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My Kid Insists That I'm White, but I'm Not

Race Manners: A mom and her 5-year-old can't agree on race. Time to discuss identity.

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Feeling torn about whether to "push" when it comes to getting children to sign on to an adult understanding of racial identity reflects our deeper conflicts about this topic. On the one hand, so much about race is closely tied to a painful legacy of discrimination that anyone would hesitate to impose on little ones.

On the other hand, we want kids to appreciate the texture of the environments in which they live and to know where they and their families fit into the story. Right there in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Bed-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where your daughter most recently proclaimed your whiteness, residents are grappling with gentrification in light of news that the white population grew sixfold and the number of African-American residents dropped by 14.6 percent in recent years. In New York City, black and Latino men are overwhelmingly the targets of controversial stop-and-frisk police tactics. That's to say nothing of the country overall, where race still informs health, economic and educational outcomes.

It makes sense that you'd want to teach your child to speak your language when you're talking about all that, and about your personal experiences. But as you've probably noticed, a straight explanation aimed at getting her to see things your way might not work here. By the time you got to the end of "Mommy's from the Dominican Republic, and I identify as both black and Latina, although you're right: The DNA test did show a lot of European ancestry, so in a way you're onto something ... ," you'll be lucky if she's still awake, let alone making sense of what you're saying.

What if, instead of arguing with or ignoring your daughter's "You're white" comments, you were to take her outlook as a challenge to begin discussing identity beyond black or white labels and all their inherent limitations?

After all, what looks on the surface like a child's confusion about race, says Marcia Dawkins, author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity, is actually a reminder of a couple of things. "For one, that race is a symbolic social construct, meaning it is taught. Also, that it can be questioned and changed depending on geographic, age, demographics," she says.

Dawkins suggested to me that what your 5-year-old is doing by refusing to accept your point of view might actually predict the beginning of younger Americans "seeking liberation from traditional racial labels." And we all know that in a country that's becoming increasingly multiracial, and where it's ever riskier to assign individuals an identity they haven't already claimed for themselves, labels make less and less sense all the time.

A disagreement about these things (even when one side is represented by a kindergartner's perspective) can be seen as an opportunity for much-needed observation and dialogue rather than a problem that needs to be corrected.

The one thing you want to be sure to do, says Dawkins, is to challenge the "implicit hierarchy" that your daughter has probably already absorbed. "Ask her what it means that Mom is the only white person," she suggests. Does that make you better in her eyes? Worse? Different? How?

Then take her to other parts of the city. Ask what she notices, and why she thinks it's important. Don't wait to for her to bring it up. This way, says Dawkins, you're encouraging her to both "trust her own judgments and learn that others will see things differently." As a result, she'll learn that it's not about being right or precise, but that "talking openly and honestly about race is the most important and ethical thing to do."

It goes without saying that she'll be ahead of a lot of adults if she adopts this outlook.