Teaching Race to (Your) Children

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by Oliver Wang

Allow me to reintroduce myself...[1]

I'm Oliver Wang, full-time sociology professor, part-time journalist, all-the-time record junkie. I originally guest-blogged for TNC last summer and feel honored to be asked back, especially in the wake of last week's all-star team.

My daughter, Ella, turns six in a few weeks and she's currently in kindergarten. As with most schools, major holidays are folded into the curriculum and MLK Day was no exception. Last week, the school librarian read Ella's class a book on MLK Jr. and the Civil Rights movement; afterwards, she came home and explained what she learned, and I had to come to grips with the fact that my daughter now has become introduced to American race relations and identities. I've been dreading and postponing the day until I had to break this down for her. Now, I realized, "oops, someone did it for me."

Let me pause for a moment to point out some obvious ironies: my PhD is in Ethnic Studies, my college minor was in Asian American Studies and I was hired at Cal State Long Beach specifically to teach classes dealing with race/ethnicity and popular culture. My mentor/advisor, Michael Omi, literally co-wrote the book on contemporary American race theory. To boot, my wife writes on race and art and both sides of her family were interned during WWII.

So yeah, I knew, eventually, this day would have to come. And believe me, I'm definitely not one of those folks arguing "we should all strive to be colorblind!" just because they don't want to deal with the realities of racism. But it's one thing to try to tackle race amongst adults vs. trying to explain it to a child, let alone my child.

Consider: prior to last week, Ella's perspective on race was more or less this: "my friends S___ and A___ are very tan" (they are African-American). Prior, Ella saw skin color, not as something immutable, let alone tied to an identity, but rather, just a physical feature. She, like her mother's side of the family, tans easily and quite darkly (unlike my I-burn-under-light-bulbs melanin), so having "very tan" friends didn't seem to make them fundamentally different from her.

Frankly ... I loved this quality to her world view—that peoples' appearances weren't intertwined with group identification—and that terms such as "black people" and "white people" wouldn't have held much meaning for her. They do now, though: she knows that, "once upon a time, black people and white people couldn't go the same schools" and that "white people had nicer drinking fountains than black people" and that "white people got to sit in the front of the bus and black people had to move to the back ... until Martin Luther King."[2]

Of course, I think it's important that she know this history. I think it's absolutely crucial that, at some point, she understand how race works in America, not the least of which is because she'll inevitably learn it the hard way (and I suppose it says a lot about how sheltered a life she's had thus far that she hasn't been confronted with it)[3]. Most importantly, I want to raise her with an investment in social justice and that means she's going to have to intimately understand the history and function of race and racial inequality.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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