(The Root) —
“My 5-year-old daughter is convinced that I’m white.
“I’m originally from the Dominican Republic and identify as black and Latina. Her biological father is from the Central African Republic, and she sees herself as black.
“Just last weekend, we were at the Bed-Stuy fish fry and she said, ‘Mami, you know you are the only white person in here?! Everyone else is black!’
“Obviously, she’s probably saying this because of my skin color and hair. (Here’s my actual ancestry breakdown, according to a 23andme.com DNA test: European, 52.6 percent; sub-Saharan African, 30.3 percent; East Asian and Native American, 7.1 percent; Middle Eastern and North African, 10.0 percent.)
“This isn’t the first time she’s called me white. When I correct her, she doesn’t hear me, so I’m thinking about giving it up. But I don’t want her to be confused about my identity (or hers). Should I push the issue, or is it wrong to force a kid as young as she is to understand race in a complicated, adult way?” –Blatina in Bed-Stuy
Kids are so honest. There’s no learned discomfort around race, no pretending-to-be-colorblind stuff and no hinting around “Where are you from? No, where are you from-from?” with the under-12 set.
Thanks to that transparency, we get to hear about exactly how they see themselves and those around them. No surprise, given all the subjective twists and turns of racial identity: Sometimes this doesn’t match up with what parents have in mind. At all.
On Twitter, I asked people for anecdotes of this type and got responses including, “Mom is [a] brown skinned blk woman … until I was 7, [I] thought I was adopted” and “As a kid I was always confused by my Latino father identifying himself as black.”
“My son thinks he’s white,” one woman wrote. “It upsets his father more than me … he’ll probably push the issue but I’ll let him figure it out on his own.”
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.