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Responding to race and privilege comments from children


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My ballet-obsessed daughter has recently been taken with Misty Copeland. She's watched her dance videos, read several books about her and one by her, and recently has watched her Ballerina's Tale movie several times. We've talked a lot about issues of race and body image as they've come up in the movie, and she's come to the conclusion that she wants to be black. Beyond laughing a little bit and explaining that she can't change her race (she's an extremely fair-skinned kiddo with blond curls and bright blue eyes...), I feel like there's more that needs to be discussed here, but can't come up with the right ideas or words. I wouldn't mind her saying she wishes she were black, if her reason was something like "because black women are so beautiful/smart/strong/etc" or something complimentary, and I'd laugh and agree that black women are beautiful and we'd move on to the next thing (which is usually dancing... lol). But her main reason for wanting to be black is so that she can be like Misty Copeland and set an example for other underprivileged, black kids to show them that they really can do anything with their lives. Problem is that she's not underprivileged and has never known real hardships, and I feel like her sentiments, while sweet and innocent, are almost the epitome of white privilege. 
 
She's only 7, so I certainly don't want to come across as negative or admonishing her. But I feel like there's something here that needs to be explained and talked about, and she's smart enough that I think she'd want to know that her comments *could* possibly be viewed as offensive... But I'm left with a lot of questions: *Is* it actually offensive to hear a privileged, white person talk about how they wish they were black so that they could be a good role model to other blacks? Or is it "just" childhood naivete? Is this actually a "problem" you would address or would you just carry on and try to address it if it lingers and/or when she's older? Something in my heart feels the need to explain that, as amazing as Misty Copeland is, she would probably not have *chosen* to have the struggles she's had being a black ballerina, and ... and here's where I just can't put into words what I actually want to say! That it's kind of like telling a sick person that you envy them because of all the time they have off of work? To envy someone because of their hardships is just backwards - but she's young and I really need help figuring out how to talk with her about this.
 
Please don't quote. I'm not sure I've said things the way I want to (I'm tired and my head is spinning), and I'd like be able to edit this later if *I* somehow have inadvertently written something offensive.
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I would chalk this up to childhood naïveté and emphasize that anyone can be a role model to others and that you don’t have to change who you are to do it.

I think it’s also ok to say that being the first in any arena is a tough thing to be/do. Sometimes in following our passions/gifts we become trailblazers but that’s not necessarily the goal. It can actually be quite burdensome.

You might also shift from that to talking about her passions and suggest some ways she could blaze a trail in her own way and give to/do for others as she is able.

I don’t think any more explanation than that is necessary at that age.

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I second the response above about it being a passing thing of little kids. My 8 year old plays 'poor' & on some level it rubs me the wrong way but in the end I know it's a passing imaginary outlet for her. She a bi-racial kid so race topics are upfront, honest and open (but age-appropriate) dialogues. If anything, I'd focus more on gender, which is even more basic than race, & encourage her to see 'girl power' as a motivating force. 

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Thanks all! It's true that it just rubs me the wrong way, even though I know she's still young! ?

On 6/14/2018 at 5:51 AM, OKBud said:

My kids seem to have a penchant for saying THE most awkward things (about race/bodies/sex/religion/etc). And, like with your DD, it's all in complete innocence and naivety. After a few false starts when they were really young, in which I really just did not know what to say, but really didn't want to leave it all unaddressed, I finally just started talking to them all.the.time. about all this stuff. 

That chapter in Nurtureshock about how parents need to explicitly talk about race with their kids (not just lead by example) really struck me, and I've expanded it to everything else. My kids think out loud (which, I really wish they wouldn't but I digress) and some of the stuff that has come flying out of their mouths is truly unbelievable.

So in your situation, throughout several conversations I'd want to touch on **my own thoughts** about racial privilege in America, about how the way information is presented--even in documentaries-- can be used to invoke emotional responses, about how we can (must) admire people without trying to co-opt their experiences, about how lucky it is to not have racial adversity to overcome to be able to dance to the fullest extent of her abilities, and ways we can support people for whom that is not true, about the "sneaky" nature of jealousy and how it begins with comparing yourself to others instead of having your own standards to live up to... and so on and so forth.

I'd start talking and never stop, basically. I don't tell my boys how to feel, or what to think; I tell them how I feel and what I think. I don't tell them they're offensive-- having never BEEN offended, they don't even know what that means, really. I have had to tell them not to say blatantly hurtful things directly to someone because obviously that hurts other people's feelings.

Don't be afraid to just start saying what's on your mind around sensitive issues. And hugs! It's nice that you're trying to think this through, and your dd sounds very sweet. 

This child also thinks out loud and says very awkward things in public... lol. Great thoughts on just talking about how I feel and think, though. 

21 hours ago, EKS said:

Have you seen this video?  It may be a concrete way to introduce the idea of privilege.

I have and thought it was good. I wasn't trying to get into the actual issue of privilege with her, but more wanted to address her sentiments, and noted that they seemed to be coming from a really privileged place, if that makes any sense? I'll remember this video as we keep having this conversation. It's been ongoing for about the last week, so I'm sure we'll have plenty more opportunities to talk. ?

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Well, if it was my kid, I would not be going into any big discussions on privilege, white or otherwise.  I would praise her for wanting to do good and help people and explain that we each have different ways we can accomplish that.  And while we all have our role models and people we respect and admire, we certainly don't need to look like them.  I would also mention that there are plenty of white kids who are just as poor and could use help and encouragement. 

But that's just me....

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We talk and talk and talk.

I wouldn’t ever make my kid feel bad for expressing sentiments like your daughter, but I would probe some of the underlying issues. Yes, it’s great this person can be a role model to young Black kids... what things do we know she experienced herself that help make her a role model? Is there anything glossed over in the information we know that could be expounded upon? Are those experiences you would like to have? What are the positive and negative experiences that made this person who they are? Why do you think Black children need role models like this, in contrast to White children?

I believe that race, and racism, need to be addressed directly. There’s a pile of research saying that “color blind” actually fosters racism in young children. And I resisted discussing issues with my daughter when she was younger, until I realized that all my friends who had non-White children were already needing to discuss these same issues with their very young children.

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KlmvmuxzYE

 

Is also a good video on privilege, but I would be careful with discussing this at her age.  What you have to remember is that you are coming from an adult point of view.  We often forget how children think because we no longer think that way. 

 

remember the day a white boy around my same age 6 or 7 said that everything black was the N word.  I went home and started calling our dog that.  My mother was upset.  She asked me what did you call her and I repeated without a problem.  She said she realized then that she needed to calm down and find a way to explain to me why that word was wrong.  She asked me and I told her why.

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I wouldn't stress about it. She's seven. Seven is very young, brains are immature, lived experience is short.

She's innocent and naive, and that is OK.

If this were a teenager, I would be looking to widen her understanding.

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I think that you should talk with her about race and the meaning of privilege because you don't know how these thoughts will lay a foundation for what she believes in the future. 

I remember learning about American History in school and thinking that white people were evil for what they did to the Native Americans and then to the slaves. Now that was young, immature thinking. But I grew up in a black neighborhood and had nothing around me to tell me or teach me any different. And history is so poorly taught in this country - they try to glaze over those points in history - that this was the impression that stayed with me. So unless you talk with her, you don't know what her underlying understanding of these topics are or what has been planted about them. It wasn't until years later, maybe middle school years, when I started to learn more about the civil rights movement when I saw white people marching with Dr. King and I was like - wait, I thought white people hated black people. In high school, I dug deeper and read about white abolitionists who died protecting black people and I remember being upset because I was left with one impression in elementary school and wondered why no one had ever taught me the whole story. I was learning the whole story on my own - through my own voluntary reading. We try to avoid the subject of race in this country and ignore the past and I think that is the reason things are still lingering. 

As for your child's age, you know her better than we do, but I can tell you for a fact that African Americans don't have the privilege of waiting to teach our children about race until they are in their teens. They experience things, see things, hear things much earlier than that. My children 9 and 11 already have a pretty good idea of race relations in this country. If I told you the things that we have to teach our children you would think I was paranoid, but turn on the TV and you would know that I am not and that's not even half of it. We don't have a choice or our kid may be the next one to make the nightly news or arrested or beaten or, ... Basically, what I am saying is that non-whites have had to teach their children at very young ages for generations and those kids have been able to handle it, so I am sure that your child would as well.

You could also talk about how everyone has different life experiences and how some people use their life experience to try to make things better for people who come behind them. She will have life experiences and she can use those to help others like her. You can also champion causes that you are passionate about even if that is not your experience as the white abolitionist did. You do not have to become poor to help the poor, or Hispanic to help Hispanics, etc... Honestly, I wish there where more white people that came to my neighborhood and did good things bc my perspective of white people at that young age would have been better.

FYI: I have outgrown that, but it wasn't easy and my children have friends of all races. 

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1 hour ago, RenaInTexas said:

As for your child's age, you know her better than we do, but I can tell you for a fact that African Americans don't have the privilege of waiting to teach our children about race until they are in their teens. They experience things, see things, hear things much earlier than that. My children 9 and 11 already have a pretty good idea of race relations in this country. If I told you the things that we have to teach our children you would think I was paranoid, but turn on the TV and you would know that I am not and that's not even half of it. We don't have a choice or our kid may be the next one to make the nightly news or arrested or beaten or, ... Basically, what I am saying is that non-whites have had to teach their children at very young ages for generations and those kids have been able to handle it, so I am sure that your child would as well.

 

And this is what I have heard from every single person of color that I know in real life: they start having these conversation much, much earlier than any of my white friends, by necessity. While I don't think that *necessarily* means white kids have to learn about it as early (a child might learn about abuse firsthand because they're sexually assaulted, but that doesn't mean that all children need to understand those kinds of abuses), I do think that I'd rather have real conversations about race organically, as they come up, and not inadvertently act like or communicate that race issues are easy, imagined, or - worst of all - all in the past. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

We talk about luck, because it is much more concrete. Some people are dealt different hands in a game. Life is a game of luck, and while we can change the rules of society, the fact is that not everyone has the same luck. Some people are born rich and part of a majority culture, some are poor and a minority. But more importantly, we talk about stories and histories.

I think that what your daughter is doing is identifying with one particular story and there's no need to tell her that her desire to be like Misty Copeland is a function of white privilege. She is expressing the privilege of a child at this point. It becomes white privilege or wealth privilege when someone maintains that naivete into adulthood thanks to the protection they receive because of their race.

So rather than addressing it as a white privilege issue, I'd talk to her about what made Misty Copeland who she was and what she did with her gifts. It would also be a great time to introduce kid-friendly literature on slavery and the civil rights movement. By introducing narratives of people, as you've seen, and the real history and story, rather than theory, I think you'll be laying a much stronger foundation for cultural understanding in the long run. The concept of privilege--i.e. the phenomenon of confusing the good luck associated with certain traits you have no control over, is probably not going to be fully absorbed at her age.

When my daughter was little she went through a brief period of wanting to be a banana. That was childhood privilege. Total cluelessness. What was helpful was asking what bananas do for a living, and looking more into "what actually is a banana". Her dreams of being a dancer in Peanut Butter Jelly Time videos on YouTube slowly faded in the face of reality.

To the poster who said poor whites face the same problems--yeah, everyone has problems. Bill Gates has problems. Vladimir Putin has problems. That doesn't mean being black is not a different kind of problem that all black people have in virtue of being born black in the US. Don't confuse individual bad luck or class discrimination with racial discrimination. They all exist but they are different things and affect people differently.

And to OP, that's exactly why it has to start on a foundation of concrete history and personal narratives. People are easily confused when they get into discussions about statistics, theory and probability. But when you know the story of being black in the South, the Great Migration, and so on, you realize that talking about white privilege is just so different than talking about wealth privilege. The devil really is in the details, in understanding how deep the problem goes.

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8 hours ago, Tsuga said:

And to OP, that's exactly why it has to start on a foundation of concrete history and personal narratives. People are easily confused when they get into discussions about statistics, theory and probability. But when you know the story of being black in the South, the Great Migration, and so on, you realize that talking about white privilege is just so different than talking about wealth privilege. The devil really is in the details, in understanding how deep the problem goes.

 

So it wasn't chosen deliberately, but this week my kids brought home a library book called new shoes, and so this thread coming up again in light of them asking me to read it tonight is interesting. There's just so much that's hard to explain to children. My 6 yo (the one who started this whole thread) was just really perplexed - why would some people be able to try on new shoes before buying them and some not, so long as both had clean feet/socks? Why go through all the trouble of outlining someone's foot on paper to see if the shoe fit when you can just try them on instead? She didn't give much commentary, but I could just see the wheels turning as she thought about all the questions it raised in her thoughts. Knowing someone's story (even a fictitious person's, but one that was real for many people) really does make a difference. 

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9 hours ago, Tsuga said:

We talk about luck, because it is much more concrete. Some people are dealt different hands in a game. Life is a game of luck, and while we can change the rules of society, the fact is that not everyone has the same luck. Some people are born rich and part of a majority culture, some are poor and a minority. But more importantly, we talk about stories and histories.

I think that what your daughter is doing is identifying with one particular story and there's no need to tell her that her desire to be like Misty Copeland is a function of white privilege. She is expressing the privilege of a child at this point. It becomes white privilege or wealth privilege when someone maintains that naivete into adulthood thanks to the protection they receive because of their race.

So rather than addressing it as a white privilege issue, I'd talk to her about what made Misty Copeland who she was and what she did with her gifts. It would also be a great time to introduce kid-friendly literature on slavery and the civil rights movement. By introducing narratives of people, as you've seen, and the real history and story, rather than theory, I think you'll be laying a much stronger foundation for cultural understanding in the long run. The concept of privilege--i.e. the phenomenon of confusing the good luck associated with certain traits you have no control over, is probably not going to be fully absorbed at her age.

When my daughter was little she went through a brief period of wanting to be a banana. That was childhood privilege. Total cluelessness. What was helpful was asking what bananas do for a living, and looking more into "what actually is a banana". Her dreams of being a dancer in Peanut Butter Jelly Time videos on YouTube slowly faded in the face of reality.

To the poster who said poor whites face the same problems--yeah, everyone has problems. Bill Gates has problems. Vladimir Putin has problems. That doesn't mean being black is not a different kind of problem that all black people have in virtue of being born black in the US. Don't confuse individual bad luck or class discrimination with racial discrimination. They all exist but they are different things and affect people differently.

And to OP, that's exactly why it has to start on a foundation of concrete history and personal narratives. People are easily confused when they get into discussions about statistics, theory and probability. But when you know the story of being black in the South, the Great Migration, and so on, you realize that talking about white privilege is just so different than talking about wealth privilege. The devil really is in the details, in understanding how deep the problem goes.

 

This is what I was trying to get at. This is still a fairly young child so understanding personal stories (and the child's own story) can help lay the foundation for deeper understanding later. Unpacking issues of race and privilege is a long-term proposition and it begins with understanding how individual and collective experiences shape people's lives. I don't expect little white kids to have the same knowledge/experiences as my kids. I do expect them to be willing and able to hear their stories, understand, and believe them.

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I would keep it simple - she cannot become a different race, but she can admire this dancer and recognize that she overcame hardship, and that sometimes hardship is associated with race.  She can explore that and learn more about it.  She can have friends of different races and economic backgrounds, and be a sensitive and compassionate person.  

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She wants to be like her heroine and be someone who people look up to and who makes a difference.  She can't do it by being a black ballet dancer but she can do it her way. 7 year olds have had all sorts of unrealistic to impossible ambitions since the beginning.

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My daughter wanted golden hair and blue eyes for many years. Suddenly, in the last few months, she wants to be a character she has been watching on TV who is black. I suspect the character might actually be half black. Does not matter. Now my daughter wants to look like her. Doesn't bother me. My daughter is using those Barbie dolls now, the ones that look like the current character.  My daughter used to wear princess dresses. Now she has changed the outfit to fit this new character. I am not worried. We have a lot of races and cultures in our family. My daughter most certainly is not a privileged person either. I am not concerned or worried. Misty Copeland does not have a meager life. She may even be considered privileged. So what if your daughter is also privileged. That is great for both of them. But I do not think anyone would be offended by your daughter looking up to and wanting to be like someone of a different race. Did any white person get upset if a black person or Hispanic person wanted to be like them? No. 

 

I will say..there is something that does offend me. Not in this post, but something recent. I found out my mom bought the Jewish doll from American Girl (Rebecca Ruben) and called her Hispanic and gave her to my niece. Well, my niece asked for the doll and calls the doll Hispanic. They have declined to even explain Judaism to her or that Rebecca is Jewish and her story is significant. NOW, if your daughter wanted to pretend Misty Copeland were 100% white and wants to claim no black girl or biracial girl could do what Misty does, that would be not good. That would need a good talking to.

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9 hours ago, Janeway said:

I will say..there is something that does offend me. Not in this post, but something recent. I found out my mom bought the Jewish doll from American Girl (Rebecca Ruben) and called her Hispanic and gave her to my niece. Well, my niece asked for the doll and calls the doll Hispanic. They have declined to even explain Judaism to her or that Rebecca is Jewish and her story is significant. 

 

I don't understand why they would do that? I mean, I genuinely cannot think of a reason why someone would do this... They just don't want their kids to know about judaism? 

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10 hours ago, 4KookieKids said:

 

I don't understand why they would do that? I mean, I genuinely cannot think of a reason why someone would do this... They just don't want their kids to know about judaism? 

I do not think it is so much about not wanting the child to know about Judaism as I think it is stupidity and narrow vision. My mom loved AG and while I was not there for what happened with picking that doll, I am assuming the doll was picked based on looks with no regards to the story. However, we did find out my mom likely had dementia toward the end so hopefully, she was not thinking straight. My sister-in-law, while a nice person for the most part, is not very bright and quite single minded. I am sure she is aware the doll is a Jewish doll, but didn't think anything of it. She just thought the doll looked a lot like her granddaughter and went with it.

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