children and race

Living in a multicultural country exposes us to new cultures, and broadens our horizons without having to travel far. In London, for instance, you can have a taste of China in China Town, or befriend someone from remote places such as Nepal or Tasmania. Most adults would know how to “behave” in their first encounter with those from a different race or culture. But when it comes to children and race it’s a different story. They are innocent and curious. They speak their mind and do not grasp (yet) the concept of “political correctness” that society requires of us.

We have recently moved from London to a smaller city, where there are few Africans/blacks. One weekend, we went to a gathering with three other families (all white), and something rather amusing happened. A little girl, about 5 years old, got curious about my origins. She first asked where I was from (funny enough, I wrote about origins last week here), and eventually wanted to know why I had brown skin. I burst out laughing straight away. I’d heard other people’s tales of answering that question, but no one has ever asked me why I was brown before!

This little girl asked the question very politely. I had to answer her. So, I said, “God made me this way”. You may think that’s wishy-washy even for a child, but what do you tell a five years old, who does not know where London or Africa is, the reason why your skin is brown. I gave that answer on the basis that she may be familiar with “God” as the creator because her parents are Christians. I could have been wrong. But, she asked no further questions and went on playing with my daughter. So, I guess it made sense to her.

All this happened in our host’s hallway while I was trying to put my little one to sleep (she didn’t go to sleep by the way). It was away from the grown ups/parents. I could only imagine the reaction this girl’s parents would have had, had they been there when she asked the race question. They would have probably told her off or tried to explain by saying they have black friends or apologised over the top… Frankly, I do not know, your guess is as good as mine. But the point I’m making is that it would have been awkward if other adults were around.

This begs the question, when should we talk to our children about races and other differences in human beings such as sexuality and religion? If done successfully, it would surely spare many parents from finding themselves in embarrassing or awkward situations in public. I’m sure that little girl had seen Black people before, but this was probably the first time she got really close to one. She is definitely not alone; there are many others out there.

I’m glad that my child is exposed to people from different backgrounds. We have friends from Africa, Asia, South East Asia, Europe, and Americas. So, the race talk is likely to be easy for me when the time comes (I hope). For those who live in remote and less diverse places, on the other hand, the story might be different. It would be interesting to know whether parents, especially those in the countryside, think about discussing races with their children.

When that little girl asked me why my skin was brown, I did not put much thought into my answer at the time. I was caught by surprise. But when I looked back at the situation, and after laughed about it with my husband, I realised that I should have given her a simple, clearer and better explanation. She deserves a good answer. How would you answer such a question?

Next time I see her, I will try my best to give her a better explanation (with a bit of help from my friends).

Notting Hill Carnival all race welcomed
London Notting Hill Carnival. A place where all races come together