The events of the last few weeks may have surprised and opened up the eyes of many, but for me it’s nothing new. I listened to Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah Winfrey about how members of the royal family were concerned about the complexion of their son’s skin. While it was sad, it was unfortunately not surprising to me. It sounds like what I have experienced within the Indian community—it is called “colorism.” It’s essentially prejudice that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin, especially within a racial or ethnic group. This is something I experienced not just as a child but also in my adult years. While there have been great strides made, we still have a long way to go.
The attacks in Atlanta that killed 8 people and injured many more, with the majority of the victims being Asian- Americans. The police said the “shooter had a bad day.” How can that be said when someone goes on a rampage and takes the lives of 8 innocent souls? This is a clear example of people of a particular race being more protected in the US while minority groups' lives are not as valued. How can someone who kills be described as “having a bad day?” If the tables were turned-- if the shooter was a minority and the victims were white-- I think the narrative would be quite different.
These horrible events found me asking myself, what can I do for my children? How can I help others who want to make a difference in themselves and for their children?
To start, I’ll share a personal experience I had a few months ago. A white colleague of mine used the term “colorblind.” She said she “raised her children to be colorblind”—and I know she said it with sincere intentions. However, saying you are “colorblind” in how you see race is part of the problem.
For white parents in particular, raising inclusive children should not mean raising them to be colorblind. Even with good intentions, it can create the perception that all races have the same experience, the opportunities for success, and in turn denies that systemic racism exists.
It is important to raise kids to see color, embrace each other's differences, be curious to learn more about one another's lived experiences and backgrounds, and recognize that the playing field is not level. It is important to teach them that racism has existed in our country since its founding (from the Native Americans and continued with other people of color groups), and unfortunately that it still exists today.
As a child of color who moved to this country when I was 4 years old, I felt the realities of racism acutely living in a majority white town, where I was the only one who looked like me. Every day, I wished I could change my hair and skin color just to fit in. It wasn't until we moved to a town with racial diversity that I felt a sense of belonging in America. But racism didn't stop there, I have experienced it at work and in social settings, and oftentimes I left the conversation feeling sad but did not always speak up.
Living in diverse cities does not exclude racism- My daughters experience ignorant comments despite living in one of the largest cities in the US. People wonder, how can that happen? One reason is because we are still the minority population and the school children are intrigued by my daughters being different. Which is great! However, no matter how much diversity is around you, children need to learn about how to be curious and accepting versus thinking that how they are raised is the way everyone else is being raised.
Hence, even when diversity is around us, there are still majority and minority populations. It is still the role of the parents to ensure their kids are taught to have an open mind and be curious, and see people for who they individually are rather than assume that everyone is the same.
“Colorblindness denies the lived experiences of other people.” – Samantha Vicenty
This quote comes from a great article I read in Oprah magazine recently in relation to being “colorblind,” an idea that took hold after the civil rights movement. This article is for adults (not for kids), but it goes deep into the roots of colorblindness as a concept, and beautifully explains why it is flawed. It is a great, simple read that can provide some context on why the “colorblind” mindset ties to racism and discusses how to actively move from there to becoming anti-racist. Here is a short excerpt I found particularly compelling:
“Unfortunately, however, I can say firsthand that some people still really don't want to talk about it. At all. They'll be the first to tell you they don't have a racist bone in their body, and they don't care if you're white, black, purple, or blue, etc. In fact, they say, they're "color blind"—meaning, they don't even see race. And that refusal to see it often goes hand-in-hand with an urgent desire to stop discussing racial disparities as soon as possible.”
So, why start these discussions now? While children at young ages have started to be conditioned to racial bias, they are also especially capable of reprogramming and overcoming those biases. Sad to say that a lot of those biases start at home and hence can be stopped at home. Black parents and other people of color do not have the luxury of not talking about racism, because their children are likely to experience it every day. But we should all be talking to our children about racism.
While there are many approaches to raising your children to be antiracist, here is what I do with my 5 and 4 year old daughters to help them focus on “seeing everyone’s color” and creating an environment of diversity and inclusivity.
1) Racism is an ongoing conversation, not a one-and-done conversation.
2) Take a global approach (see Shyla's video above where she talks about why is it important to learn about the world)
Because Travel Plus Them is based on the idea of raising inclusive global citizens, I also take a more global approach when teaching my children about races, cultures, history, and religions. A question I often receive from parents is, why do you take this approach if the world is so big? It can seem overwhelming to some, but I promise it's worth it. And yes, I do it for that very reason -- the world IS so big! There is SO much we have to learn about each other.
I will be honest and say it was not part of a master plan that I crafted when they were born! It truly became organic over time. Here is how this approach can help you:
3) Read kids’ books with main characters that are not white. Consider how you can diversify your books.
Representation matters. My daughters used to ask me why some Disney Princesses don’t look like them (we are Indian-American). They connected very quickly with Princess Jasmine and Mira, The Royal Detective. Why? Because they look like them! While they love Elsa from Frozen too, it matters to children to see characters that look like them AND see characters that look different from them (just like some of their friends are different from them).
I suggest starting with books whose main characters are not white. Take a look at your bookshelf. Ask yourself some of these questions:
Here are a few great children’s books which feature diverse characters. This will spark their curiosity and acknowledges that characters of all colors matter —and it builds their excitement to learn more.
Can You Say My Name – Author: Meena Kothandaraman (For grades kindergarten - 3)
Ashwini and Avinash attend their first day of school together. Ashwini is worried about her new friends pronouncing her name. Will they say it correctly? Avinash and Ashwini's mother help her have a marvelous first day at school. The teacher joins in to surprise Ashwini as well!
Lakshmi’s Insights- This book particularity hits home and is a great read on how to teach your children to be more inclusive, and that can start with a name. Do not make up nicknames that are convenient, rather learn how to pronounce the name. My name is still mispronounced today and some people never even ask or try to say it properly. When this happens- think about it- how could you feel if the tables were turned?
The Most Beautiful Thing Hardcover – Author: Kao Kalia Yang (For grades Kindergarten - 3)
A warmhearted and tender true story about a young girl finding beauty where she never thought to look.
“Drawn from author Kao Kalia Yang's childhood experiences as a Hmong refugee, this moving picture book portrays a family with a great deal of love and little money. Weaving together Kalia's story with that of her beloved grandmother, the book moves from the jungles of Laos to the family's early years in the United States. When Kalia becomes unhappy about having to do without and decides she wants braces to improve her smile, it is her grandmother―a woman who has just one tooth in her mouth―who helps her see that true beauty is found with those we love most. Stunning illustrations from Vietnamese illustrator Khoa Le bring this intergenerational tale to life.”
It's OK to be Different: A Children's Picture Book About Diversity and Kindness- Author: Sharon Purtill (For grades Kindergarten - 2)
Every Child is Unique! Whether they are big or small, short or tall, like to swim, dance, sing or bike. Perhaps they have a special need or are from a different ethnic background. Maybe they wear glasses or talk differently. The truth is that all children are different and their individuality should be celebrated, not shunned. And this inspiring and brightly illustrated rhyming picture book does just that.
By highlighting the ways kids are different from one another it helps children to accept themselves and others as the beautifully unique individuals that they are. It's OK to be Different encourages kids to be kind and befriend those who are different from themselves, showing young children that they don't have to look alike or enjoy doing the same activities to be kind to one another.
Readers will come away with the message: "You should always be kind to those who are different from you. Because to them, YOU are different too."
Thanks for reading through all this. As I always say, “Even a sprinkle of knowledge can open up a world of curiosity.” As parents, let’s teach our children about the world and all its people. I leave you with what I said to my colleague “please do not deny my color, see it for all its glory.” That is a huge start.