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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Should We Teach Our Children Black and White?

By Guest Blogger, Kelly Sipe, Kindergarten Teacher at Greensboro Day School

One of the first things we teach our young children is to name colors. There is a great sense of parental pride as we showcase our toddler's acquisition of color knowledge. We ask them to name colors for everyone and everywhere ... at the playground, in the tub, in Target, etc. However, if a child names the color of a person's skin in the grocery store we move quickly to silence them or to divert the conversation, and then proceed to offer apologizes to those around us who may have heard your child's observation.

It is in those moments that we inadvertently pass along a bias to our children. I believe that we react in this way with good intentions. We don't want to embarrass, draw attention to, or hurt anyone's feelings. Although, what we actually do is carry on what our parents passed along to us ... the fear of drawing attention to someone's race and the belief that if we don't talk about it, then our children won't "see" color. We send the message that there is something wrong with noticing a person's skin color.

As a mother, I want my daughter to grow up with a sense of pride in herself. I want her to see and appreciate not only the beauty in her own uniqueness but also in that of others. I grew up in a small city in central Connecticut in the 1970s. In my hometown, neighborhoods had long been established based upon European descent. Each ethnic neighborhood was centered around a church and a grocery. The largest neighborhoods consisted of Polish, Italian and French families. They were a working class of people who worked and played together as a very strong family community.

Once a year each neighborhood would have a festival wherein everyone from the city would come and enjoy "the best" of that culture, whether it be dancing, baked goods, kielbasa and pierogies or music. We had an awareness of what each culture represented and an appreciation of those things. My ancestors were Polish and French. I grew up hearing and learning pieces of both those languages. I took Polish dance lessons. We regularly ate ethnic foods and had very distinct traditions centered around each holiday. Yet, at the same time we all knew that my grandmother's Italian neighbor made the BEST bread on this side of the Atlantic!

When I moved from Connecticut and met my husband, who is from western North Carolina, he was unaware of his ancestry and his family referred to themselves as Southern. I remember feeling that they were missing so much color from their lives by not knowing their ancestry.

I share the story above to preface how important it is to know where you've come from. There is a new show on television entitled just that - "Do You Know Where You're From." Featured celebrities trace their ancestry line to see where they have come from.

In the first episode I watched, Emmit Smith's (retired Running Back for the Dallas Cowboys) journey was spotlighted. He traced his lineage from Florida to Alabama to Virginia (where his family had been sold as slaves) to the exact region in Africa. As Emmit traveled to each of these places he uncovered interesting, enlightening and sometimes difficult stories from his family's past. It was surreal to see just how much the stories of his past were woven into the fabric of who Emmit is as an individual; all without him having had any prior knowledge of that history. The history that Emmit uncovered will no doubt forever change the way he sees himself and others.

Not too long after this show, I had a conversation with my kindergarten students about family ancestry. The children in my class were referencing the fact that Tom had darker skin than the others. I asked all the children to put their fists in the middle of the circle. We examined and compared all of our skin tones. The variations were numerous.

I told the children that a person's skin color is one way to tell where a person's ancestors originated. My fair skin (and once naturally blonde hair) reminds me that my ancestors were from Poland. Tom's skin color reminds us that his ancestors are from Africa. The shape of Suzie's eyes tell us that her ancestor's are from China.

This conversation manifested itself into a discussion of what special traditions (foods, etc.) each child's family has that also remind them of where their ancestors are from. Tom spoke to the class about how the colorful clothing his family wears on special occasions reminds him that his family is from Africa. Our discussion quickly moved from a casual conversation to an "AHA" moment for some students. It seemed to finally make sense to them. Tom's skin color was no longer a thing that separated or defined him, but it was something that made him a little more interesting to know. Many children came back to school the following day, after they had asked their parents where their ancestors were from, ready to share more information about themselves with the class.

If children (and adults!) have a greater knowledge of and appreciation for their own personal history, a sense of pride is rooted. Once you experience that personally, you are open to feeling that for others. We are all "colorful" beings whose cultures and individualities are woven together, whether we chose to recognize it or not. Embrace the history, beauty and diversity all around us. And, next time your child notices the unique beauty in a stranger be open to it and start talking ...

Don't forget to register for our fabulous Mother's Day giveaway! Simply click here to read about our fabulous businesses participating and to register! This giveaway will continue until noon on Friday, May 14th. We will then choose our four lucky winners at random and will contact them to claim their prize. Good luck!


Anonymous said...

Perfect way to explain this to kids. I know it is tough because children will obviously noticed differences, but we need to teach them that differences are a good thing that keeps us all unique!


Elene said...

So true! I also think people should embrace their ancestry! I come from a HUGE Greek family, but my dad married a non-Greek (my mom) and then I married a non-Greek. Of course we love them dearly, but it makes me sad that we are slipping away from so many of the customs and traditions that our family celebrated in the past. I want to honor my relatives by sharing all of these experiences with my children and teaching them how lucky they are to be "part" Greek!

Summer said...

This is a great post Kelly, and I am so glad to hear someone put so elquoently what we struggle with as parents.

Anonymous said...

Love this angle for teaching this to our children. We are a multi-racial famiy and I think it is important for everyone to embrace their skin color and what it means!

Lorraine said...

This really touches my heart Kelly. Your sensitive teachings and open discussion will indeed show the children how their peers can be interesting as well as different, but I truly love the fact that through your methods their innocence can be preserved :)

Robert said...


This is a discussion that parents need to have with their kids. If we want our kids to grow in a colorless society, adults need to have open dialogue. Create a small focus group of parents and kids to share. Good job.

Anonymous said...

Kelly it is great to see that you have an open spirit about addressing this issue. These children are blessed to have someone that is willing to embrace it. It is a difficult but important topic that cannot and should not be ignored. Thank you for your earnest effort.

Muata, The Shadow, The Black Rebel said...

Wonderful! A wonderful READ. Your post somewhat supports a blog post I submitted last evening. Again, this was a wonderful read. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This was absolutely the perfect way to explain the differences to children. However, I really loved the way you focused on the obvious differences - appearances, but more importantly, how you focused on some of the not so obvious - religious orientation. Children are a product of their upbringing, and we as parents owe it to them to explain differences and the acceptance of differences.

Kelly Sipe said...

Thank you for the wonderful feedback! Continue to embrace and enjoy....

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