Talking to Kids About Race and Culture

Posted on May 21 2019 - 10:44am by Aubrey

Now that the school year is winding down, I’m starting to reflect on some of the challenges that came my way this year in my son’s Kindergarten class. Grade school (elementary) is a key time when kids start developing their view of the world outside of the home. They are exposed to a new environment, filled with fellow students, teachers and other grown-ups who all have unique stories and come from different backgrounds. Hopefully by the time your child enters a school environment, they’ve already been exposed to various images, cultures, ethnicities, etc… but in school, is when they really get to know and understand the differences (and similarities), that make us all wonderful and unique…and our words matter.

So where is the challenge in this? Well, while I think it’s great for kids to learn about their own background and that of the others surrounding them at school and in our communities, I also feel strongly that it is our right and duty as parents to determine how and when we want to educate and inform our own children about their ancestry and identities. And, that is the “challenge” I encountered this school year.

I actually plan to write a series of posts exploring the several challenges I faced this year in my son’s class. As I look back on the school year, I realize that overall the scope of this “situation” was certainly an exception and not the norm, but I’m also sure I’m not the only one who’s ever faced this issue, so I want to share my experience. You know the saying, “if you see something, say something,” and seriously, when it comes to the safety and well-being of our kids, and something seems out of place or makes you uncomfortable, speak up. Chances are you aren’t the only person who feels that way, and it’s not okay for parents to act inappropriately, especially in a school setting.

On to my story. The first interaction I had with this parent in my son’s class, was about a month into the school year, when this parent approached me to say he told my child what “he is.” The parent proceeded to explain to me he told my son he is a “Pinoy,” and that my son didn’t know what that is. Well, I was certainly taken aback by the comfort level of this parent and the red flags popped up, but I responded by telling this dad that my children are mixed, and they know they are half Filipino. I told him that while the term “pinoy” isn’t derogatory, it’s not one I use, so how would my child know what he was talking about. Beyond that, I explained that right now, at 5-years old, I’m more concerned with my child learning to read and write, than pointing out ethnic differences in people. Think about this… an adult approached my 5-year old child, without ever having spoken to me or my son’s father, to tell him “what” he is.

This initial interaction totally rubbed me the wrong way. First of all, how would this person even know my ethnicity without ever having a conversation with me about it, and why would he think it’s okay to address my son about it. I’ll admit I am hyper-sensitive to comments about race and culture, because often times, people can be straight up offending when inquiring about it. Also, I felt pretty violated that this person had access to my kid and talk to my kid about his race based on assumptions. I feel ethnicity/ancestry is an area where each parent should have their own prerogative and control on how they want to introduce the concepts to their children.

To make matters worse, this parent did not stop his “ignorance” in this conversation or with other comments made in the classroom. I guess this person felt that because he works with many Filipina “Pinays,” he knows all about the culture…because that’s what he told me. I really just tried to brush it off and made a mental note that I didn’t need to further interact with this dad. However, as the weeks went on, this parent continued to make “well-intentioned” racially insensitive comments to other parents in the classroom setting – while volunteering, even going so far as to point out parents who spoke with or without accents. Of course, I couldn’t stay quiet and told him he sounded racist and you just don’t say things like that. He attempted to apologize and I responded by saying, it’s not just about me being offended, but when you make those types of comments people are going to feel a certain way.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of the story with the crisis I was about to face in that classroom, more on that later. However, getting back to the theme of this post, I want to say that I hope as parents we can all respect each other’s cultures and backgrounds. I hope we can all teach and learn to celebrate differences, but not overstep boundaries in the process. Honestly, when they are just entering school, they probably notice the different hair and eye colors, range of skin shades and maybe even the various languages among their peers, but it isn’t until we start to point out and teach the differences, that they would even think too much about it. For the most part, until these concepts are introduced, my kids just accept that we all come in different shapes, colors and sizes…but at the end of the day, we are all the same.