September 28, 2013

Supporting Healthy Racial Identity in Our Mixed Race Kids: Early Elementary School, Part 1

A few months ago I shared some thoughts on helping biracial toddlers and preschoolers develop a healthy racial identity. Actually, it was more of a post about laying the foundation for healthy racial identity, because little ones aren’t particularly aware of race. I used my “mixed race family Bibles” – I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla by Dr. Marguerite Wright and Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? by Donna Jackson Nakazawa – as resources for the post. Both do a fabulous job of explaining how kids understand race developmentally and what it means for raising our multiracial kids. 

Since my oldest is now in elementary school, I decided it was time to re-read the chapters on what to expect with kids in early elementary school (grades K-2 or ages 5-8). I highly recommend Wright’s and Nakazawa’s books, but here I'll boil down 60 pages or so of great information into a cheat sheet of key points. 'Cause I'm looking out for you guys like that. And I know many of you are parents of white children who are sensitive to making sure they grow up to embrace people of all backgrounds. Keep reading, fabulous allies! You may find some of this information helpful, too.

Photo courtesy of Philippe Put via Creative Commons.
There is a lot to cover here, so I'm going to break it down into two posts. Today we'll talk about what kids this age understand about race and what to expect. Tomorrow I'll get into what we can do as parents and caregivers to support healthy racial identity development.

What Do Young School-Age Kids Understand About Race?
  • They may start to adopt “adult like labels” (like black rather than brown) and understand skin color as a concrete way to categorize people. For instance, if asked to sort pictures into families, kids this age will generally use skin color as a guide. Unlike younger kids, they realize that skin color can’t magically be changed (like when Zip was little and suggested we paint me brown).
  •  They can understand being multiracial, because their ability to use categories is becoming more complex and they can grasp the idea of belonging to more than one group at a time. (I thought my 3-year-old understood this already, until he informed me the other night, "Momma, you have brown inside," inaccurately applying my explanation of how he is made up of both me and his daddy. It was pretty darn cute, though!)
  • But they don’t consistently use racial categories accurately, because they don’t yet understand all of the features that, taken together, are used to determine race. So, for instance, a child this age may have difficulty grasping that a light-skinned person is “black.” A very light-skinned child may even say he is white, because he still sees skin color in a concrete sense and doesn't yet fully understand his racial identity.  Even if they can parrot this information ("I'm African-American"), young kids typically don’t (and can’t) truly “get” it.
  • More importantly, children this age don’t attach social meaning to these racial labels or categories.  They may sense that there is something “more” to race and skin color, even that various shades of brown matter in some way to the world around them, but they don’t yet understand how or why. That is something that must be taught - because race is a social construct, not an intrinsic one. 
  • Kid this age, even those from mixed families, tend to expect that members of a family will “match.” Why? Because, in general, this matches their experience of the world: Most families are the same color.

A Little Example
As a little experiment of racial understanding, I decided to ask my almost-7-year-old a couple of questions. His responses definitely reflected young children's difficulty understanding the complexity of race. 

Me: How do you know if someone is African-American? Is there a way you can tell?

Zip: Well, sometimes they have brownish skin. More dark skin.

M: What race am I?

Z: White. Well, kinda whitish-tan. You're not white-white. More like tan. (So, he gets that Momma is white and that is a 'race' but quickly starts getting confused. You're white...but not really...because you're tan...)

M: Have you ever heard someone say someone is "white"?

Z: Yeah! Some people look almost white. Like they are super-super light tan. 

M: So, figuring out what race someone is, maybe you would look at what color their skin is. But there might be other things too. It might be hard to tell just from looking at someone, right?  

Z: Like, sometimes you can tell from what language they speak. If they speak in a different language, you can tell. (Still not sure what race is all about, here Zip is equating race with being from a different country.)
Our conversation was a great illustration of how, although my son knows he is African-American and understands that people come in many colors, he doesn't really understand race as a more complex concept.

What Parents Can Expect
So what should we expect as our kiddos go off into the great big world of elementary school? 
  • First of all, rest at ease, mommas and poppas. They probably won’t experience racism from their classmates in the early grades. I worried about this when Zip started kindergarten, but as far as I can tell race hasn't come up at all at school. (There was one situation where my husband and I needed to approach the school about an activity we felt was problematic, but Zip wasn't bothered by it at all.) Since most young schoolchildren don’t attach social value to skin color, they aren’t likely to use it in a hurtful way. According to Dr. Margeurite Wright, most children of color have their first negative experience with peers between grades 2 – 5.  That said, it is possible that they will hear something hurtful from adults or older children, or a child who has been overly sensitized to race at a young age.
  • Kids this age are curious. They point out what they see and ask lots of questions. Our kids may get asked questions or hear comments from peers that relate to race, but those questions are most likely being asked out of curiosity, not maliciousness. I remember one evening when Zip’s best friend was over for a visit. “You sure do have a lot of brown in your family!” he remarked. Yep, we sure do! He wasn’t trying to be rude and meant nothing hateful by his comment – he was just pointing out what he saw. So this is an interesting balancing act. On the one hand, our kids may start feeling singled out or different from their peers, especially if they are one of few mixed kids at school and get a lot of questions. For some kids, this may be uncomfortable and impact their developing identity. On the other hand, if our kids have a strong sense of self and we can help them appreciate their peers' questions as natural curiosity, as well as set good boundaries with others, perhaps it won't be a negative experience. (This is just my own hypothesis.)

  • Lastly, “not matching” as a family is a common theme at this age, especially if others point it out.  This has the potential to be an emotionally charged issue. The worst case scenario is that others refuse to acknowledge that parent and child belong together, like last spring when the white father of three biracial girls was reported to the police for suspected kidnapping. But it is more likely to come up in more mundane ways, such as other people questioning the relationship between parent and child ("Are you adopted? Is that really your mom?"). Kids will often express a wish to look like one of their parents and you’ll need to figure out what this means. It may have nothing to do with race at all – simply wanting to look like someone they love (much like a child would wish for curlier hair or to be tall like a certain parent). But of course it could also reflect ambivalence about “not matching,” if the child is getting singled out by others for this reason. If your child repeatedly expresses a desire to be a different color, try to understand why. A common reason for a child persistently wanting to be another color is that they are experiencing a race-related problem with others, such as being teased at school or rejected by a family member on the basis of color, and that of course needs to be handled, pronto.
 Does this fit with your experience? I'd love to hear! Tune in tomorrow for Part 2, focusing on what we can do as parents and caregivers to promote healthy racial identity in our young school-age kids!

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