t beautiful at all, or use this as an opportunity to talk about other kinds of physical differences. Noticing differences and racial differences, in particular, is developmentally appropriate for kindergarteners, and you can follow her lead about how she’s processing these differences. You can also say, “We don’t talk to people about their bodies,” which is also a good life lesson in the context of race but also body image.

I am not an expert in anti-racist education, but there are lots of people who are. Look for resources online about talking to kids about race in an anti-oppression context. Read your daughter books with characters from many different races. Listen to her comments and allow yourself time to respond if you’re not sure how to proceed. It may also be worth knowing more about if/how race is ever addressed in your daughter’s classroom so you have more context for her current experiences.

As for Halloween, that’s a long time from now, and your daughter may well have moved on. If she hasn’t, and she insists on this, it’s possible to dress as an individual person without dressing up as a race of people. The mom may be flattered or confused, and you’d certainly need to get her permission first. Maybe she’d loan you a distinctive item of clothing that your daughter identifies with her. As long as your daughter’s costume focuses on traits not specifically related to her race, this falls within the realm of quirky childhood decisions. If it does come to asking the mom, don’t mention anything about race or your daughter’s feelings towards her beauty, and prepare your daughter that the answer might be no.

Lay the groundwork now for talking about race, stereotypes and appropriation, and future conversations will all have be more productive as a result. You can’t stop your daughter from noticing how people look, but you can give her valuable context for how to process those observations.

Be well,

Miriam

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