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talking about race at age 5 [Aug. 6th, 2008|05:04 pm]
A New American Family
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Originally published at American Family. Please leave any comments there.

In a comment, AlisonG asked:

I’m curious about how you talk to M and L about Asian appearance. My daughter (Chinese) is 2.5 and I’m searching for terms for her skin colour, eye shape, etc. that don’t come across as racist or offensive. Any suggestions?

I mentioned this in one of the previous posts, but I thought it might be good to elaborate on it a little.

We talk quite a bit about being Chinese or Taiwanesse or Asian and what that means.  It is just a regular part of our day-to-day conversation.  I suppose it might sound weird in other families, but in our house, it is was it is.

For example, last week we had tofu for dinner and this was the conversation:

Mr. A: “L sure is a good Chinese girl! She loves this tofu!”

M: “Do all chinese people like tofu?  Because I like this one but I don’t like the brown kind (dried tofu).”

Mr. A: “Oh, not all Chinese people like tofu, but in China people eat a lot of tofu.  Even if you don’t like tofu, you are still Chinese because I am Chinese.”

M: “Well, that brown kind is yucky.  I like RICE because I am Chinese, right Daddy?”

Mr. A: “Lots of people in China eat rice, that’s for sure.  The rice we buy comes from China.  People in China eat a lot of rice, but they also eat a lot of noodles.”

Yada, yada, yada.  (I should note that I often let Mr. A handle these conversations about what Chinese people are like, because I think it is his perogative to define “chinese” not mine.)
M doesn’t really have a handle on racial identification based on appearance yet, which is why I was so surprised by the park thing.  We have tried to discuss it with her, but she doesn’t get it.
I just went and asked M to tell me what Chinese people look like and she said this:  Black hair, kind of dark skin, and Chinese clothes (?!?).    I asked “What about you? Your hair isn’t black?”  She agreed that her hair isn’t black, then she said her skin is a little dark and she “knows Chinese words, silly!” so she is Chinese.

Then we ran through some examples of other people with brown skin and black hair who are not Chinese.  She could tell me the ethnicity of kids from school who meet this description (Japanese, Indian, Mexican/Germanese etc.) because they talked a lot about this at her school*.
Then, when we went over examples of other people whose ancestry she didn’t know, she was clueless.  For example, yesterday a friend and her son came to visit and they were both South Asian (but born here).  When I asked M what they were, she said “English.”  When I asked why she thought that, she said “Because I have only ever seen them in America.”  (Which totally  makes no sense given she has only known the vast majority of people in her life in America.)
I think she isn’t yet ready developmentally to grasp the subtleties of visual racial clues, unless they are very obvious or accompanied by another language/accent. I need to get out my book on raising multiracial kids and see what she is developmentally able to grasp at this age.

We usually let M lead these conversations and tell us how she thinks people look.

I just asked her if she thinks there is anything different about people’s eyes and she said “The colors? Oh, and also the size.  L has little eyes, you have big eyes, I have medium eyes.”

I thought maybe she was trying to talk about Asian eyes as “little” but then I asked her to elaborate and she said “L has the littlest eyes, mine are bigger, yours are bigger than mine, but Daddy’s are the biggest because he is the biggest person in our family!”

So I think she was actually talking about the size of the person’s body and head, not the shape of the eye.
Also, I think the distinctions between white and Asian will be less obvious to our kids because they see so many people of both groups intermixed all the time (in our family, extended family, their friend’s families, etc.).  It definitely isn’t unusual for them to see a white dad, Asian mom and 100% Asian kid in one family,  white mom and two Asian kids in another family or all Asians in a single family.  So I think no one really stands out as “different” in those to categories for her.

*There was also some negatives to this conversation happening outside our control.  For example, her teacher Mrs. Kim told the kids that “Koreans have white skin.  People from India have brown skin.”  So even though there were Indian kids and Korean kids in the class with *very* similar skin tones, they were being told that one was “white” and one was “brown”.  That isn’t exactly how I would have handled that situation, obviously.  I would have had each kid define their own skin color.