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."
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). 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.
I just hoped this would all come "later."
The truth is, I doubt my pedagogical skills in this realm. I hadn't figured out how to explain to her what I break down to my college-age students all the time: that race is a biological fiction that attains reality because we, as a society, have made it real. I teach that there's no inherent logic to race aside from our own propensity to create and sustain differences between people but nonetheless, that social reality has very real, pernicious and horrific consequences. Thus, we have to do this delicate balancing act between dealing with the realities of race whilst simultaneously denying its reality. I trust (hope?) my 18-21-year-olds "get this" but when it comes to trying to explain it to my child, I just didn't feel confident that this paradox is something I could communicate and have her comprehend.
At this point, I no longer have the choice to postpone; the moment (the first of many) is here. And I hope I'm doing an "ok" job in explaining to her that the categories of "white people" and "black people" are ways in which we have unjustly treated people and that the categories shouldn't matter...but do. As she gets older, I'm sure we'll have more of these conversations and that she'll learn to process all this better than I probably could have at her age. For now, I have to take a deep breath, try my best, hope for the best, and nod vigorously when she repeats the other thing she learned last week: "friendship isn't based on color."