My son has taken to calling himself Black as he has learned that Black is a culture/ethnic heritage and not necessarily a skin color. At school someone overheard him say, “Cause I’m Black!” when asked if it was him that smelled like vanilla because his hair cream has a minty vanilla scent to it. He said it with resounding pride.
Yesterday, at our celebration meal cherishing the four year anniversary of his adoption, friends of all different hues were gathered around the table and a French woman said that when she arrived in the U.S., she was told not to mention skin color when describing a person. My Haitian friend said that in her house they have tried not to talk about skin color differences too much with their daughter. An eastern European woman said mentioning color is because of racism and that it should not be noted.
I begged to differ with all of these women – in my workshops for parents I offer tools on how to raise children to understand race and racism in our society. Rule number one – NOTICE DIFFERENCE.
If you are identifying a person in a group who happens to have darker skin, then saying “the girl with the brown skin” is not racist. If you dance around this descriptor by saying, uh, she has curly hair or she was wearing a red shirt, you are being absurd. What is racist is when you are describing an incident where skin color doesn’t matter, as in “A Black woman hit me from behind at a stop sign.”
Children notice difference as early as six months old and they also mimic everything we do, so if you are hiding behind some PC version of skin color and are scared to say, the olive complected woman, the brown skin woman, the French woman, or if she was the only white woman there, the white woman, then you are not helping your child understand how come they are noticing difference and you’re not.
By noticing difference we are acknowledging there are differences and these differences weave together into the fabric of our world. And if you are lucky, you live in a world whose fabric is multi-hued. Not only notice difference, celebrate it. When I invited my friends to come light the menorah at our house, they are not only Jewish people, they are people who I’m inviting in to celebrate Judaism with its gifts and history.
When my son and I were recently walking through Chinatown in San Francisco, he noticed the smells as we passed stall after stall of food markets. I told him that to some Chinese children, those smells reminded them of home, just like our home smells are familiar to him. We stopped and looked at the abundance of vegetables and fruit that are not abundant in our supermarket. Pretty soon, my son was noticing many of the differences besides just smell.