I am trying to figure out how (or whether) to teach my toddler about race. It’s never been a issue before — she wasn’t old enough to verbalise any differences in people she might have noticed and, to be honest, there simply weren’t many differences to notice. So much of rural England is startlingly homogeneous, and the area we lived in was 99.9% white, according to the latest census data. To someone who has never lived anywhere so lily-white, that might seem odd or even suspicious — it did to me at first — but it’s not. These are simply rural farming communities populated mostly by the natives, just like rural farming communities around the world. It just so happens that the native population is white.
It thoroughly delighted me that one of the most multicultured and integrated places in town was our tiny church, only 15 rows deep and which contained four Americans, two French women, quite a few Irish, two Indian families, a German, a Slovak couple, a group of Poles that seemed to grow every week, four Filipinos, and a man from Mauritius, along with all the English natives. E1 was particularly fond of the Mauritian and, every now and again, I would wonder if her fascination with him was because his skin was a beautiful deep chocolate-brown. But it was just as likely that it was because he always had a twinkle in his eye and a smile for her, and always always picked up her bear when she dropped him.
So, I didn’t really think about whether she might notice a difference when we moved to the US, to this immigrant city with its mixed population of blacks and whites. People look different here. Even the white people look noticeably different, being mostly descended from immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, instead of the pale Northerners we are used to seeing. It gave me a moment of surprise at first — this sea of dark brunette heads the first time we went to our new church — in the same way that rural England’s whiteness initially looked strange to me.
But the other day, I got my answer as to whether E1 has noticed. We were shopping in the supermarket and passed a black man stacking the shelves. “Mummy, look!” she said loudly, “There’s Barack Obama!” The man smiled graciously at her and several other shoppers laughed, but I was mortified. Of course she’s seen Barack Obama’s picture on telly and picked up his name, but it never occurred to me that she would make the blanket connection between the words “Barack Obama” and his skin colour. But then, why wouldn’t she? She carried on repeating joyfully “There’s Barack Obama!” down the rest of that aisle and halfway up the next, as I hissed, “That’s enough. Ok. Yes. Ok. There he is, now that’s enough!” and hoped desperately that we wouldn’t pass any other black men before I could bundle her into the car. We didn’t , mercifully, but I was left with a dilemma: how do I handle this? How do I un-make that connection in her mind?
Stuck in the allergist’s waiting room this week, and bored, we looked out the window and counted cars in the parking lot. How many red ones? How many silver ones? A green car pulled up and a black man got out. “There’s Barack Obama!” No, no, that’s not Barack Obama. The man opened the boot and pulled out a briefcase. “He has a suitcase, Mummy! That… that brown man has a suitcase.” I suddenly looked around the waiting room, unsure of whether “brown” is offensive in the US — the terms and sensibilities are so different in the UK that a person forgets — but we were alone. I struggled to think what to say to her — do I correct her? Admonish her? But the thing is, she was right — his skin was a pale-coffee brown. She knows what black is: black is a Crayola colour, and he was nothing like it.
So, I am unsure what to do. Right now, my daughter sees the world in terms of brown. Some people are dark brown; some people are light brown; sometimes, right after a bath, she is pink. That’s as far as it goes in her mind, and I rather like that. I want her to let her see people this way — all on the same one spectrum from light brown to dark brown — for as long as possible. I need teach her enough to stop her from offending people with her innocent comments, but I do not want to divide the world into “Black” and “White”. Not yet. She’s not even three. I am not yet ready to introduce her to the complicated politics of colour.