Posted Monday, Sept. 21, 2009, at 12:21 PM
I've got no problem talking to my kids about sex. Race is a different story. Like so many (white) parents, I thought not talking about it was the best way to make race a nonissue, but a new book-and news items from Skip Gates to Serena Williams to Joe Wilson-says I was wrong. Race-and all the issues encompassed in that one tine word, from equality to prejudice to culture and history-should be tackled head-on-but how?
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurture Shock (a highly readable Malcolm Gladwell-esque look at the social science of childrearing) includes a chapter on talking with kids about race that reaches the seemingly inescapable (if probably slightly facile) conclusion that not talking about race doesn't teach our kids that it's not important. It teaches them that we don't want to talk about it. Meanwhile, they're drawing their own conclusions.
At the same time, race is becoming an increasingly more visible part of our national conversation. James Carroll pulls current events together in an essay in The Daily Beast to argue that "America's New Racial Reality" has freed prominent blacks from what he calls their old "contract with America"-one that forbade any open display of anger. Carroll considers the events and arguments surrounding Gates, Serena Williams, and the response to Joe Wilson evidence of a new freedom to react to the racism that still lurks in the "shadowy corners" of the country. I'm not sure I fully agree (at least about Serena Williams), but I do agree that both blacks-and whites-seem to feel more free to talk about race, or at least to attempt it, than we have in a long time. For blacks to be silent out of a fear of seeming (justifiably) angry, and whites to be silent out of a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, strikes me as every bit as ridiculous as my belief that not talking about race at home would somehow make the issue go away. It's not going to work-not on the playground, and not in the Senate chambers, either.
The truth is, I'd still like to "wait for an opportunity" to talk about race with my kids. A bald, random announcement seems artificial, and like putting too much weight on something I don't want to have much weight for them at all. But I suspect that even if we're not talking about it, they're thinking about it-and if they're thinking, we should be talking. My oldest kid is 8, and ready to talk about his (only!) black classmate, or why some people think the president can't be a good president just because his skin is black. My three youngest probably still need an explanation of why people with brown skin are called black, except when they're called Asian, or Latino, or something else. And they all need to hear, from us, that some people may expect their extraordinarily athletic sister to be a brainy mathlete just because she's Chinese, and that plenty of people will assume she's not their sister.
I can start simple, but if we do it right, the conversation won't stay simple. "We're all the same on the inside" isn't enough. The experience of being of a different race in this country can create its own differences, and I have no idea-yet-how to talk about that. But if I can have endless conversations with my preschoolers about what a tampon is, and what I'm doing with it (and would they please get out of the bathroom now), I'll eventually come up with a way to talk about this, too.