Talking about race: You know we're black, right?

Tracey Steer grapples with talking to her daughter about race without making it a big issue.

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Black History Month isn’t a thing in our house—which may sound a bit odd on the surface, coming from a black mom. Race just isn’t something we talk about often, because I don’t want my kids to think of their skin colour as a thing, a weight they carry.

When the subject comes up, I try to answer my kids’ questions in appropriate ways, but some conversations are difficult. Like explaining to my daughter that she is black.

Two years ago, my then-five-year-old wandered into the TV room while I was watching a documentary about Harry Belafonte, a musician and an instrumental figure in the civil rights movement. The timing couldn’t have been worse; on the screen was footage of black people fleeing from ferocious police dogs as hoses were being turned on them. “What are they doing?” she whispered, wide-eyed. Oh, man.

I gently explained about a time when some people didn’t really like brown people very much (I used the word “brown” because at the time she was confused about brown skin being called black—because of crayons, I figure). In simple terms, I explained that many white people didn’t want brown people living in their neighbourhoods, and I told her about segregated schools, lunch counters and drinking fountains.

She blinked. “Are we brown?”

I said we are, but explained these events are nothing she should worry about happening to her. To which she replied: “Because I’m not really brown like you, right?”

Now, this biracial child is fair-skinned—paler than her brother, and not as dark as I am. In the moment, I just shuffled her off to bed. It was all I could do, because I didn’t know what to say. I thought we’d talk about it more another day, but it doesn’t tend to come up in conversation naturally.

I don’t even consider my own sense of blackness very often. I didn’t have many conversations with my parents about it as a child—maybe because both my parents are black and Jamaican, and they didn’t feel particularly oppressed or overlooked growing up in a country where almost everyone looked alike. This weightlessness trickled down to me, even though I was raised in Canada, among a mostly white population.

I’m trying to raise my kids in the same weightless way. I want them to see people and recognize attributes like goodness, kindness and generosity rather than skin colour.

Last February, my daughter once again wandered into the TV room, this time as I was watching a biopic about baseball player Jackie Robinson. Robinson was playing his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the opposing team’s coach was shouting the N-word at every turn.

“Oh no, we do not say that word to people at all,” she stated emphatically, adding that black people are the same as everyone else. Right on, girl! And then: “It’s nobody’s fault if they’re black. They can be black if they want.”

Wait. “Fault”? “If they want”? My eyebrows shot up. “Um, you know we’re black, right?” I said. She looked at me like I was an idiot, and replied, “Of course,” before moving on to another topic, then sauntering out of the room. The moment had passed.

Her sense of blackness will be her own thing to process. She’s now (somewhat reluctantly) identifying as non-white: She recently mentioned that she wished I had white skin so she’d have white skin, too, like nearly all of her classmates. I tried not to cry, because I understand it’s not easy to feel different. Especially when you’re six.

Modelling a life where skin colour isn’t a thing, yet knowing that race can be such a loaded issue is a dichotomy that makes me uncomfortable sometimes—particularly now, when emotions are running high following a series of deaths of black boys and men at the hands of police officers.

I don’t want this to be a thing, because it really isn’t for me and shouldn’t be for anyone; but how my daughter feels about herself is. How she qualifies racial differences is a thing. I’d hate for her to feel less than in any way, but I can’t give her self-esteem any more than I can give it to you. I can only give her the tools with which to construct her own.

Goodness. Kindness. Generosity. These are what I want her to wear with pride.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2015 issue with the headline “Skin deep,” p. 38.

Read more:
16 great Black History Month books for kids
Teach your kids about different cultures
The reality of trans-racial adoption

 

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