Identity and Race Discussions
by Jacqui James
Racism cannot survive where difference and diversity are affirmed, welcomed, honored, and celebrated. Helping our children deal with diversity is the foundation of an anti-racist upbringing. Diversity training begins in the family. There are simple, gentle steps you can take to guide your children toward tolerance and acceptance and steer them away from bias and bigotry. These may be the most important steps you take in your family toward ending racism.
- Help your children learn more about your family's ethnic backgrounds and culture. Many European-American children may think they don't have an ethnic background. It is especially important for children to realize that their ancestors had customs, values, stories, rituals, etc. that are an important part of who they are. Create a family tree. Start by recalling the relatives you know and then ask those who are living to recall the relatives they know. When possible collect stories about your relations. Your family may want to read the book, Who Am I by Aylette Jenness from the Boston Children's Museum Multicultural Celebrations. This is the story of a white child working to understand his ethnic identity.
- On an evening when rice is part of the family meal, discuss how in different families and cultures, rice is prepared differently. The book Everyone Cooks Rice by Norah Dooley is an excellent resource for helping children understand how preparation of this common meal staple is shaped by culture and custom.
- Talk about the commonalities of people. Help your children to understand that while we often focus on the outward differences of people, basically we are all more alike than we are different. Encourage them to think about how all people are the same regardless of who they are and where they live.
- Talk about how much diversity there is in our world—buildings, games, books, foods, plants, animals, activities, etc. and how these differences make our lives more exciting. Invite them to talk about the diversity they have observed. Then talk about human diversity. How is this viewed in your family? Is it perceived as something that makes life more exciting and interesting? Or is it perceived as something to fear and avoid?
- Talk about the Dr. Seuss book, Sneetches. How have children seen those same dynamics in action in their school, neighborhood, congregation, community and other activities? How do they feel about this? Have they ever been the target of prejudice in some way? A second conversation involving Sneetches and the dynamics of prejudice might invite them to imagine that they live on a planet in some other part of the galaxy, far, far away. The people there learned about space travel a long time ago and now send space ships to many parts of the universe. They have a project of going to other planets and studying their societies and then making suggestions about how they can have a better world. Your children are among the people who have been chosen to go on one of these missions to the planet Earth. What advice would they give to the inhabitants of Earth about dealing with diversity among people?
- Talk about the Civil Right movement of the 1960s. Ask your family to imagine being unable to eat or sleep in most hotels, not being able to sit where you wanted in a movie theater; having to always sit in the back on a bus, being forbidden to drink from certain water fountains. Tell them that this was the way life was for all African American people in the southern part of this country for a long, long time. Finally, in about 1955, a movement of ordinary men and women arose to challenge this way of life. The people used boycotts (not buying or using certain products or services), marches, and other forms of peaceful protest to bring an end to this injustice. Let them know that Unitarian Universalists were very concerned about the rights of all people and many UUs went to the South to participate in marches and demonstrations. You may wish to tell or read them the story "The Parting of the Waters" from A Bucketful of Dreams by Chris Buice (Skinner House).
- Help your children understand that humor at the expense of others is hurtful, often doing nothing more than reinforcing stereotypes.
- Attend local arts programs, especially those of different ethnic groups. Take your children to expose them to art, dance, music, theater, and film from diverse backgrounds. Talk with them about what they like most about these programs.
- Share with your family the current understanding about the origin of human beings that indicates a deep sense of human oneness beyond the superficial variations we call race. Visit a modern museum's display on the origins of human beings.
- Discuss ethnic differences. Children are fascinated with their bodies and the bodies of others. They naturally notice differences of skin color, hair texture, and other physical characteristics. Ignoring a discussion of human difference can lead children to feel uneasy about those differences, leading them to feel there is something wrong with people who are different from them.
- Help your children learn how to handle prejudice. Inform them they have a right never to be subjected to racist slurs or be present when racist remarks are directed at others. Play-act or role-play situations where this occurs and help them develop appropriate responses and behaviors. These might include telling a perpetrator, "I don't like what you're saying, please stop," or enlisting the support of a peer or another adult.