“Most people have peach skin,” my daughter said. We were standing in line at an ice cream shop in a beach town that’s far whiter than her first grade class, or our Brooklyn neighborhood.
And skin-color was on her mind.
Looking at her own brown arms, matching those of my Cuban-American wife, Amelia went on to say that she wished her skin was not so dark. She wished she was whiter.
My wife did not know what to say. I only heard a snippet of the conversation, and was equally stunned. How did this happen? What should we do?
Many parents struggle with these kinds of questions. Last week we asked for your own experiences at home and at school, and we received an array of emotional responses.
Some parents and educators described conversations about race that started with toddlers. Many others wrote about wanting to have these difficult discussions, but not knowing how or when.
With our shared experiences in mind, I met this week with a group of Mocha Moms, a support group for mothers of color. Just about every one there had a tale to tell, of microaggressions against their kids, of slights or solidarity involving other parents. They praised schools that prioritized conversations about race before incidents happened, and shook their heads at schools that shut down conversations about race, preferring silence or apology.
They also told me that with their own children, they started talking about race early with an emphasis on the positive: telling them that their brown skin was beautiful, sharing with them the stories of black and brown accomplishment and talent.
Donyell Thompson, the mother of a four-year-old son, emphasized that all parents need to understand “the importance of not being colorblind.” She said that talking about race doesn’t have to mean diving straight into police brutality. “You can go to a Japanese restaurant and talk about difference,” she said. “Start there.”
She also pointed me to Dr. Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, who she invited to speak at her own school.
Dr. Stevenson is a leader in racial literacy, and after he guided me through some very depressing research – showing that even before they start school, children absorb cultural messages about race, gender and privilege – he laid out three pieces of advice for parents trying to help their children navigate our oft-cruel world.
Affection: “You want to make statements that affirm who the child is; embrace your child’s difference, and explain how his or her difference is a gift, not a liability even though not everyone will see it as a positive.”
Protection: “Emotional protection is: Let me teach you about the world. Hurtful statements may come at you, and I want you to tell me when that happens, but let me be clear: those are problems with the people saying those things, not with you. It’s their issue, not yours.”
Correction: “You’ve got to counter the narrative. Look for opportunities around you. It could be cartoons. Do you notice that all the people making the decisions in this cartoon are male?”
That night, I asked my daughter why she said she wanted to be whiter than she is, reminding her that some of her favorite role models, from gymnastics to music, also had brown skin. She seemed more comfortable talking about it than I was; she told me about an incident in kindergarten where a Brazilian girl she knew told a black friend of hers that he couldn’t play with them because he was black.
It wasn’t a perfect conversation, but it was a start.
“I think of it as a skill,” Dr. Stevenson had told me. “You wouldn’t do one night of algebra homework and expect to know all of algebra. It’s the same with race. Practice, practice practice.”
For a little help with that, scroll down to our diverse reading list for kids of all ages. Tell us what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a parent and an educator. Every day I see children suffer because of their race. They go without so many basic things and while it looks like a result of socio-economic issues... I can't ignore that most of the haves are white and the have-nots are black.
I have not discussed much about race at home or with my students. I don't want to give my daughter a complex because she attends a majority-white school. I don't discuss it with my own students because I want my job.
If I could be honest, I would tell both my students and my daughter that there are people out there who think less of you because you are black. They think you aren't as smart, aren't as hard working or as worthy of success as they are. Why? Because their families used to own our families. Why would I tell them this? Because they need to know why things are the way they are. I work in a majority-black school and I don't see nearly enough done to lift the esteem of these often destitute black children.
My school doesn't really openly talk about race. We are seen as being a diverse school because we have a large population of African-American students, but the problem is we have a lot of self-segregation. I think we still see race as a taboo topic. We have a really great newspaper at my school and occasionally, they will do really good articles on the topic of race in the classroom, but those articles don't cause much change and there are very few people of color on the newspaper staff.
My school is sometimes seen as having two schools within it: one for white students and one for black students. I think if my school talked about race, we could have a better environment in our classes.
– Ali Bouterse / 17 / Caucasian / Atlanta
There are daily occurrences that prompt discussions of race with my child. Every day she is faced with the negative imagery and society’s acceptance of a racial slur. The continued use of redskins and the images used projects the impression that her culture and history are not respected by the community. We have worked so hard to keep our culture alive only to have those around us tell us that we are being just too sensitive and that our feelings are irrelevant.
No one in schools or in the broader community addresses these issues. Once a year at Thanksgiving the American Indian community is deemed important enough to give a partial history lesson rather than celebrating our continued culture and the people we have become.
– Caitlin Wesaw / American Indian / Washington, D.C.
What is extremely upsetting and discouraging is the lack of progress made I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. I immigrated to American when I was 7 years old. I, along with my parents did not speak any English at the time and were not aware of the many cultural nuances of being an American (i.e. clothing, food, etc.) So I can see how I stood out and was victim to racially motivated bias or bullying in school. However, my children are fully “American” as any other child in this town having the benefit of our education, wealth, cultural and English fluency.
And yet, my boys are asked by their peers about their race when no other white kid is asked the same question. One white mother shared with me that her son was concerned about being invited to dinner by my child because he assumed we would serve something that was foreign to him. I made chicken parmesan and pasta. This may be a benign symptom of his ignorance but it manifests itself in other ways in the classroom and on the playground.
– Bob Kim / 45 / Korean-American / Chatham, N.J.
I am a parent, and a Social Justice Consultant for schools where I do trainings on race and equity for teachers, administrators and families. My partner is a black literature teacher for DC public schools. We frequently talk to our 4 year old about race and our students.
My daughter's school doesn't talk about race, even though I have done trainings for them. Other schools I work with have a difficult time talking about race, especially as schools are gentrifying. What I can clearly see, however is that most people want to talk about it, they just don't know how.
– Iris Jacob / black / Washington, D.C.
A Diverse Reading List
By Maria Russo, children’s books editor, The New York Times Book Review
The movement calling for more diversity in children’s books has been gaining momentum in the last couple of years, and publishers are responding. There is still a big gap – now as in the past, the vast majority of American children’s books published feature white protagonists – but we’re seeing a greater number of books by diverse authors and featuring children of different races, ethnicities and abilities. We Need Diverse Books is the unofficial home of the movement, and their web site is a good resource for reading lists and other useful news and information.
Here is my own list of some great kids books with diverse characters – some classics and personal favorites, along with some new titles generating excitement.
Picture books: Ages 3 - 8
The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. This timeless 1962 Caldecott Medal winner – a simple, elegant celebration of a small child’s first experience of snowfall – was the first full color picture book with an African-American child at its center.
A Poem for Peter, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Lou Fancher. Set to be published November 1, this book tells the story of how Keats came up with the idea for “The Snowy Day” after seeing striking photographs of an African-American boy in Life magazine years earlier.
Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson. This emotional and thought-provoking picture book won the Newbery Award last year – only the second time a picture book has won that prestigious prize for the best overall children’s book. It’s the story of an African–American boy named CJ who rides the bus every week with his grandmother, who makes him turn his complaints into gratitude and positivity.
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration, by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome. This beautifully written and illustrated book uses the image of a rope passed from generation to generation to convey the experiences and connections of African-Americans through the generations.
Freedom Over Me, by Ashley Bryan. Just published, this heart-rending book is the answer to the question of whether and how the subject of slavery can be presented to young children. Bryan tells the personal stories of 11 real-life enslaved people who were about to be sold, each in the form of a simple and direct poem accompanied by a portrait.
Thunder Boy Junior, by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales. Alexie, the much-heralded author of adult and children’s books about Native American life, wrote this book because he couldn’t find picture books about Native children that were set in the present. It’s the story of a boy who doesn’t like sharing his name with his father, so in the Native American tradition, he sets out picking a new one for himself based on his accomplishments and passions. The Mexican illustrator, Yuyi Morales, adds lively, captivating illustrations that reveal more about Thunder Boy’s family.
Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote, by Duncan Tonatiuh. A riveting modern fable by the talented young Mexican artist Tonatiuh, this book won the Pura Belpre award in 2013. It tells the story of a rabbit family who face hardships when they try to migrate to the north after their lettuce fields dry up.
A Piece of Home, by Jeri Watts, illustrated by Hyewon Yum. Published this year, this is an elegant, sweet example of a contemporary immigration story. It’s about a boy named Hee Jun who faces daunting challenges when has to move with his family from Korea to West Virginia, becoming suddenly a “different” kid instead of just one of the crowd.
Middle grade: ages 8 to 12
The Birchbark House series, by Louise Erdrich. Among the many amazements of the brilliant Louise Erdrich’s body of work is this series of novels for middle graders – but perfectly wonderful for adult readers as well – set in the 1800s among the Ojibwe people of Minnesota. We follow a girl named Omakayas as she and her community must adapt their traditional ways of living after the arrival of white people onto their lands.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander. This 2015 Newbery Medal winner is a novel in verse about two African-American, basketball-playing twin brothers who face a year of changes when they begin to drift apart. Among its many charms is Alexander’s smooth infusion of hip-hop energy and love of language into a story about sports, family and racial identity.
American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang. The first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, this 2006 book is really three cleverly interwoven tales: a classic Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King, the story of a Chinese-American boy named Danny, growing up in San Francisco, and a white boy who tries to disavow his embarrassing Chinese cousin, but turns out to be the alter-ego of Danny himself as he struggles to accept his identity.
One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia. This witty and original 2010 novel won many awards including a Newbery Honor. Set in 1968, it’s the story of three sisters from Brooklyn who travel to Oakland, California to visit their estranged mother, who has joined the Black Panthers.
The Year of the Dog and The Year of the Rat, by Grace Lin. These gentle, affecting books are about the everyday life of a Taiwanese-American girl named Pacy, who must navigate her Asian family’s traditions and expectations with the complications and demands of an American childhood. Lin’s own lovely drawings are scattered throughout the books.
Ghost, by Jason Reynolds. This just-published book about a troubled boy called Ghost who joins a track team and discovers his inner strength was recently named to the shortlist for this year’s National Book Awards. Reynolds tells a story of about African-American life in a struggling neighborhood with grace, humor and an addictively readable voice. It’s the start of a series that will feature other members of Ghost’s track team.
The Thing About Luck, by Cynthia Kadohata. This National Book Award winner is about a 12-year old Japanese-American girl who’s forced to live with her old-fashioned, demanding grandparents for a long, hot summer of wheat harvesting in the Midwest. As generations and cultures clash, it’s funny and touching in equal measure.
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson. This hypnotic memoir in free verse renders Woodson’s childhood and family history as a gorgeous hybrid of migration tale, coming of age story, and meditation on African-American history. Winner of the 2014 Newbery and other awards, this is a book that readers of any age, from elementary school to adult, will relate to and treasure.
Ambassador, by William Alexander. This book artfully blends a realistic take on the life of an undocumented family with a fantasy story set in outer space. It hinges on the multiple meanings of the loaded word "alien," which many authors have played around with, none better than the Cuban-American Alexander.
Young Adult – ages 12 and up
Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass,by Meg Medina. This multiple award-winning 2013 book has been challenged in some schools because of its language (and its title), but it remains an essential novel about teen bullying and the lingering effects of abuse in families. Medina’s Piddy Sanchez is a high school sophomore who faces cruel treatment by Yaqui, who thinks the ambitious Piddy doesn’t act Latina enough.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Two Mexican-American high school boys explore life’s big questions and their own multiple identities in this moving novel. It was published in 2012 but has a beautiful, timeless feel.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. This wonderfully gritty, revved-up semi-autobiographical novel by Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and traces his ancestry to several tribes, won a 2007 National Book Award. It has gone on to become pretty much essential reading about the high school experience and contemporary Native American life.
Darius & Twig,by Walter Dean Myers. The late Myers, one of the greats and a champion of diversity in children’s books well before the cause got mainstream attention, is at his elegant, heartfelt best in this 2013 novel. It’s about two friends growing up in Harlem, one a writer, one an athlete, facing daily challenges and trying to dream of a brighter future.
Tyrell, by Coe Booth. This 2006 novel gained mainstream attention for the kind of characters the literary establishment has rarely seen -- yearning African-American teenagers whose lives unfolded in housing projects, shelters and the streets. Coe’s patient, lyrical narration reveals their emotional depths as they try to get by and forge meaningful bonds with each other.
Saving Montgomery Sole, by Mariko Tamaki. Tamaki’s slim, satisfying story about an “outsider” teenager drawn to the supernatural unfolds in an effortlessly diverse California landscape, featuring lesbian moms and a racial and ethnic mash-up that will be familiar to young readers in much of the country.