In a recent episode of This American Life, producer Chana Joffe-Walt recalls how she didn’t know how to respond to her preschooler who, in a bath-time game of running a pretend restaurant, decreed certain items off limits to Jews.
“What am I supposed to say?” Joffe-Walt muses. “I should say something, right? . . . Or is the best approach not to say anything? He’s just having a bath!”
She continues, “It’s your job to teach them about stuff that matters, but . . . they’re little . . . so you have to be careful about saying, ‘Well, let me tell you a story about a man named Adolf Hitler. He would have liked the way you run your restaurant, by the way.”
Joffe-Walt’s story brought me back to how ill-equipped I felt twenty years ago when at a playground with my daughter, Ally, who is white, and her friend, Dory, who is black. They were four years old.
“OK, I’ll be the queen, and you be the slave,” I overheard Ally directing Dory.
I was horrified. And speechless.
“Omigod! Where does she get this?” I thought to myself.
I was pretty sure it wasn’t Sesame Street indoctrinating my daughter about life on the plantation. What was Ally picking up from the culture at large or from us? And more to the point, how should I handle it? A lesson about the legacy of slavery and the power dynamics of white privilege hardly seemed appropriate, nor did shaming my daughter for saying something she probably didn’t intend and Dory probably didn’t hear as racist. Would I make things worse by calling attention to what could just be innocent play?
I was at a complete loss. So I punted:
“Why don’t you be the slave and let Dory be the Queen now?” I suggested lamely to my daughter.
Taking on race with preschoolers seemed beyond my abilities, but I could at least try to balance out Ally’s tendency toward the imperious.
Maybe they traded roles, maybe they didn’t. I can’t recall the outcome on the playground twenty years ago, though I can still feel my shame and my floundering. And also how easy it was to just let it drop, something I did not then recognize as part of my privilege as a white person.
Certainly now that Ferguson, NYC, and Baltimore have pricked the nation’s consciousness, and even conscience, we are far more encouraged to make race part of our national conversation. I like to think if I were raising young kids today, I’d be better equipped. But maybe I’d still feel just as flummoxed by a game of Queen (and Slave) for a Day as did Chana Joffe-Walt in the face of Anti-Semitic Restaurant.
As she points out, “These conversations are how we make our mark on the next generation. They’re also, very often, how we learn how much we do not know.”
It won’t get any easier if we don’t try.
What quandaries have you experienced in talking about race with kids? Moments of cluelessness and awkwardness? Fortitude and forthrightness? How did it go? What have you found helpful/unhelpful?
If you want to delve into this more, keep scrolling. Please feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!
And watch this page for other resources from SF-based writer and therapist Rhea St. Julien and her musician husband Joel St. Julien, parents and activists who walk the walk. (“Talking with Your Kids About Race,” the June 4 event their Stay Woke Parents Collective is hosting, is sold out.)